CARACAS (Reuters) - Undaunted by a slowing economy, Venezuela’s still popular President Hugo Chavez is picking up the pace of his left-wing revolution with a relentless raft of nationalizations and an offensive against opponents.
Hot on the heels of nationalizing dozens of oil service companies in the OPEC nation earlier this month, Chavez ordered the takeover of several large iron makers last week, then snapped up a large bank and vowed to further limit the private sector.
“We are not subordinated to the bourgeoise elite but to the interests of the people,” Chavez said on Saturday. “We are proceeding and will continue to proceed with nationalizations of strategic sectors.”
In separate moves that erode democratic credentials earned with a string of election victories since he first won office a decade ago, Chavez has also stripped power from opposition mayors and governors this year and harassed an opposition TV station.
His government has already taken over oil projects, along with telecoms, power and steel companies, and there are numerous sectors including food, health and education that could yet feel his hand through tight regulation or nationalizations.
Oil drillers including Halliburton are also potential targets of Chavez’s push to build what he dubs “21st Century Socialism” in one of the most Americanized corners of Latin America, where he is popular for spending on the poor.
Despite record oil prices, 2008 was a tough year for the anti-American leader, who lost support following the defeat of a proposed new constitution that would have given him broader powers.
But Chavez has found his stride again this year, winning a referendum that lets him stay in power as long as he wins elections. He has 60 percent approval ratings even as the economy slows and his government struggles to pay bills in the vital oil sector where income has fallen.
He is operating on two fronts, increasing state control of business through takeovers and heavier scrutiny while battering critics with everything from tough policing of marches to threats to punish the fiercely critical Globovision television station.
The government has opened a number of corruption probes, including one against leading opposition voice Manuel Rosales, who fled charges and was granted asylum in Peru.
“I’ve said it before and I repeat, we must keep up the offensive, bulldozing the counter-revolution,” Chavez told party activists in April. “We can no longer be the idiots we were.”
Chavez started his nationalization drive in 2007 during a five year oil boom, when bulging state coffers allowed him to buy majority stakes in oil projects run by foreign companies such as Total and worth billions of dollars.
With oil revenues so far this year at half what they were in 2008, Chavez has warned companies that he may pay for new takeovers with government bonds.
Putting profitable ventures in state hands is a way to bolster financing for social projects, and Chavez recently said his government has recovered its investment in telephone company CANTV two years after buying a $572 million stake from U.S.-based Verizon Communications.
The government agreed last week to pay $1 billion for a unit of Spanish bank Santander, and intends to use its purchase to facilitate credits to farmers and poor families.
Major oil service companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger Ltd are perhaps the largest interests now at risk of takeovers, since state oil company PDVSA has fallen behind in payments worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Chavez’s critics accuse him of trying to establish himself as a dictator, although he has repeatedly won elections and some of his opponents’ own democratic credentials are poor after trying to oust him in a 2002 coup. They also closed down the oil industry for months, and then sidelined themselves by boycotting legislative elections.
Still, Chavez has clearly clamped down following opposition wins in major cities and states in regional elections last year, stripping Caracas’s new mayor of power over half the capital and naming his own unelected representative.
Chavez, who has a taste for fiery rhetoric and military uniforms, first tried to take office in a 1992 coup, but he denies he is power hungry.
“The bourgeoise accuses me of accumulating power. I am not accumulating power, I want nothing for me, everything is for the Venezuelan people,” he said.
Additional reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel; Editing by Kieran Murray