The State Department responds to repression by Hugo Chavez

Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 8:33 PM

VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT Hugo Chavez celebrated the holidays with a flurry of autocracy. With opposition members due to take 40 percent of the seats in a new Congress this week, the populist strongman induced the outgoing legislature - a rubber stamp for his initiatives - to grant him the power to rule by decree for the next 18 months. The lame-duck session also approved a package of laws that provide for censorship of the Internet, ban foreign contributions to human rights groups, and make it easier for the government to nationalize banks and revoke the licenses of radio and shut TV stations.

Venezuela's opposition described Mr. Chavez's offensive as a final "coup" against the country's tattered democratic system. The State Department, too, criticized the measures; its spokesman said Mr. Chavez "seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers."

So how will the Obama administration respond? It will, it seems, seek to send a new U.S. ambassador to Caracas - and thereby hand the caudillo a considerable propaganda victory.

Some background is in order. Last year Mr. Obama nominated a veteran diplomat, Larry Leon Palmer, for the Caracas post. But Mr. Chavez rejected the would-be ambassador because, in written responses to questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Palmer frankly referred to "clear ties between members of the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas" and "morale and equipment problems" in the Venezuelan army.

The State Department vowed to stand behind Mr. Palmer. When Mr. Chavez reiterated that he would not accept the envoy, the administration promised "consequences." Those turned out to be mild: In the quiet of last week, the department confirmed that it had canceled the visa of Venezuela's ambassador to Washington while he was out of the country. That pleased Mr. Chavez, who according to one of the newspapers he controls was convinced that the department's decision not to publicly expel his ambassador was "a good signal."

Last Sunday more signals when Mr. Chavez and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met at the inauguration of Brazil's new president. After shaking hands, Mr. Chavez told Ms. Clinton, according to the government paper, that he was ready to set aside the dispute over ambassadors, provided the Obama administration "corrects its mistake."

On Monday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley suggested the administration was ready to give in. Saying that Mr. Palmer's nomination had "formally expired with the end of the last Congress," he added, "We will have to renominate an ambassador candidate."

Venezuelans who were wondering if the United States would do anything to support the opposition parties, human rights activists, independent media and private businesses under Mr. Chavez's assault then heard the following message from Mr. Crowley: "We are interested in having good relations with Venezuela. And obviously that involves, among other things, having ambassadors at post who can help to, you know, manage that engagement."

That raises an interesting question: Will the next nominee speak truthfully about Mr. Chavez's destruction of democracy, and about his ties to terrorists and drug traffickers? Let's hope Congress provides him or her with that opportunity.

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