Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Radical Cabinet Reshuffle to Give ‘Revolution’ New Boost

Estrella Gutiérrez

CARACAS, Jan 4 2008 (IPS) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez carried out his most sweeping cabinet reshuffle yet, with the declared intent of giving a new boost to his “socialist revolution” after his first electoral setback, in December’s referendum on constitutional reforms, and of leaving behind the radical image that contributed to that defeat.

Chávez made changes in 12 key posts in his 28-member cabinet, while naming a new vice president, Ramón Carrizales, a fellow retired military officer, who up to now was minister of housing.

The new vice president has a low political profile, by contrast with his predecessor Jorge Rodríguez.

The president said the changes form part of what he described as “a new stage of the revolution,” based on what he called “the three ‘R’s’: Revisión, Rectificación y Reimpulso (roughly: revision, rectification and giving a new impulse to)” of his socialist project, the latest initiatives of which were rejected by voters in the Dec. 2 referendum.

This new stage, said Chávez, will be marked by “less theory and more praxis,” and will abandon what he referred to as “extremist currents” in his government, “because we are not, and cannot be, extremists.”

He also said that by means of the three ‘R’s’, he plans to seek alliances with the middle-class sectors and the business community.

“We cannot follow strategies that have failed worldwide, like the elimination of private property,” said Chávez, announcing the cabinet overhaul in a telephone interview with the public VTV station – a channel he frequently uses to inform the public of his decisions.

The constitutional reforms that the president, who has governed Venezuela since 1999, attempted to push through would have promoted several different forms of ownership, such as collectively and communally owned property, besides private property.

The gradual disappearance of private property was one of the main arguments set forth by the opposition against the reforms, along with the rejection of the attempt to make it possible for the president to run for reelection indefinitely.

Among the changes carried out by Chávez, the ones that stand out the most are the naming of moderate figures to the posts closest to the president, like minister of communications and head of cabinet.

Both the new cabinet chief, Jesse Chacón, and the new minister of information and communications, Andrés Izarra, have already held important cabinet positions.

In his first press conference in his new post, Chacón said that those who are leaving the cabinet include the ministers of finance and planning, Rodrigo Cabezas and Jorge Giordani. The latter is considered the president’s economic mentor.

The 12 new ministers, who were appointed partly as the result of tensions within the cabinet and other high-level government posts, have a more technical profile than the majority of their predecessors, and most stand out for their successful performance and concrete results achieved in their previous positions.

Also removed from the scene was minister of interior and justice Pedro Carreño, responsible for citizen safety in a country where violent crime is seen as the most pressing problem.

In 2007, 12,000 to 13,000 people were murdered, including 107 in Caracas in the last weekend of 2007 alone, according to newspaper reports.

Besides being the target of criticism for failing to make a dent in the soaring crime rates, Carreño was one of the most radical voices in the government, along with vice president Rodríguez, who Chávez has now put in charge of heading the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

The founding congress of the party, which was created to merge all of the political currents that support Chávez, will be held on Jan. 12, after two previous failed attempts in 2007.

To head the ministry of the interior and justice, Chávez named one of the military officers with whom he led an aborted 1992 coup, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, one of the president’s confidantes, who organised the operation for the release of three hostages by Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, which was aborted on New Year’s Eve.

Analyst Luís Vicente León, director of the one of the country’s leading polling firms, Datanálisis, said the profound changes carried out by Chávez in his cabinet should not be read as an in-depth transformation of his “Bolivarian revolution” or as a step backwards.

“What Chávez is focusing on is basically the perception of his government project, seeking to distance it from the radical image imbued by Chavista factions, which the president himself has fuelled,” León told IPS.

The defeat suffered by Chávez’s proposed constitutional reforms at the polls forces him to seek “a reconnection with Chavista supporters and with the ‘neither-nor’ voters who had always followed him but who were scared off in December by the radicalisation of his project, and by the arguments of the opposition,” said León.

The “neither-nor” is the term used to refer in Venezuela to the significant proportion of voters who do not consider themselves either Chavistas or opposition, but who have helped ensure the president’s successive victories at the polls.

According to analysts, more than three million voters who a year before had guaranteed Chávez’s reelection with a landslide victory of 63 percent of the vote turned their backs on him in December and did not take part in the referendum.

León said that by overhauling nearly half of his cabinet, the president “did not distance himself from his actions, but from his words, and from the risks of future radicalisation that have been perceived and encouraged by his fiery rhetoric.”

“Things went badly for him with that radical stance, and he is seeking a more moderate image, while taking advantage of the moment to punish obvious failures, such as that of Jorge Rodríguez,” who led the Chavista team’s campaign in the referendum on the constitutional reforms, said the analyst.

Opposition commentator Italo Luongo called 2007 Chávez’s “annus horribilis”, because of the mass protests against the government’s refusal to renew the broadcasting licence of the popular RCTV opposition-aligned TV station, the resurgence of a new anti-Chávez student movement, the image of authoritarianism depicted by the international media with respect to the proposed constitutional reforms and his own speeches, and the end of his image of being unbeatable at the polls, after his dozen or so electoral victories over the past decade.

According to León, the government committed “too many errors (in 2007), and now Chávez needs to stop scaring people and to once again seduce his voters, in order to rebuild his majority support, by distancing himself from ideological extremes, even if that causes him problems among his more radical followers.”

And although Chávez has implemented a broad range of social programmes that have brought health and dental care, subsidised food, literacy courses and other initiatives to the poor, he must now respond to people’s demands that he address lingering problems like high crime rates, inflation, food shortages – triggered by price controls and in some cases hoarding by producers – and other issues that affect people’s daily lives.

León believes the search for greater efficiency, along with a toning down of radical ideologies, lie at the core of the ministerial changes. “Chávez has to return to a policy of alliances, because his hegemonic project suffered a defeat,” he said.

This new strategy lies behind the announced changes in the leadership in the single-chamber parliament, in which Chávez’s allies hold all of the seats because the opposition boycotted the elections, but which has suffered some splits because of the president’s attempt to unify all of the parties in the PSUV.

Chávez wants the government, the PSUV and parliament to become “useful instruments,” said León, because regional and municipal elections will be held in late 2008, and will be decisive in showing whether or not the president’s weakened support at the polls in December was merely circumstantial or not.

Chavistas govern 20 of the country’s 24 states and a majority of its towns and cities, but the newly revived opposition is in a position “to win for sure,” will be highly motivated to vote, and “the issue of efficiency or inefficiency will play a key role in the elections, as will the reduction in tension,” said the analyst.

Earlier this week, Chávez issued an amnesty to members of the opposition who were jailed or indicted for participating in the failed coup that ousted him for two days in April 2002.

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