Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist President Hugo Chávez is facing one of the worst political moments of his 11-year presidency, and new polls show that -- for the first time in several years -- there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the opposition.
Venezuela has Latin America's worst inflation, there are growing electricity and water shortages, student protests have left at least two dead, new measures against independent television stations have galvanized the opposition, massive corruption scandals have embarrassed the regime, and growing internal divisions within Chávez's inner circle have led to the dismissal of key cabinet members.
The Associated Press, one of the most dispassionate news agencies, said in a dispatch from Caracas that "the socialist- inspired governing model that Chávez calls his Bolivarian Revolution ... is weakened and hobbling." Most international media predict growing troubles for Chávez in September's legislative elections and in the 2012 presidential elections.
Not surprisingly, Chávez is stepping up authoritarian measures. On Tuesday, he vowed to stay in power "for another 11 years," and claimed that his "Bolivarian revolution" will be in power "for 900 years."
A new nationwide poll by the Venezuelan firm Hinterlaces shows that Chávez's political base is shrinking. Among the key findings of the poll, conducted in November, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points:
Sixty-one percent of Venezuelans think that the country is heading in the wrong direction.
Seventy-eight percent of Venezuelans disagree with Chávez's recent decision to pull the independent RCTV station off the cable television system. RCTV's open air network was closed down by the government in 2007.
Sixty-one percent of Venezuelans support the anti-Chávez student protests.
Eighty-seven percent of Venezuelans do not want their country to become like Cuba.
Twenty-eight percent of Venezuelans say they will vote for pro-Chávez candidates in September's legislative elections, while 26 percent say they will vote for opposition candidates, and 34 percent for independent candidates.
Chávez's approval rate has gone down from 51 percent in February 2009 to 39 percent in November.
Fifty-five percent of Venezuelans describe themselves as "neither pro-Chávez, nor anti-Chávez," while 27 percent consider themselves pro-Chávez, and 14 percent describe themselves as "oppositionists."
Seventy-five percent of Venezuelans say that the country needs new leaders.
Venezuelans are suffering from "charismatic fatigue," the poll's analytical section says. They are increasingly skeptical about both Chávez's ideological rhetoric, and of opposition leaders' anti-Chávez's speeches.
Chávez's strategy will be to deepen the country's polarization, stepping up his campaign of "idealization of poverty" to prop up the poor's "socialist class" identity, while at the same time stigmatizing opposition leaders as oligarchs who would restore the old order, it says.
"President Chávez's greatest strength is the absence of an alternative," the report says. "There is an emerging majority that is not happy with the present, but doesn't want to return to the past either. What Venezuela needs is not a big leader. One of its problems is that it has too many 'leaders.' "
In a telephone interview, Hinterlaces President Oscar Shemel told me that the opposition leader that most people said they would vote for is the charismatic former Chacao Mayor Leopoldo López, who garnered only 4 percent of voter support.
Chávez is more vulnerable than ever in recent years, and -- barring a major hike in oil prices -- his regime's corruption and chaotic management will turn things worse. His plan will be, as they say in Spanish, huir para adelante (fleeing forwards) perhaps even fabricating a self-coup to cancel the upcoming legislative elections.
But to oust Chávez in 2012, Venezuela's opposition will need to find an outsider, a local version of Nicaragua's former President Violeta Chamorro, a widow whose children were on both sides of that country's civil war in the 1980s.
It could be somebody like Central University of Venezuela's President Cecilia García Arocha, or Lara state Gov. Henri Falcón, or any other figure with a credible message of national reconciliation and economic recovery. That would pose the biggest threat ever to Chávez's dream of a 900-year "Reich."
Oppenheimer's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES