Food shortages, blackouts, and three-minute "communist" showers. Are these signs that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's socialist regime is imploding? Add to the list escalating rhetoric in the cold war with neighboring Colombia -- a close U.S. ally -- and columnists say the Latin American country is not only in decline, but could be a threat to the stability of the region. As Chavez fights to solidify his grasp on power within Venezuela, many say the "president for life" is becoming desperate. Here are six reasons why analysts think Hugo Chavez's struggles cannot be ignored.
- Chavez Loses Support Among Venezuelans According to Steve Crabtree at Gallup, the president's latest approval rating is only 47 percent, and Venezuelans are decreasingly likely to consider themselves socialists. "Recent public opinion trends suggest that with his promise of a better future losing credibility and deprived of a rallying point in widespread opposition to U.S. leadership, Chavez's socialist 'revolution' has lost some momentum among the Venezuelan people."
- 'Desperate Times Make Desperate Men' The Atlantic's Megan McArdle worries that Chavez will act rashly and possibly attack Colombia in order to consolidate his political power. "No one thinks war is imminent; they think it's just bluster to stir up patriotism and channel it through the figure of one Hugo Chavez. But then, as the article points out, no one really thought Argentina would invade the Falklands, either. Desperate times make desperate men. And while he's still popular now, his polls are slipping rapidly, showing him close to, or under, the critical 50%." McArdle says that food shortages are real indicators that the "cracks in his socialist paradise" are deepening.
- A Dangerously Reckless Man A Miami Herald editorial says it may be "tempting to laugh this off as mere foolishness, Chávez being Chávez," but warns that "no one should underestimate the lengths to which Venezuela's leader is willing to go to promote his own self-interest." In other words, while his trumped up talk with Colombia is mostly designed to distract Venezuelans from food and power shortages, it is still potentially dangerous. "At the moment, he is trying to distract Venezuelans from their discontent -- reflected in his falling popularity ratings -- by escalating tensions with Colombia and rushing troops to their common border. Last Sunday, he advised the country to prepare for war . . . then backed off two days later and said he doesn't seek conflict with his neighbor."
- Chavez's Threats Must Be Taken Seriously A Washington Post editorial says the history of the region demands vigilance on a ruler like Chavez. "Few believe that Mr. Chávez will start a war with Colombia," they write. "But then, as a couple of seasoned Latin American observers have pointed out, no one believed Argentina's similarly beleaguered strongman, Leopoldo Galtieri, when he began threatening to take Argentina to war with Britain in 1982. In the annals of the region's authoritarian populism, stranger things have happened."
- Chavez Is Disarming His People Reliapundit of the conservative Astute Bloggers site says Chavez is seizing guns during police raids -- up to 30,000 of them just this year alone. "Yes, Chavez is disarming his people-making them less safe from criminals and less safe from a police state."
- He's Not Going to War Newsweek's Mac Margolis says Chavez is just bluffing. The crisis in Venezuela, he writes, is a "domestic" and "political" one, not international.
Colombia has asked for intervention by the the United Nations, and red phones are ringing from Brasilia to Madrid. But, despite Chávez's new cache of Russian tanks and fighter jets ("How can he maintain an Army if he can't maintain the economy?" former Brazilian Navy minister Mário Cesar Flores told me recently), conflict is unlikely because this isn't so much an international standoff as it is a a domestic political crisis. Chávez--whose country has been hit by economic shortages, blackouts, and water rationing--is pressed to the wall, and analysts are starting to talk not of a shooting war, but of a poor man's cold war.