Outside editorial: Venezuela's future is hanging in the balance

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2007

Venezuelans will have a choice on Sunday: Vote No to stop President Hugo Chavez from assuming absolute power - or accept the sweeping loss of political and economic rights that a new constitution will bring. Fortunately, a student movement has galvanized the opposition. Still, voters will have to show up in large numbers to stop the power grab.

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Proposed constitutional changes would remove presidential term limits that now end Chavez's rule in 2012. They would grant the president power to decree limitless states of emergency, during which Chavez could suspend freedom of speech and detain people without charges. Other provisions would allow him to easily expropriate private property, control local governments and unleash an "anti-imperialist" military on ideological missions.

All that authority would be added to Chavez's already considerable power. He now controls the judiciary, congress, national electoral body, the oil industry and much of the media. Altogether, Sunday's vote threatens to enshrine a president for life.

Supporters argue that the changes are needed to help Venezuela's poor. They note that the economy has grown since 2004 and say that poverty has decreased. To some extent, these Chavistas have a point. Frustrated voters swept Chavez into office in 1999. Venezuelans were fed up with a corrupt political system that did little to address poverty or other social ills.

Unfortunately, Chavez replaced one corrupt system with another. He has rewarded supporters with rich jobs while making life miserable for those who oppose his party line. He has shut down media critics and persecuted political, business and civic groups that dare to oppose him.

Chavez uses oil revenues to pay for social programs. But the state oil company is not reinvesting in upkeep, and production has fallen. Price controls have created food shortages. Chavez's dictates have driven out foreign and domestic investment. The proposed constitutional change has increased political uncertainty and capital flight. All of this casts a shadow on Venezuela's future.

The students began protesting in May against the shutdown of the nation's most critical, and popular, television station. Now their marches aim to stop the constitutional change. A prominent former Chavista general and even Chavez's ex-wife have joined the chorus trying to stop Chavez from gaining unlimited power.

Polls show opposition to the constitutional proposal is increasing. Some Venezuelans worry that the election will be rigged, but voting remains the only democratic option. The level of turnout may determine Venezuela's fate.

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