In his 11-year rule, Venezuelan strong-man Hugo Chávez has outlasted all manner of angry foes, conspirators, and mounting chaos. Until now. As he loses control of a shrinking economy, his Teflon is wearing thin. Chronic blackouts and water shortages are darkening industries and forcing homes to ration electricity and baths. Inflation is 30 percent a year, the worst rate in Latin America, and despite an official price freeze, economists say it could double this year. Crime is soaring, with the murder rate tripling under Chávez. Discontent is rising, too.
Once hailed as a redeemer by the poor, Chávez has seen his approval ratings plunge below 50 percent. A year ago, two thirds of Venezuelans were upbeat about their country. Now the same number see the country in decline, says pollster Luis Vicente León. That may not be enough to topple Chávez, whose mandate ends in 2012. Like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe or Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, he has twisted the rules of democracy—and controls enough cash, media, guns, and institutional clout to cling to power and crush any perceived threat, no matter how absurd. (Chávez recently banned Sony PlayStations and Barbie dolls as imperialist tools, and denounced Twitter as a vehicle for terrorists.) But the gathering turmoil in this nation of 29 million is like nothing the Bolivarian Republic has ever seen. Chávez's controversial project to build and spread 21st-century socialism may already be over.
The end is unlikely to be pretty. After independent channel RCTV declined to air a presidential speech late last month, Chávez ordered cable operators to drop the popular station's programming. Immediately, protests erupted nationwide, killing two and injuring dozens. Tear gas choked downtown Caracas. Undaunted protestors vowed to keep marching. "Keep this up and you will force me to take radical measures," warned Chávez in a nationwide broadcast.
This was not how the Bolivarian revolution was to play out. When Chávez launched it in 1999, he promised to wrest Venezuela's vast oil wealth from gringos and the rapacious elite to fuel 21st-century socialism, which would turn power over to indigenous people and the forgotten poor. And Venezuela would be just the beginning. With mythic Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar as his patron saint, Chávez set out to export the "Bolivarian alternative"—rejecting neoliberalism and the long shadow of the United States—throughout the hemisphere, and perhaps beyond. For a time, the new bolívarianismo stirred hearts across the Andes and in Central America. Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua formally signed on to the Chávez pact. Cuba and a few more islands in the Caribbean followed.
Now the ballyhooed Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean has stalled. The first blow was the world economic crisis, which gutted oil prices and depleted the Chávista war chest that proved so useful in showering money on the slums, keeping cronies happy, and buying sympathy abroad. Then Chávez allies began angling to extend their terms in power, as he had. A turning point came in Honduras, where efforts by a Chávez ally, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, to hold an illegal referendum in the hope of extending his mandate ran afoul of the Supreme Court, the Congress, and finally the armed forces, which ousted him at gunpoint. At first the world diplomatic community joined Chávez in decrying what looked like an old-fashioned coup d'état—but most Hondurans wanted no part of Chávismo. Last November they elected a new anti-Chávez president, Porfirio Lobo.
Now a handful of nations, including the U.S. and Costa Rica, have recognized the new government in Honduras, while Zelaya has quietly departed for voluntary exile in the Dominican Republic. Chávez is increasingly isolated in the hemisphere. Even card-carrying lefties like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Peru's Alan García have snubbed Chávez's vision and embraced what Chilean President-elect Sebastián Piñera, a conservative, has called "democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression, alternation of power without caudillismo."
Don't count Chávez out yet. Oil prices are rising, and his opposition is in disarray. But 21st-century socialism has lost its allure. WHOEVER WORKS FOR A REVOLUTION IS PLOWING THE SEA, reads Bolívar's gravestone, reflecting the liberator's despair over his ultimately failed mission. It's a lesson Chávez might keep in mind.