Commentary: Is Venezuela's Chavez running scared?

It happened in Cancun where 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries were meeting. At a private lunch, the group witnessed an unseemly encounter between Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez. Speaking off the record as is customary in these gatherings, Uribe called on Chavez to end Venezuela's hindrance of trade relations with Colombia.

Since the 2008 Colombian attack on a FARC base in Ecuador, Chavez has kept bilateral commercial ties in check. Politics aside, Venezuela and Colombia had been major partners in trade. Uribe had the temerity to compare Chavez's measures to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Comandante Hugo shot back that Colombian paramilitaries had threatened his life and headed for the door in a tizzy. Uribe retorted: "Be a man!" Chavez snapped back: "Go to hell!"

Hugo Chavez is not a normal president. While repeatedly winning elections, he has no intention of ever ceding the office. That's what we used to call a dictator. Only now gutting democracy from within and stacking the deck in favor of forever power is simply a matter of a country's internal affairs.

At the Cancun summit, participants agreed to create a new organization that includes Latin America and the Caribbean but not the United States and Canada. There's nothing wrong with that yet the effort is off to a limping start. Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, the new Honduran president, wasn't invited, an egregious absence but one deemed necessary to avoid spoiling the party with the divisions over Manuel Zelaya's ouster last June.

Monday's spectacle is a reminder that the region's quandary won't be solved by merely keeping the Americans and the Canadians out of the fledgling forum. For Chavez and his allies, Honduras is an issue because the coup against Zelaya and Lobo's resounding victory in November pulled the plug on the Chavista model. Gutting democracy from within was finally stopped in its tracks.

In Caracas, Chavez is close to liquidating Venezuelan democracy. After winning voter consent for lifting the two-term limit on the presidency and other elected posts in February 2009, he stepped up the pace of his Bolivarian revolution.

• In March, Chavez further clamped down the private sector, particularly producers of price-controlled basic food items. He ordered the seizure of domestic and foreign rice-processing plants for not meeting output quotas while warning producers of cooking oil, corn flour and toilet paper to put out or face the consequences.

• Chavez lost no time in implementing his "geometry of power," that is, a recentralization of administrative control over harbors, airports and roads which conveniently wrested resources from the opposition-governed states. In April, Chavez stripped the Caracas mayoralty of most powers by literally parachuting in a loyalist to head the newly created Capital District. Led by Chavez appointees with authority over all elected officials, four other administrative regions were also established

• The electoral system was modified on a largely winner-take-all basis rather than the proportional representation that would have benefited the opposition in the September 2010 parliamentary elections.

• An education law strengthened state control over education at the expense of local governments, school authorities, parents and, of course, children. It proclaimed the primacy of a "new political culture based on popular power." Private schools and universities are obviously the target.

Not all is going Chavez's way. At the end of 2009, a banking scandal shook Chavismo with the arrest of some Boligarchs, pro-government businessmen. Chavistas, the opposition and ordinary citizens alike are asking Chavez to account for the past decade's $950 billion in oil revenues. Ministers have resigned and, most recently, the Chavista governor of Lara. Nearly two thirds of Venezuelans don't want Chavez to seek reelection. Lean economic years are now the norm.

A few weeks ago, Fidel Castro dispatched Ramiro Valdes to Caracas to help with electricity shortages even though repression is his true vocation. After Cancun, Chavez flew to Havana. All eyes are on the Sept. 26 election which will bring opposition deputies into the National Assembly. Even with loaded dice, Chavez may be running scared. What to do to preserve power? That's all that has ever mattered.


Marifeli Pérez-Stable is a professor at Florida International University and senior non-resident fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.