Wag the Dog Caracas Style

Jeremy Martin Contributor
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Every Sunday, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez takes to the air and radio waves for Aló Presidente. It is, to put it mildly, a key ingredient in the cultivation of his persona and pet issues for his Bolivarian Revolution. The show, complete with its own web site, often transmits from carefully selected locations to emphasize the president’s booming rhetoric of the day–oil fields when announcing nationalization of the oil industry or new schools and clinics when aiming to brag about the gains of  21st Century Socialism in Venezuela. Or along Venezuela’s border with Colombia when he desires to rail against two favorite targets: Colombia and the United States. Lately, the rants against Colombia have focused on a possible armed conflict – to avoid war we must prepare for war President Chavez declared.

The dangerous level of rhetoric that often is the hallmark of Aló Presidente has repeatedly alarmed many in the international community. But for Chavez it puts his charisma on display and redirects attention from an ever growing list of domestic troubles. Call it Wag the Dog Caracas style.

It should be added here that President Chavez does not restrict his tirades to Aló Presidente.  Look no farther than his remarks at the UN Climate Change Conference last December in Copenhagen wherein he referred to President Obama’s “Nobel Prize of War” and rehashed his taunt against then-President Bush of “this podium smells like sulfur.” In roughly thirty minutes in Denmark, Chavez reminded that he does not reserve his A game rhetoric only for Aló Presidente.

To be fair, most presidents have a weekly radio or TV show of some fashion. But none seem to match the Venezuelan’s in terms of time span and bellicosity. With an open microphone, President Chavez delights in wagging the dog for his domestic audience and trashing his favorite foreign targets.

Rare are his barbed darts at topics of much greater concern to the average Venezuelan. When he does take on a domestic issue, they are doozies. The president, in a message to his countrymen aimed at water conservation proclaimed the wonders of a three-minute shower–one where you refrain from singing. Not only do you conserve water, you don’t sacrifice hygiene according to Chavez who succinctly put it: “I don’t stink.”

The admonition for shorter showers explains why on other occasions the rhetoric is far more bellicose and reckless. Venezuela is, in many ways, falling apart under Hugo Chavez.

A founding member of the OPEC oil cartel, the nation has for much of the Chavez presidency been financially buoyed by record oil prices. And the windfall has allowed for much grandstanding–both at home and abroad. Worse, the windfall has not been sufficiently invested in critical sectors of the economy from basic infrastructure to water to electricity to the golden goose known as PDVSA, the national oil company.

PDVSA’s ills are most troubling as oil production has declined at the same time that oil prices dipped. Moreover, economists concur that last year the country slipped into its first recession since 2003. Meanwhile, the run-away inflation rate–at around 30%, the highest in the Hemisphere–and currency controls have created a black market for dollars more than twice that of the official exchange rate.

Such a boiling stew of financial problems has not aided the Bolivarian Revolution and prescriptions of 21st Century Socialism. And they are compounded by a deteriorating security situation that has seen Caracas ascend the list of the world’s most dangerous cities with a murder rate estimated at 130 per 100,000 residents. Indeed, the situation has become so dire that a new federal police force was formed–and yes, announced during Aló Presidente.

But let’s return to what is happening with water and electricity in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez and talk of “winds of war” and Potemkin Villages as residents face water rationing and the country suffers electric outages.

With the onset of the El Niño climate phenomenon, Venezuela has been thrust into a drought on top of its normal dry season. Last November, with water supply to Caracas down by roughly 25%, the government imposed water cuts which are set to last until May. Some cuts require outages of up to 48 hours per week; quite significant even when your showers are but three minutes.

The climate conditions that have befallen Venezuela were somewhat predictable. For a population that has routinely had to deal with daily inconveniences in the name of the Bolivarian Revolution, water and electricity rations are an acute reminder of the lack of planning and investment by their government in the country’s basic needs.

Water issues are significant as they are intertwined with an ongoing electric crisis that became critical with the nationalization of private sector electric concerns in 2007.

Blackouts have hit most of the nation at least six times since and have led the government to impose 20% cuts on many already ailing businesses. Besides forcing malls, steel mills, large apartment complexes and others to endure such draconian measures there seems to be little other response from the Chavez government as to feasible plans for keeping the lights on–renewed rants against Colombia not withstanding.

Indeed, it is Colombia that Chavez seems to delight the most in railing against for a litany of issues, most recently the accord with the United States military.

Wagging the dog in Venezuela is increasingly important for President Chavez as legislative elections loom on the horizon and his approval rate trends downwards. Falling below the important 50% approval rate does not bode well when your goal is to be president for life. And though Chavez scored an important victory in a 2008 referendum, the more recent numbers underscore that he needs to continue to divert attention from the chaos inside Venezuela if he is to retain control over Congress and ultimately the presidency.

Despite President Chavez’s friendship with Oliver Stone and Sean Penn, don’t look for Wag the Dog Caracas Style at your local Multiplex any time soon.

Jeremy Martin is a frequent commentator and writer on Latin American and energy issues speaking at international conferences and appearing in both print and broadcast media. Working at the Institute of the Americas at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), he spends his time delving into the geopolitics of energy and closely following energy industry trends and policy issues across the Americas. He can be found on Twitter at @jermartinioa and contacted via e-mail at jermartin@ucsd.edu.