Chavez blinks on police state?

When Hugo Chavez was somewhat popular, he may not have needed a secret police. Now, times have changed:

It may be an autocracy, but Hugo Chávez’s government has never been particularly repressive, let alone a dictatorship. A decree issued late last month with no prior debate threatens to change that. It creates a new intelligence and counter-intelligence system which in the name of national security enlists the entire population in what could potentially amount to a spy network. “This undoubtedly brings us close to…a ‘police state’,” declared Provea, a human-rights group.

The decree authorises police raids without warrant, the use of anonymous witnesses and secret evidence. Judges are obliged to collaborate with the intelligence services. Anyone caught investigating sensitive matters faces jail. The law contains no provision for any kind of oversight. It blurs the distinction between external threats and internal political dissent. It requires all citizens, foreigners and organisations to act in support of the intelligence system whenever required—or face jail terms of up to six years. . .

[Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín] said that members of the new intelligence and counter-intelligence bodies will be required to demonstrate “ideological commitment” to Mr Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”.

The president’s popularity is falling, according to most opinion polls. In December he lost a constitutional referendum. Regional elections in November are likely to erode his near-monopoly of power. The suspicion must be that this law is designed to defend a declining regime rather than to bolster the security of Venezuelans.

But then, Chavez blinked:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has revoked a law that made sweeping changes to the intelligence services.

Mr Chavez said he recognised he had made errors when proclaiming the law by decree, adding that it breached the country’s constitution.

What happened? The sequence is reminiscent of the recent Venezuelan referendum that would have made Chavez a dictator. The government initially declared victory, before eventually conceding defeat after actual results leaked and the military refused to cooperate with vote-rigging. I suspect that here too, the military refused to acquiesce to Chavez’s plans.

This isn’t over. Chavez will be working hard to replace the military’s chiefs, and he has lots of time to do it. He doesn’t face re-election until December 2012.

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