THIS WEEKEND President Bush visits Chile and Colombia, two nations that he will rightly celebrate for their capable democratic governments. But it is foolish to pretend, as does some of the administration's rhetoric, that democracy is thriving across Latin America. In fact, while the Bush administration has been ignoring the region over the past four years, political conditions have seriously deteriorated in several key countries -- and the prospect is of still worse developments, especially if U.S. neglect continues.
The likely focal point of trouble is Venezuela, a country of 25 million that supplies the United States with 13 percent of its oil. In August, after months of heavy-handed governmental actions to influence the outcome, President Hugo Chavez survived a recall referendum; since then his supporters have gained control of 21 of 23 states, as well as the capital, in local elections. Those triumphs have prompted the erratic former military rebel to accelerate what he calls his "Bolivarian revolution" -- a push toward authoritarian rule at home and a deepening alliance abroad with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and other antidemocratic movements.
In the past Mr. Chavez has been assailed by independent media who sympathize with his opposition; he has responded with a new media law that will allow his government to suspend the licenses of radio and television stations for content deemed "contrary to the security of the nation." A new penal code will outlaw most forms of public protest and designate some as terrorism. An expansion of the Supreme Court will allow the president to stack the only judicial body that has retained some independence. A campaign has been launched against civil society groups, beginning with the election monitoring group Sumate, whose organizers are threatened with charges of treason. Mr. Chavez is using Venezuela's oil revenue to fund antidemocratic or populist movements in nations such as Bolivia and to subsidize Mr. Castro's bankrupt regime.
Late Thursday, state prosecutor Danilo Anderson was killed, apparently with a car bomb. He had been preparing to bring charges against some 400 people who signed a statement of support for an interim president after Mr. Chavez was briefly ousted in a 2002 coup. The apparent assassination was a shocking and despicable act, from which the opposition -- made up largely of mainstream politicians, and business and church leaders -- should quickly disassociate itself. But it should not provide a pretext for Mr. Chavez to continue seeking the imprisonment of nonviolent political opponents.
It is difficult for the United States to respond to Mr. Chavez, in part because he has adopted Mr. Castro's practice of portraying the United States as an enemy bent on imperial intervention in Venezuela. Mr. Bush's choice for secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was quoted recently as describing Mr. Chavez as "a real problem" and saying that "the key there is to mobilize the region to both watch him and be vigilant about him and to pressure him when he makes moves in one direction or another. We can't do it alone." That sounds like a wise policy; once she takes office, Ms. Rice should end the administration's passivity toward this important region and pursue it.