There is bound to be a certain amount of trouble running any country; if you are the president the trouble happens to you; but if you are a tyrant you can arrange things so that most of the trouble happens to other people.
Donald Robert Perry Marquis, — Archy and Mehitabel
It’s great fun being president of a country. As both George Bush and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez have discovered, there are all kinds of things one can do with and without the approval of a legislative body. When Congress fails to give him what he wants, Mr. Bush accomplishes his ends through issuing executive orders or attaching signing statements to legislation he dislikes. Mr. Chávez did it initially by simply taking advantage of being president and more recently by availing himself of privileges given him by the law passed by the Venezuelan congress in January 2007. That law gave Mr. Chávez the power for the next 18 months to issue laws by decree, making broad changes to all manner of governmental operations.
Pursuant to his inherent powers as president as well as explicit powers given him by the National Assembly, Mr. Chávez has initiated a number of changes in Venezuela, some substantive, but the more interesting ones, cosmetic. The substantive changes deserve only brief mention since they have been adequately covered elsewhere. They include nationalizing the oil industry that had been privatized in the 1990s, and gradually eliminating those television stations that were critical of his administration. (In December 2006, in a move that almost certainly inspired TV envy in Mr. Bush, the government refused to renew the license of RCTV, which had often made fun of some of the things that Mr. Chávez has done as president. Mr. Chávez said it wasn’t censorship. He simply wants journalists to publish “truthful” information. The other kind, he suggested, is irresponsible journalism.) The substantive reforms, of which the foregoing are merely examples, have overshadowed many of the more creative cosmetic reforms implemented by Mr. Chávez.
One of the first things Mr. Chávez did upon becoming president was to rename Venezuela. In 1999 the Republic of Venezuela became the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, thus paying tribute to Simon Bolivar who freed Venezuela and four other South American countries from Spanish rule. There were, of course, a few naysayers who said that changing the name would require changing the currency, national identity cards, passports and millions of other documents. The change was accompanied by a redesigned national flag and a change to the country’s coat of arms and will soon be accompanied by a name change for the national currency. (Beginning in January 2008 the currency now called the bolívar will be renamed the bolívar fuerte.)
Mr. Chávez has not limited his efforts to matters nominative and fiscal. He has also taken it upon himself to tinker with the sun. Unable to alter its course, he has taken steps to make daylight more egalitarian. Beginning in September Venezuela turned its clocks back from Greenwich Mean Time minus 4 hours to Greenwich Mean Time minus 4 ½ hours. This was done, according to a government spokesman, to produce “a more fair distribution of the sunrise.” Although he did not say what they would be, the spokesman said that the government planned to introduce additional measures to enable Venezuelans to make “more effective use of time.” Although making sunshine more efficient is a creative if Herculean task, it is not Mr. Chávez’s most creative idea. That was announced in early September.
In Venezuela, as in lots of countries, parents give their children names that appeal to them. Some parents have been very creative in naming their children. Among some of the names that can be found on registries in Venezuela are the first names Hitler, Hochiminh, Eisenhower, Batman and Superman.
Under a bill that was introduced in the assembly, parents of newborn children would no longer have had the freedom to name their children whatever they please. Instead they would have been limited to 100 names selected by the government. That bill, however, has just been withdrawn because child protection officials said it would violate “the right to liberty.” Thus whether it could achieve its aims will remain unseen; according to a draft of the bill, it was meant to “preserve the equilibrium and integral development of the child.” The concern was that names such as those described above and others not described expose their possessors to ridicule or are “extravagant or hard to pronounce” in Spanish; other names were said to “generate doubts” about the bearer’s gender.
For those who eagerly await each of George Bush’s new pronouncements to see what new powers he can arrogate to himself, it is clear he cannot hold a candle to Mr. Chávez. If Mr. Chávez, as he hopes, can change the constitution so he is eligible to serve an unlimited number of six-year terms, there will be plenty of opportunity to see what other truly creative ideas will spring from his fertile mind. Venezuelans are probably waiting with bated breath. Who can blame them?