The President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, employs a style which is inherently contradictory, and that is effective in confounding and neutralizing his adversaries. In his long and disorderly speeches he spits threats, reads whole paragraphs from books to his audience, makes ambitious promises and even sings aimlessly. The listener finds himself dizzy, spun by this endless sea of words, and sometimes ends up with the impression that these are all vain fireworks set alight to engross the public: Chávez has verbally attacked everyone, from Bush to the Pope, from the Secretary General of the OAS to the President of Mexico, without skipping of course the Venezuelan Church and the members of the opposition he wishes to destroy. However, underneath that spectacle there is something truly shadowy and cold: a concrete project which he implements without hurry but also without rest. Chávez has managed to impose a de facto dictatorship, whole and without cracks, and is now heading towards a form of socialism that will gradually shut down the few spaces of liberty left for Venezuelans.
The new Constitution proposed by the President naturally includes the indefinite re-election of his position, a legal model employed only by the harshest despots of Latin America. Aside from that disposition -predictable when dealing with someone so fond of the caudillo style of government- the new constitutional text includes a few pearls that cannot be ignored. One of them says: "the people are the depositaries of sovereignty, and exercise it directly through the Popular Power. This is born not from any ballot or election, but from the condition of human groups organized as the base of the population." It is also declared that Venezuela shall have a "Socialist economy" based on "socially-owned economic units". Severe restrictions on private property are also imposed.
Chávez can count on an obedient electorate and -to the consternation of the majority of Venezuelans and according to the latest polls- he hopes to approve his new Constitution by next December. This will be a very serious moral blow to all those who thought that the "Bolivarian" regime was merely a form, at times rather rough, of our better-known populist governments. Only then will the worse part begin. There already is -waiting in a Parliament entirely controlled by the government- a battery of laws that will turn Venezuela into a nation as oppressed as Cuba is today.
To cite one example that already worries many in the country, education will now be completely under the control of the government. There probably won't be any decrees or laws shutting down private schools o removing parental authority, so as to avoid creating a strongly adverse reaction. It will proceed gradually, much like it's been so far: all grade and high schools will become "Bolivarian"; they will mandate textbooks produced by government prints with open propaganda in favor of the socialist model currently being imposed, as well as a regimental system in which the children will be politically indoctrinated from their first steps in the school system. Teachers and aides will be frequently inspected, so that they remain faithful to the official line; no deviations will be tolerated.
Something similar will happen to private clinics and, little by little, the economy in general. There are already strict foreign exchange controls that derail the free transfer of currencies, and price controls that cover a wide swathe of products. Labor and tax laws are already being used to smother private enterprise and to have it subjected to the most absolute of controls. Little else will be needed, then, to install a totalitarian socialist regime like the one Cuba presently has.
It will all be done without too much of a ruckus, through "legal" means. Meanwhile, protests are held in vain and the continent witnesses the creation of a new dictatorship through seemingly democratic ways: this is the trick employed by the builders of the so-called "21st century Socialism".
Carlos Sabino is a professor at Universidad Francisco Marroquín, and the author of the CADAL Report "Tendencias Latinoamericanas".