WHEN Jorge Urosa, the archbishop of Caracas, said recently that Hugo Chávez was installing a “Marxist-communist” regime in Venezuela, the country’s leftist president called him a “troglodyte” and accused him of “instilling fear in the people.” Yet Mr Chávez, an avowed socialist, is openly seeking to introduce what looks like a novel form of communism. After taking over the courts and provoking an opposition boycott of legislative elections, he is now targeting state and municipal governments, currently the last bulwark against his rule among elected officials. By forcing them to compete for resources with pliable “communes”, he may starve them to death.
In June his legislative allies approved on first reading a draft bill creating the commune, a “socialist local entity…on the basis of which socialist society is to be built,” with legislative, judicial and executive functions. The communes are supposed to be partly self-sufficient, thanks to a “socialist productive model”, outlined in a separate bill, that will replace the existing capitalist economy. But in practice, the state will provide most of their resources, determine which communes can register, and impose “development” laws and decrees.
Darío Vivas, the vice-president of congress, says the bill will “develop popular participation in the most democratic way possible.” But the opposition calls it a scheme to increase Mr Chávez’s power. Each commune will “regulate social and community life [and] guarantee public order, social harmony and the primacy of collective over individual interests.” Their courts will have jurisdiction over all residents, even though the communes are exclusively intended for socialists. Meanwhile, states and municipalities will be forced to transfer part of their revenues to the communes. Since communes can span municipal borders, they could move public funds from opposition-led districts to government-friendly ones.
The project flies in the face both of the constitution and of public opinion. Mr Chávez first tried to establish communes through a constitutional-reform package in 2007, which was narrowly rejected in a referendum. Many key articles in the proposed communes law were taken from the failed reform. Mr Vivas insists that “if we were to ask those questions today”, the reforms would pass. But recent surveys suggest the reverse. According to a June study by Hinterlaces, a polling firm, only 31% of Venezuelans support Mr Chávez’s “21st-century socialism”, whereas 80% prefer private to communal property.
The bill still requires a second reading to become law. But although a more plural congress will be elected in September, new members will not be seated until January, allowing the outgoing assembly to pass unpopular laws without electoral repercussions. Moreover, even while the bill awaits approval, the government says that over 200 communes are already in formation. A local referendum in which as little as 15% of the electorate casts a vote will be enough to bring them into existence. Faced with declining popularity, Mr Chávez is wasting little time in setting up new means to wield his authority.