Big Oil is back in Venezuela
Big Oil is back in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez finished nationalizing his country's oil industry in 2007 by transferring the last holdings of foreign firms to the government-owned Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA).

But with oil prices way down and production falling because the PDVSA's ineptitude — it's a jobs bank for his cronies — Chavez is courting Big Oil again. Incredibly, 19 companies are paying $1 million or more to hop back in the sack with him. Those that win stakes in his new oil ventures will remain junior partners until crude prices rise sufficiently and he kicks them out of the country again.

History repeats itself a lot in Venezuela. The next opportunity comes Feb. 15 when the people will vote on constitutional reforms that would allow Chavez to become president for life. In 2007, voters said no to that idea. A second referendum on the same reforms is constitutionally forbidden. But Chavez got around that by recasting the reforms as amendments and extending possible life terms to other offices. Before the National Assembly rubber-stamped the referendum call, Assemblyman Luis Tascon said he voted with the majority because no suitable successor to Chavez has come forward. Of course, had one emerged, he'd be dead or imprisoned.

Ordinarily, this referendum should fail. The nation's flagging economy otherwise should ensure an overwhelming no vote. Unlimited terms were polling under 40 percent in late December. So Chavez' United Socialist Party formed 134,000 "pro-yes committees" that are going door to door "to explain the content of the proposal (our emphasis)," reports the Cuban "news agency" La Prensa Latina. Chavez also is jailing dissidents and having his police and National Guard break up opposition rallies. Their standing orders: "tear gas them good!" Intimidation seems to be working. Fifty-one percent of voters now support the reforms.

But what if he loses? He promises to leave office in 2013, but he also at long last could confess his communism and perhaps have his assembly write him a new constitution more in keeping with his authoritarian aims. Then he could have the Soviet-style elections and true dictatorial powers and still wear the moniker of "democratically elected president." Sen. Christopher Dodd and Jimmy Carter no doubt would approve.

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