NOT FOR THE first time, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has declared himself cancer-free and ready to resume a full schedule. The announcement should be treated dubiously; the government has refused to release details of the strongman’s illness, and numerous reports have said he suffers from an incurable malignancy. But Mr. Chávez’s claim does make clear that he intends an all-out push to win reelection in an Oct. 7 vote.
Having the caudillo at the top of the ticket makes a big difference: While most polls show Mr. Chávez leading opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, they also indicate that the opposition would trounce any of Mr. Chávez’s potential successors. The president’s personal popularity lingers with some Venezuelans, who do not fault him for the soaring inflation, power and food shortages and world-beating murder rate that have emerged during his 13 years in office.
Mr. Chávez, however, is leaving little to chance. He is pouring tens of billions of dollars, much of it borrowed from China, into the economy, producing a preelection boomlet. More significantly, he is employing all the leverage of a legal system and mass media that he has politicized and subordinated to his personal control. Just how far that process of corruption has advanced is illuminated in a report by Human Rights Watch, which concludes that “the accumulation of power in the executive, the removal of institutional safeguards, and the erosion of human rights guarantees have given the Chávez government free rein to intimidate, censor and prosecute Venezuelans who criticize the president or thwart his political agenda.”
Since 2010, the report says, Mr. Chávez has “repacked” the Supreme Court with followers who “have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers and publicly pledged their commitment to advancing the political agenda of President Chávez.” He has increased the number of state-run TV channels from one to six while relentlessly pressuring the two remaining independent networks, one of which was pushed off the air. He has “targeted media outlets for sanction and/or censorship for their critical reporting” on “issues such as water pollution, violent crime, a prison riot, and an earthquake.”
One of the most disturbing accounts in the report is of Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who courageously granted conditional release to a Chávez opponent who had spent nearly three years in prison while awaiting trial on corruption charges. Though her ruling complied with Venezuelan law and a recommendation by U.N. human rights monitors, Ms. Afiuni was arrested and ordered to stand trial by a provisional judge who had loudly proclaimed his loyalty to Mr. Chávez. She has now spent 21
2 years in prison or under house arrest while awaiting trial.
The Obama administration has done its best to ignore Mr. Chávez and his domestic offenses; Mr. Obama recently told an interviewer dismissively that Venezuela “has not had a serious national security impact on us.” That may be true, but Mr. Chávez certainly has had an impact on democratic freedoms in his country and in the hemisphere. While he lives, the United States should be doing what it can to preserve and protect Venezuela’s democrats; they will be needed for what, at best, will be a long and painful rebuilding process.