Chávez and the King

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, November 19, 2007

For the past week, the press of the Spanish-speaking world has been abuzz about a verbal slapdown of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez by King Juan Carlos of Spain. Incensed by Chávez's ceaseless insults and interruptions during an Ibero-American summit meeting in Chile, the normally temperate Juan Carlos turned to Latin America's self-styled "Bolivarian" revolutionary and blurted: "Why don't you shut up?"

The story might have lasted a day, while everyone chuckled over something that, as one Spanish newspaper put it, "should have been said a long time ago." That it has lasted a week is the work of Chávez. He called a news conference last Monday in which he recounted the history of Spanish colonialism and compared himself to a persecuted Jesus Christ. He held another news conference Wednesday to announce that he was reviewing all ties between Venezuela and Spain. He demanded a royal apology. He even coined his own phrase: "Mr. King, I will not shut up."

Crude and clownish, si, but also disturbingly effective. Borrowing the tried-and-true tactics of his mentor Fidel Castro, Chávez has found another way to energize his political base: by portraying himself as at war with foreign colonialists and imperialists. Even better, he has distracted the attention of the international press -- or at least the fraction of it that bothers to cover Venezuela -- from the real story in his country at a critical moment.

In 13 days, abetted by intimidation and overt violence that has included the gunning down of student protesters, Chávez will become the presumptive president-for-life of a new autocracy, created by a massive revision of his own constitution. Venezuela will join Cuba as one of two formally "socialist" nations in the Western hemisphere. This "revolution" will be ratified by a Dec. 2 referendum that Chávez fully expects to win despite multiple polls showing that only about a third of Venezuelans support it. Many people will abstain from voting rather than risk the retaliation of a regime that has systematically persecuted those who turned out against Chávez in the past.

Venezuelans are not giving up their freedom without a fight. Tens of thousands of students have been marching in the streets of Caracas, and the few independent media outlets that still exist have been trying to combat the unrelenting propaganda campaign being waged on state-controlled television. Some of Chávez's longtime supporters have defected, including the recently retired defense minister, Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, who calls the constitutional rewrite "a coup d'etat." The president's response was to publicly lead a chant about Baduel that promised he "will end up before a firing squad."

During eight years in office, Chávez has already taken control of Venezuela's courts, congress, television stations and petroleum industry; his congress granted him the right to rule by decree. The constitutional rewrite will allow him to control the central bank and its reserves, override elected local governments with his own appointees, declare an indefinite "state of emergency" in which due process and freedom of information would be suspended, and use the army to maintain domestic political order under the slogan "fatherland, socialism or death!" It will also abolish any limit on presidential terms for a 53-year-old ruler who would otherwise be compelled to step down by 2012.

If you're thinking you haven't heard much about this transformation in a major oil-producing country two hours by air from Miami, you're right. U.S. media and human rights groups have basically ignored Chávez's latest power grab. Human Rights Watch, which has been conducting a campaign about what it says is the "human rights crisis" in neighboring, democratic Colombia in close cooperation with congressional Democrats, has issued no statement on the Venezuelan violence -- including the shooting of the students by government-backed paramilitaries on Nov. 7 -- and objected to only one of the 69 new constitutional articles.

The Bush administration seems to have abandoned any effort to influence events in Caracas, hamstrung by Chávez's use of "the empire" as a foil. Worst of all, Latin America's own democratic leaders, who rallied in the 1990s against a less-ambitious attempt by right-wing Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to install an autocracy, have largely been silent. Unlike Chávez, Fujimori didn't have petrodollars with which to subsidize his neighbors' fuel or buy their debt bonds; Chavez has spent billions on both. The summit of Spanish-speaking countries would have been entirely harmonious had not Chávez himself deliberately provoked Juan Carlos. The king missed his cue; rather than addressing Chávez, he should have asked the assembled heads of state: "Why don't you speak up?"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company