President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela started this month as the most prominent political supporter of Colombia’s largest rebel group and a fierce defender of his own overhaul of his nation’s intelligence services. But in the space of a few hours over the weekend, he confounded his critics by switching course on both contentious policies.
In doing so, Mr. Chávez displayed a willingness for self-reinvention that has served him well in times of crisis throughout his long political career. Time and again, he has gambled by pushing brash positions and policies, then shifted to a more moderate course when the consequences seemed too dire.
And while Mr. Chávez has been accused of speaking like an autocrat and of trying to rule like one, his recent actions confirm that Venezuela’s democracy, however fragile it may seem at times, still serves as a check on the president’s wishes.
Few issues illustrated the resilience of dissent in Venezuela like the debate around Mr. Chávez’s intelligence law, which would have abolished the secret police and military intelligence and replaced them with new intelligence and counterintelligence agencies. Drafted in secret and enacted through a presidential decree, the breadth of the law shocked Mr. Chávez’s political opposition.
The law would have forced judges in Venezuela to support the intelligence services and required citizens to cooperate with community-monitoring groups, provoking widespread fears that the government wanted to follow Cuba in creating a societywide network of informants whose main purpose was to nip antigovernment activities in the bud.
Henry Rangel Silva, the head of the secret police, appeared on state television to defend the law, but ended up making matters worse when he acknowledged that his spies were already tracking political candidates, a revelation that appeared to reinforce concerns that the aim of the intelligence overhaul was to quash challenges to Mr. Chávez’s rule, which is settling into its 10th year.
The uproar in reaction to the law was intense, coming from human rights groups, news organizations, Roman Catholic leaders and, of course, editorial cartoonists who immediately labeled the law with a name that stuck, “the Getsapo Law,” a play on the words Gestapo and sapo, which literally means frog in Spanish but in Venezuelan slang translates as snitch.
With regional elections scheduled this year, Mr. Chávez may have wanted to limit the potential damage of the backlash to his Socialist party’s candidates. But he may also have recognized a good time to withdraw a law that, in his own words, had passages that were “indefensible.” Mr. Chávez convened a commission to rewrite the most polemical parts of the law.
“Chávez has incredible political instincts,” said Fernando Coronil, a Venezuelan historian at the University of Michigan. “He has shown to have had, with few exceptions, the pulse of the country, to read its changing political mood better than anyone else.”
That said, Mr. Chávez has seemed tone deaf to that mood at times. In December, voters narrowly rejected his broad constitutional overhaul that would have vastly expanded his powers. But Mr. Chávez has proved astute enough to know when his policies do not find enough support, as when he recently withdrew a Socialist-inspired school curriculum and an increase in bus fares.
Indeed, the national temperament is now much less buoyant than in December 2006, when voters re-elected Mr. Chávez to a six-year term, and his handlers may have recognized the shift. Despite record oil prices, economic growth is slowing and inflation is soaring. The nationalization of telephone, electricity, oil and steel companies has scared off foreign investment. While shortages of some items have eased, many basic food items remain in short supply.
Amid these woes, propaganda billboards with the president’s image have become much less ubiquitous on the streets of Caracas than just six months ago, as if to deflate his cult of celebrity a bit.
Mr. Chávez’s shift in his policy on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to the point of calling on them to end their guerrilla war, suggests a similar ability to recognize when some of his gambles are not paying off. Claims have mounted in recent weeks that Mr. Chávez’s government tried to provide financing and arms to the FARC, accusations adamantly denied by Venezuela.
But in the face of the recent killing of several FARC commanders, coupled with Colombia’s capture of a Venezuelan military officer accused of providing ammunition to the FARC, Mr. Chávez may have recognized that his call for other countries to recognize the guerrillas as a legitimate force was potentially isolating for Venezuela, especially if proof emerged of military or financial support for the rebels. That could have serious economic consequences, including American sanctions on trade, a thorny issue for both countries given Venezuela’s position as a leading supplier of oil to the United States.
Some of Mr. Chávez’s critics say he may have had his international standing in mind, with the FARC increasingly viewed as a marginalized force both militarily and ideologically. “Chávez’s change of tactics is a way for him to buy his way out of a situation in which Colombia presents a case against him in a venue like the Organization of American States,” said Diego E. Arria, a former Venezuelan envoy to the United Nations.