January 24, 2008

The slippery slope

Katy says: It's always a challenge to write about Venezuela from abroad. Much of what happens in the country depends on moods: the mood of the government, the press, the opposition, the voters, and obviously tapping into them is more difficult when you're not there.

However, I get the feeling that the government is slowly entering into panic mode. Increasingly, the tone I get - from the scandals, from what bureaucrats are saying in public, from what chavista talking heads say on the air - is that the revolution is in trouble, perhaps more trouble than we on the other side acknowledge.

Repeated defeats at the hand of chavismo have taught us not to have high expectations. But it's hard to shake the sense that chavistas are on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Take, for instance, the case of former Finance Minister Tobías Nóbrega. Yesterday the Prosecutor general's office, in an unprecedented move, indicted Nóbrega on some pretty serious accounts. These include paying millions of dollars above budget for hospital renovations and the construction of a market in a poor area, projects that were never completed.

Nóbrega's slimy dealings have been the talk of the town for many years now. What is surprising is that chavismo is willing to open up this can of worms at this particular juncture. There are a lot of important people in the government involved with Nóbrega and in similar schemes (Antonini, anyone?), so this could ignite a turf war that could cause serious damage to chavismo. Can more scandals be on the way? You bet.

Take the fresh new scandal involving Maracaibo mayor Giancarlo DiMartino (PSUV). A video posted on YouTube allegedly shows DiMartino supplying Colombian guerrillas with food and other basic stuffs inside Venezuelan territory.

Whether or not the video is a montage is not clear. However, the Colombian government - all the way up to President Uribe - is taking this very seriously.

I have no doubt that chavismo's knee-jerk reaction will be to blame the opposition or the CIA for this. The underlying story, though, is more likely related to the rivalry between DiMartino and former Finance minister Rodrigo Cabezas. The latter has always wanted to be Governor of Zulia, and effectively resigned from the Cabinet in order to run. However, the mayor - who is popular with independents and moderate chavistas - has hinted at running for years now. This has the look of a smear operation guided from inside chavismo itself.

Chavista heavyweights have been sounding downright panicky as of late. Yesterday, for example, Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto admitted the revolution was "stuck". He even went on to praise the opposition, which he claimed was showing itself as "wide" and "diverse" and willing to put "fresh voices" center stage, whereas chavismo was looking "tired", "sectarian", "uniformed" and "bureaucratic."

This has been echoed in other quarters. Every day, I get in my Inbox the transcripts of the main chavista opinion programs, and some of the things they have been saying are really surprising. Two days ago, on the VTV program "Dando y Dando ("Give-and-take"), Ministers and former Ministers talked about how the government's aggressive stance toward private industry was coming back to bite them, and how it was in part causing scarcity. They were extremely critical of Mercal and the Mercalitos, which are showing serious signs of breakdown. They went on to say that chavismo had to go back to its popular roots because it had lost touch with people's problems.

These developments would have been unthinkable two months ago. The monolithic essence of chavismo and its unreflexive triumphalism were shattered December 2nd, and it's not clear what it's being replaced with. It's extremely unlikely that chavismo can adapt and become a modern, effective, pluralistic, moderate movement. The pile-on of problems and scandals is starting to look like an increasingly slippery slope for the government, and the polls are starting to show it. Trouble is, with a looming world recession in the horizon, it's not clear they will have the means to recover.