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Will Venezuela abandon Chavismo?

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 4:58 PM EST, Wed February 19, 2014
A member of the Bolivarian National Police clashes with protestors during a demonstration against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Saturday, May 10. Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces have left more than 40 people dead and about 800 injured since February, according to officials. A member of the Bolivarian National Police clashes with protestors during a demonstration against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Saturday, May 10. Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces have left more than 40 people dead and about 800 injured since February, according to officials.
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Protests in Venezuela
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum says recent protests highlight weakness of Venezuela regime
  • He says Nicolas Maduro doesn't possess the charisma of Hugo Chavez
  • Frum: Venezuela's economy is struggling; regime won't find it easy to buy support

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- A week of demonstrations in Venezuela. Three people shot dead; dozens wounded; dozens more arrested and imprisoned. Pro-regime thugs intimidate protesting high school and college students. The question is being asked: Is Chavismo finally cracking in Venezuela?

Hugo Chavez died of cancer nearly a year ago, and the question hanging over Venezuela is how long his strange regime can live after him.

A country with a population smaller than Canada's has more murders than the United States. Inflation exceeds 56%. Goods from toilet paper to sacramental wine have vanished from shops. A regime that calls itself "socialist" has massively enriched the former president's family and friends. Street lights dim at night because a country with some of the world's largest energy reserves cannot provide enough electricity.

David Frum
David Frum

The Chavez regime has held power with four principal tools, all but one of which is gone or going.

The first tool of power was the late president's own mesmerizing personality. Venezuela has a bitter national history, and nobody has ever better voiced the resentments and yearnings of its subordinated classes and castes than Hugo Chavez. In a nation whose elite historically looked European, Chavez's face proclaimed his descent from indigenous people and African slaves. He joked, he raged, he bestowed favors on the barrios and made enemies of the traditional upper classes.

By contrast, the outstanding personal quality of Chavez's chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, was his cringing deference to the leader who elevated him from a bus driver's seat to the top jobs in government.

Venezuela expels three U.S. diplomatic officials

The second Chavez tool of power was the shrewd deployment of the nation's oil wealth to buy support from favored constituencies. Support Chavez, and you might get a free house stocked with appliances, a government job or at least a new playground.

Chavez held the price of gasoline to pennies per gallon and offered subsidized rice and beans in government-owned shops. Meanwhile, he withdrew police protection from the wealthier neighborhoods that despised him, deploying criminal violence as a de facto tool of political repression.

Now, however, Venezuela is running out of cash to pay for these support-buying schemes. Industries are shuttering because they cannot obtain foreign currency to buy crucial parts. Interest rates on Venezuelan debt have jumped past 15%. The economy, which managed 1% growth in 2013, is now shrinking as economic activity other than oil and gas production grinds to a stop.

Chavez's third tool of power was control of the media. Independent television stations were eliminated. Newsprint shortages and other pressures were manipulated to force the sale of independent print media to government supporters. But it's difficult to cut populations off from information in the modern age, especially for a ramshackle, technically incompetent regime like Venezuela under Chavismo. Venezuela is not China nor even Putin's Russia. The people who understand how the Internet works overwhelmingly oppose the government.

The fourth and last tool of power was outright repression. Chavez himself always used this tool sparingly. He preferred economic reprisals against his opponents to violence. He drove them into exile rather than send them to camps. He politicized the army and police, but he hesitated to use them, perhaps because he did not in the end fully trust them.

When I visited Venezuela in 2010, everybody was talking about elite Cuban paramilitary police units that Chavez had supposedly borrowed from Fidel Castro. But change is coming to Cuba too, and if the units ever existed, they certainly have not been visible in the past's weeks clashes. Instead, Maduro has relied on local thugs.

Perhaps the Syrian example inspires Maduro to hope that he can hang on if his forces just kill enough people. But Venezuela is located in a very different neighborhood, close not only to the United States but also to democracies in Colombia and Brazil that take a dim view of murderous dictatorship. (Maduro has said that the opposition is mounting a "developing coup" and has issued an arrest warrant on conspiracy and murder charges against an opposition leader; the opposition leader's party blames the government for the violence.)

Chavez had an instinctive awareness that he could go so far but not too far. Whether Chavez's successor shares that awareness of limits, those limits still exist -- and without crossing them, Chavez's regime may have run out of the resources it needs to survive.

As the Castro regime in Cuba has demonstrated, a moribund authoritarian system can take a long time dying. But the Castro brothers were serious about hanging on to power. Chavismo was serious about nothing.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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