Chávez at Home and Abroad

Any observer who reads the world's great international newspapers will probably think that Venezuela is in deep crisis. With an oddball president who led a failed coup only to return to impose his brand of Cuban socialism cum Latin American tinhorn dictatorship cum political evangelism, poor Venezuela seems destined for a fall.

A paradox, indeed, haunts Venezuela: if people abroad have such a poor view of our country, then perhaps we are going to the dogs, regardless of what we see around us. Of course, most foreign opinions about a country come from local sources. A disproportionate share reflects the narrow group of people who speak English, travel abroad, and belong in the top income group - hardly an unbiased sample. The power of the foreign press is worrisome for those with an interest in Venezuela's welfare, because perceptions affect realities, including foreign investment, risk premiums on debt, tourism and capital outflows.

Few argue that things are all wonderful with President Chávez. Dogged by a small, disorganized, yet wily and persistent opposition that follows his every step and publicizes his frequent missteps, the President's popularity ratings have plummeted from above 80% in 1999 to half that today. Any government expects its popularity to erode, especially in a society with as many intractable problems as Venezuela: unemployment, crime, high infant mortality and so on. President Fox in Mexico, Cardoso in Brazil, De La Rúa in Argentina and Toledo in Peru aren't doing better in terms of popularity, but they seem better citizens of this globalized world and so are not taking the public beating that President Chávez is absorbing.

Chávez's popularity has fallen sharply since September 11 th , both because of his public comments and because of private sector shrieks following the publication of 49 laws issued under special executive powers and after limited consultation with parliament. Business exasperation with the President's highhandedness led to the announcement of a one-day strike on December 10 th , as well as serious doubts over an international strategy that seemed to favor Osama Bin Laden over George Bush.