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THE INDEX - April 2, 2009

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Peter Wilson: Those in Glass Houses...

Peter WilsonHopes that an Obama presidency could thaw ties between the United States and Venezuela are quickly receding after President Hugo Chávez called the U.S. president an "ignoramus" this past weekend. Chávez went on the offensive Sunday, during his weekly broadcast over remarks President Barack Obama made two months ago criticizing the Venezuelan leader for supporting Colombian guerillas and being an obstacle to regional progress. The new Chávez offensive coincides with stepped up attacks against the country's opposition and fresh overtures to Moscow, including the offer of Venezuelan airfields for Russian long-range bombers. It also dents rumors of an impending thaw in ties between the two countries after Chávez's meeting last week with U.S. Congressman William Delahunt. Chávez's blunt talk may be intended to take away some of Obama's thunder at next month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, when the two leaders will be jockeying for position and press attention. The Venezuelan head of state, who wants to be acknowledged as a regional leader, may also be smarting after Obama met Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva earlier this month, signaling that the new U.S. administration's principal focus in Latin America is, for now, Brazil. Chávez, who just won voter approval last month to abolish the country's presidential term limits, may also be attempting a preemptive strike as differences with Washington are bound to increase in the coming weeks. (The de facto leader of the Venezuelan opposition, Manuel Rosales, is expected to be arrested for alleged corruption within days, which will inevitably raise political tensions in the country and raise charges of political repression.) Chávez has also sought to limit the power of opposition governors, who won five states in last year's election, taking control of the three largest, as well as Caracas and Maracaibo, the two biggest cities. Now, however, the country's National Assembly, which is overwhelmingly controlled by the president's followers, has talked about creating a post of vice president to oversee the country's capital—which would in effect strip a major Chávez critic, Mayor Antonio Ledezma, of any real power. To further bind the hands of the opposition, the assembly also rewrote the country´s Decentralization Law, stripping local states of their control over ports, airports, and highways, an important source of revenue. Chávez seems to be hoping that the cut off in revenue to opposition-led states will lead to a voter revolt and the possible recall of anti-Chávez governors. Meanwhile, the president is stepping up efforts to dampen dissent as the economy falters in the face of falling revenue from oil sales. He earlier removed police, hospitals, and schools from control of regional authorities. Such steps, which have been widely criticized by the country's opposition as well as international organizations, will likely be questioned by President Obama in future international forums. Given the war of words that may ensue, Chávez may think it better to step away now from pursuing any thaw in ties, especially as the chances of success seem to be diminishing.

Peter Wilson: Chávez Ad Infinitum?

Peter WilsonVenezuelan President Hugo Chávez had much to crow about following Sunday's decision by voters to back his proposal to abolish term limits, enabling him to run for re-election in 2012. Chávez, who first won election in 1998, called the vote a fresh mandate for his "socialist" revolution. The victory, which is the fourteenth he or his supporters have enjoyed in 15 elections since 1998, paid tribute to his political skills. When he first announced plans to put a proposal to repeal constitutional term limits (an earlier effort in December 2007 failed) to a fresh vote, polls showed his request likely to be rejected. But with massive state spending, heavy saturation of the country's air waves, and the helpful indulgence of the national election agency, he coasted to a 10 percentage point victory. Chávez was also helped by the lack of a strong strategy from the opposition. And finally Chávez, who remains personally popular—although his government is not—made the issue into a personal referendum. He repeatedly told supporters that if he lost the vote, the opposition would then seek to recall him. "My political future is in play today," Chávez told supporters after casting his ballot.

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