Venezuela's Leap Backward

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

BEFORE HIS reelection as Venezuelan president last month, Hugo Chavez declared that his goal was to receive 10 million votes and thereby a mandate to greatly accelerate what he calls a 21st-century socialist revolution. In the end, despite a one-sided campaign that left a majority of Venezuelans believing they might be punished if they did not cast their ballots for him, Mr. Chavez received only 7 million votes; an opposition candidate won 4 million. The president's push to transform his country nevertheless is well underway -- and the model looks a lot like Cuba in the 20th century.

In the past couple of weeks Mr. Chavez has shaken up his cabinet to eliminate quasi-independent voices, said he will form a single ruling party and announced plans to govern by decree in the coming year. He has said he will close down the country's most popular television network, which has been critical of his government, eliminate the independence of the Central Bank, and nationalize telephone and electricity companies -- including one partly owned by Verizon and another by Alexandria-based AES. The commercial code will be changed; one minister said the intent is to place new limits on the profits of the remaining private companies. Though some private media will remain, Andres Izarra, the head of a state network and a close collaborator of Mr. Chavez's, declared that the regime's plan is "a communications and information hegemony for the state."

The flurry of activity has provoked understandable qualms among Latin America's democratic leaders, some of whom have bent over backward until now to give Mr. Chavez the benefit of the doubt. Jose Miguel Insulza, the Chilean who was elected secretary general of the Organization of American States with Venezuelan support, issued a statement last week saying Mr. Chavez's promise to revoke the license of RCTV "gives the appearance of a form of censorship against free expression" and "has no precedent in the recent decades of [Latin] democracy." The unfailingly vulgar president responded by publicly calling the OAS leader " pendejo," a Spanish word that could be translated as "idiot" but is not nearly so polite.

Some will see in Mr. Chavez's actions a threat to U.S. interests. Certainly, those who caution that it is unwise to count on Venezuela to continue supplying up to 15 percent of U.S. oil imports have a point. If assets of U.S. companies are seized without fair compensation, Venezuela should be subject to penalties. But the main threat posed by Mr. Chavez is to Venezuela's 26 million people. If he follows through on his threats, they can look forward to steadily diminishing freedom and -- if the history of socialism is any guide -- national impoverishment.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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