The calm before the storm

Katy says: Just how strong is Chávez these days?

The answer is not so obvious. If you judge by the opposition conventional wisdom, he’s at the helm of a boat with no rudder, a President in name only. Yet our side has continually shown conventional folly instead of wisdom on these questions – our track record in sizing up the government’s strengths and weaknesses is pretty dismal.

The government may have lost in December, but it still has a ton of money, as well as the support of a sizable chunk of the population. There is no sign that it is losing confidence. December’s referendum drained a lot of Chavez’s political capital, but Chávez acts as if he didn’t get the memo.

Moreover, the government has that all important, barely-touched Enabling Law. Remember what happened the last time Chávez faced an over-confident opposition that had “forgotten” all about his enabling powers? It was late 2001, and what followed was not pretty.

The opposition’s confident streak was made clear in my recent trip to Caracas. Six months ago, the general feeling in the opposition was one of high anxiety. The Constitutional Reform was viewed as inevitable, and much talk around town was devoted to ways of getting your money and your family out as quickly as possible.

Now, people seemed unusually relaxed. People still talked about the weather, the traffic or the scarcity, but Chávez was not major part of the conversation. It was as if December’s referendum had made him irrelevant, a lame duck with five years to go.

The media reflects this mood to a point. Op-ed articles talk about Chávez’s defeat last December as perhaps being a “definitive” one. Even the New York Times talks about Chávez’s “political trouble” and suggests Venezuelans are “fed up” with him.

Stories abound that he is so depressed he is flying to Cuba every week for advice and that his popularity is almost in the single digits. Some people suggested that he wasn’t in control of the army, or Congress, or both. Several hinted it was only a matter of months before a coup ends this collective nightmare.

This is all wrong, and believing it would be a crucial mistake.

We quickly forget Chávez controls his country’s purse strings like few world leaders. His unending desire to milk the petro-cow and the unstoppable rise in the price of oil are a perfect match.

Chávez continues to control every institution that matters in the country, whether it’s the National Assembly, the Armed Forces, the Supreme Tribunal or the Comptroller’s and Prosecutor’s Offices. Since December’s referendum, there hasn’t been a single, significant defection from chavismo’s inner ranks.

Part of me thinks that the government itself is planting this idea of vulnerability in our heads as a way of testing the waters. Last month, for example, the Education Ministry pulled a highly controversial proposal to change the national educational curriculum. The excuse was that the country was not ready for it.

I don’t really know the details of what was contained in it, but I do know that opposition educators were incensed with the proposal. Not only were they being forced to attend a 300-hour long course (without pay) to learn the new curriculum, its content was politically biased in favor of the Revolution.

And just as things were starting to heat up, just as families were getting organized and the street was “warming up,” the government yanked the proposal in a unusual move.

You may think this is more evidence that the government is weak. I think it was a trial run for what’s coming: the proclamation of new legislation contained in Chávez Enabling Law.

It’s easy to forget, but 14 months ago the President was granted sweeping powers to change every significant law in the country. At the time, Quico called Chávez’s power to rule by decree his definitive transformation into a dictator, in the Roman sense.

Yet something odd happened on the way to the Coliseum. It’s hard to disagree with the idea that Chávez has underused his Enabling Powers. The only significant law he has passed has been the recent National Police Law. Judging by opposition criticism, the law is a muddled mess, ineffective at best, interventionist at worst.

This can only mean one thing: the government is going to pound the country with a coñazo of new legislation in the months to come. With three more months to go on his Enabling Power and with all the institutions at his command, I have the vague feeling that we won’t be talking about Chávez’s weaknesses in a few months time.

Things are relatively quiet right now. There are no major protests, economic crisis has been temporarily averted and even the government’s rhetoric has toned down. But a major showdown is looming.

The opposition believes it mortally wounded the government last December. The government believes it still has a mandate to implement socialism, and it has the power and the resources to attempt it. A recipe for high drama if I ever saw one.