On Sunday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made two bold declarations. He announced his intention to press ahead with a constitutional referendum that would do away with presidential term limits–one year after voters narrowly rejected a similar reform–and demanded that Colombia immediately withdraw its consul in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city. “Either they take him out of here or I’ll throw him out,” Chávez said.
A secretly recorded conversation between consul Carlos Galvis Fajardo and an adviser to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe had been broadcast the day before on the state-run television channel, VTV. Galvis spoke of his satisfaction with the results of Venezuela’s regional elections on November 23, in which opposition candidates won, among other prizes, the governorship of the oil-rich state of Zulia and the mayor’s seat in its capital, Maracaibo. Though the conversation revealed no substantive evidence of Colombian meddling in Venezuelan territory, the VTV presenter assured viewers that “their objective is clear: to infiltrate with assassins and paramilitaries, something that Manuel Rosales”–the outgoing two-term governor of Zulia, now mayor-elect of Maracaibo–“is up to his eyebrows in.”
At least on the surface, Chávez’s two characteristically gutsy moves that day might seem unrelated. Yet they both serve his goal to hold onto power amid tumbling oil revenues, steadily deteriorating public services, and skyrocketing inflation and crime. (Inflation in Venezuela is the highest in Latin America, and according to The Economist, the homicide rate has tripled there in the last ten years.) In December of 2006, Chávez ran against Rosales for the presidency and won by twenty-six points–a landslide. But in the regional elections last month, gubernatorial candidates for the PSUV, Chávez’s party, won just 52.5 percent of the popular vote nationwide. Out of Venezuela’s twenty-three states, the opposition now controls five, along with the mayor’s seat in Caracas–and together these account for 40 percent of the country’s population.
Chávez had led a dogged campaign in the preceding weeks to discredit Rosales and his protégé Pablo Pérez, who won the governorship of Zulia. Still, even after Chávez vowed to throw Rosales in jail for alleged corruption, claimed to have evidence the opposition leader was planning to assassinate him, and called him (among other things) a “tumor in the body of Zulia state,” Rosales won the mayoralty in Maracaibo by more than twenty points. As Chávez, undaunted, continues his quest to undermine opposition legitimacy, many are now asking the question: Is Chavismo finally on the wane?
Maracaibo is a charmless sprawl of 3 million people not far from the Colombian border, and popular wisdom maintains that it is the hottest city in Venezuela–on a cloudless day, it can be sweltering by 8 a.m. It also produces about half of the country’s oil. Every day off the shores of Lake Maracaibo you can see massive tankers lumbering in and out, weighed down by thick Venezuelan crude.