- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2010

CARACAS, Venezuela | A new slogan appearing on the T-shirts and banners of anti-government protesters in Venezuela sums up a growing sentiment about President Hugo Chavez after 11 years in power: “You struck out.”

The list of strikes against Mr. Chavez keeps growing: Latin America’s worst inflation, increased blackouts, runaway violent crime and a scandal involving bankers close to his government.

The socialist-inspired governing model that Mr. Chavez calls his Bolivarian Revolution — named after 18th-century independence leader Simon Bolivar — is weakened and hobbling. And though Mr. Chavez retains close ties with a bloc of leftist governments from Bolivia to Nicaragua, many Latin Americans don’t see Venezuela’s oil-funded populism as viable.

Among Venezuelans, Mr. Chavez’s popularity slipped below 50 percent in polls late last year.

The protest slogan “you struck out” recently appeared on banners held up during Venezuelan baseball games, which Mr. Chavez himself follows closely, and spread to signs and shirts during street demonstrations.

Last week, thousands gathered to denounce the government for yanking the anti-Chavez channel RCTV from cable television, and clashes involving riot police, government supporters and anti-Chavez students left two youths dead. Also last week, Mr. Chavez’s vice president and defense minister, Ramon Carrizalez, resigned citing personal reasons.

State-imposed economic controls, meanwhile, have failed to contain 25 percent inflation, rapidly eroding the earnings of the poor who have been Mr. Chavez’s core of political support. Mr. Chavez’s devaluation of the currency last month — aimed at allowing the government finances to boost public spending — is expected to push prices even higher.

To counter that, Mr. Chavez deployed inspectors and soldiers to check, threatening to expropriate any businesses engaging in price-gouging. Some have been temporarily shut down. The government recently seized a French-controlled retail chain, Exito.

Mr. Chavez’s foes say such measures will only further discourage private investment, which fell 7.6 percent last year amid the nationalization of banks, coffee producers and oil-field service companies.

Critics also decry a banking scandal that broke in November, in which several bankers with close government ties were arrested on charges of financial crimes.

Other problems weighing on Mr. Chavez include:

• A hydropower-dependent electrical grid at risk of a devastating collapse as drought pushes water levels precariously low. The government has imposed electricity rationing, but Mr. Chavez called off rolling outages in Caracas after complaints of mistakes, including power cuts to hospitals and stoplights.

• Declining output by the key oil industry caused in part, experts say, by inadequate investment and inept management.

• A crime rate so alarming that police no longer release complete homicide statistics, even as Venezuelans consistently deem crime their No. 1 concern. The government reported 12,257 homicides in the first 11 months of 2009, putting Venezuela among Latin America’s most violent countries.

Critics say Mr. Chavez recognizes he is in a bind, explaining his increasingly confrontational attitude toward an opposition he apparently sees as an growing threat. They say he’s afraid he could lose control of the National Assembly in elections due in September.

Elsewhere in Latin America, Mr. Chavez is also highly unpopular. A regionwide survey last year by Chile-based Latinobarometro found only 27 percent said they had a favorable opinion of Mr. Chavez. Chile’s newly elected president, Sebastian Pinera, salted the wound by saying during the campaign that Mr. Chavez’s Venezuela is “not a democracy.”

Mr. Chavez also seems to carry less clout abroad these days. His bitter complaint that the U.S. deployment of troops in Haiti for earthquake-relief efforts looks like a military occupation was vehemently echoed only by the leaders of Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

And despite his antagonism toward Washington, which he accuses of backing the failed 2002 coup, Mr. Chavez is linked inextricably to the U.S. because it is the top buyer of Venezuelan crude.

But to those predicting the beginning of the end for Chavismo, the president advises: “They should get some good chairs, so that they can sit and wait.”

Indeed, for many leftist leaders in Latin America, Mr. Chavez’s success in galvanizing Venezuela’s poor has been an encouraging example. Mr. Chavez has leveraged those alliances to amplify his voice.

And for all the recent complaints, Mr. Chavez remains Venezuela’s most popular politician, aided by populist programs, including cash benefits for single mothers and health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors. He has plenty of money to pump into those programs, especially after the devaluation effectively doubled Venezuela’s oil earnings when converted into local currency.

Insisting his revolution is far from finished, Mr. Chavez has dared opponents to petition for a recall vote like the one he survived in 2004 with 58 percent.

“They say I should quit,” Mr. Chavez said last week, “because I’m not worth anything, because the country is collapsing. … Well, why don’t they hold a recall referendum then?”

His biggest strength may lie in the weakness of Venezuela’s opposition, which has yet to capitalize on the erosion in support for Mr. Chavez, who is up for re-election in 2012.

Not a single challenger has emerged who seems capable of breaking his hold on power.

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