Hugo Chavez's presidential strikeout

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

VENEZUELAN STRONGMAN Hugo Chávez is having a bad month. He's been forced to devalue the currency and impose nationwide power cuts, steps that will worsen a serious recession and Latin America's highest inflation. The U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Haiti has undercut his propaganda about an evil American "empire." As his baseball-crazy country watches its annual championship series, a new slogan has gone viral: "Chávez -- You Struck Out."

So it should surprise no one that Mr. Chávez has taken new steps to tighten his authoritarian grip. On Sunday, without so much as a hint of due process, his government ordered cable systems to drop six television channels -- including RCTV, the country's oldest and long its most popular station. The alleged offense was failing to broadcast Mr. Chávez's live speeches -- of which there have been more than 140 in the past year alone, lasting up to seven hours each.

This is not the first attack on RCTV, which produces Venezuela's most popular entertainment programming as well as news programs with an opposition bent. In 2007, Mr. Chávez ordered the channel off the public airwaves, also without the due process nominally required by law. That action prompted the birth of a student movement that under the slogans of free speech and democracy helped defeat the caudillo's attempt to rewrite the constitution, and propelled opposition candidates to victory in Caracas and other major cities and states last year.

The students have returned to the streets of Caracas and at least four other cities this week, with violent results -- two were killed and dozens injured in the town of Merida in clashes with security forces and pro-regime thugs. On Tuesday, Mr. Chávez's vice president and defense minister resigned, along with the environment minister. International criticism is raining down on his government, most of it considerably stronger than the milquetoast reaction of the State Department, which observed that "any time the government shuts down an independent network, that is an area of concern."

Mr. Chávez may calculate that all the turmoil is worth it. Later this year, an election for the National Assembly is due, and what is now a rubber-stamp body could fall into the hands of the opposition if the vote is free and fair. The currency devaluation will, at least, allow Mr. Chávez to spend far more in the domestic market in the coming months; the attack on RCTV will eliminate a major opposition platform. The student protests may provide a pretext to arrest key organizers, or even to declare an emergency and put off the elections.

If Mr. Chávez were a right-wing leader or an ally of the United States, Latin American governments and many Democrats in Congress would be mobilizing to stop his latest abuse of power, and to encourage peaceful and democratic opposition. But he is not, and they are mostly silent. The Obama administration, too, has done next to nothing to defend democracy or encourage the opposition in Venezuela. Now -- when Chávez's regime threatens to disintegrate into chaos and violence -- would be a good time to start.


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