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With George W. Bush Gone, Venezuela's Strongman Has Found New Enemies

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

VENEZUELAN President Hugo Chávez, who says he intends to remain in office for decades to come, lost a referendum 14 months ago that would have removed the constitutional limit on his tenure. When he announced another referendum in December, the first polls showed him losing again by a wide margin. Yet, as Sunday's vote approaches, his government is predicting victory -- and some polls show him with a narrow advantage.

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How did Latin America's self-styled "Bolivarian revolutionary" turn his fortunes around? Not through rational argument, it is fair to say. Mr. Chávez's regime has mounted a propaganda and intimidation campaign of a ferocity rarely seen in Latin America since the region returned to democracy 25 years ago. Pro-Chávez rhetoric dominates the national airwaves, from which opposition voices have been almost entirely excluded. Pro-government thugs have targeted student demonstrations, the home of an opposition journalist and the Vatican's embassy, which gave shelter to one student leader.

Then there is the assault on Venezuela's Jewish community -- which seems to have replaced George W. Bush as Mr. Chávez's favorite foil. After Israel's offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last month, the caudillo expelled Israel's ambassador and described Israel's actions in Gaza as "genocide." Then Mr. Chávez turned on Venezuela's Jews. "Let's hope that the Venezuelan Jewish community will declare itself against this barbarity," Mr. Chávez bellowed on a government-controlled television channel. "Don't Jews repudiate the Holocaust? And this is precisely what we're witnessing."

Government media quickly took up the chorus. One television host close to Mr. Chávez blamed opposition demonstrations on two students he said had Jewish last names. On a pro-government Web site, another commentator demanded that citizens "publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street, shopping center or park" and called for a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, seizures of Jewish-owned property and a demonstration at Caracas's largest synagogue. On Jan. 30 the synagogue was duly attacked by a group of thugs, who spray-painted "Jews get out" on the walls and confiscated a registry of members. Mr. Chávez denied responsibility; days later, the attorney general's office said that 11 people detained in connection with the attack included five police officers and a police intelligence operative.

It is fair to infer that Mr. Chávez doesn't care to dwell on more mundane domestic issues in Venezuela. The oil-based economy is crashing; inflation, at over 30 percent, is the highest in Latin America, and shortages of basic goods are common. Venezuela ranks 158th out of 180 countries in a global corruption index, and its murder rate has tripled under Mr. Chávez, making Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world. If Mr. Chávez loses the referendum, he could very well join the country's eclipse, which appears likely to accelerate in the next year or two. Apparently, he's already decided whom to blame.

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