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Change Must Come Gradually

By Michael Shifter
The New York Times, January 3, 2013

By now, it is easy to recite the litany of problems facing Venezuela.

At the top of the list are a huge fiscal deficit (around 20 percent) and high inflation (just under 18 percent), decaying infrastructure, mismanaged petroleum sector, shortages of basic goods, periodic blackouts and widespread crime and insecurity. All of these derive in some measure from severe institutional weaknesses, a product of Hugo Chávez’s one-man, 14-year rule. Whether his successor comes from his camp or from the opposition, reform and improved governance will be essential.

Difficult choices will have to be made. It will be impossible to tackle such acute problems simultaneously on all fronts. If Chavistas retain power, they should quickly take steps to rein in spending, rebuild relations with Venezuela’s business and professional communities and encourage foreign investment. Revamping PDVSA, the state oil company, should also get high priority.

If the opposition takes over, its members should move gradually. An unwavering commitment to social programs -- the popular "misiones" -- will be vital, as will pursuing badly needed economic and security reforms. Similarly, a new government should not entirely jettison Chávez’s foreign policy from one day to the next, but should move in a piecemeal fashion. Moderation should steadily fill in for Chávez’s charisma and grandiosity.

The path forward will require modest, incremental changes and compromise on both sides of a sharply polarized society. Otherwise, there could be a societal backlash, and the prospects for political comity and mending the social fabric will be at risk. Fortunately, Venezuelans can draw on a democratic experience dating back to the 1960s and 70s, though they must avoid the pitfalls of corruption and mismanagement present in the immediate, pre-Chávez era.

In the meantime, key political actors need to keep hardline militants on both sides in check and take steps to insure a peaceful, orderly transition.

[Read comments on this topic from other analysts in the Room for Debate article.]