LAST SUNDAY hundreds of heavily armed Venezuelan troops invaded one of the country's largest and most productive cattle ranches, launching what President Hugo Chavez describes as his "war against the estates." The next day Mr. Chavez signed a decree under which authorities are expected to seize scores of other farms in the coming weeks. This assault on private property is merely the latest step in what has been a rapidly escalating "revolution" by Venezuela's president that is undermining the foundations of democracy and free enterprise in that oil-producing country. The response of Venezuela's democratic neighbors, and the United States, ranges from passivity to tacit encouragement.
In the past four months Mr. Chavez has pushed through a new law that allows the government to fine or shut down private media for vaguely defined offenses against "public order." His supporters have enacted a new legal code that criminalizes anti-government demonstrations; people who bang empty pots and pans in protest, as Venezuelans have been doing for several years, can be sentenced to jail. Last month Mr. Chavez stacked the Supreme Court with 17 new appointees, including one who has suggested a constitutional amendment that would allow the self-styled "Bolivarian" leader to become president for life. Former leaders of leftist militant organizations, including one who served a prison sentence for abducting a U.S. business executive, are pouring Venezuela's surging oil revenue into state-planned socialist cooperatives.
Mr. Chavez, a disciple of Cuban President Fidel Castro, has also accelerated his attempt to reorient Venezuelan foreign policy away from the United States and other democracies. In recent weeks he has visited Iran, Russia, Libya and China, in addition to Cuba. In Moscow, he said that Venezuela would make a major purchase of Russian weapons, including 40 helicopters and 100,000 rifles. According to reports in the Russian press, Mr. Chavez may spend $5 billion on arms, including advanced MiG-29 fighter jets. That prospect has alarmed neighboring Colombia, which recently arrested a senior leader of the FARC movement -- designated a terrorist organization by the United States -- who had been given sanctuary in Venezuela.
A generation ago, such developments in an important Latin American country might have inspired heavy-handed and counterproductive U.S. intervention. A decade ago, other Latin governments might have rallied to rescue Venezuelan democracy. In this post-Sept. 11 world there has been virtually no reaction. His neighbors, who could threaten sanctions under the democracy charter of the Organization of American States, are silent. The Bush administration, which issues occasional statements deploring Mr. Chavez's policies, has been quietly prodding Latin leaders to take a stand, but without results.
Officials say a more active approach is under consideration, but a confrontation with Mr. Chavez is not likely to be popular in Latin capitals or even in Washington. The same day Mr. Chavez signed the decree, three U.S. senators -- two Democrats and Republican Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.) -- said that they favored improving relations with his government. "Every indication is there will be better times ahead," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) dismissed the land confiscations as an internal matter. It is "critically important," he said, "to have that continuing flow of oil." Venezuelan democracy, it seems, is not so critical.