U.S. OFFICIALS long sought to play down the danger that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez poses by pointing out that his acts rarely matched his words. Mr. Chavez, who was elected president after promising a socialist revolution for Venezuela's poor majority, might talk about confiscating property, supporting leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia or admiring Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, but in practice he mostly remained within democratic boundaries.

Yet now the gap between Mr. Chavez's inflammatory rhetoric and his actions is narrowing. Having survived a strike by his opposition, Mr. Chavez has proclaimed 2003 the "year of the offensive"; so far he has taken steps to bring the economy under state control, eliminate independent media and decapitate the opposition. One of the strike's three top leaders has been arrested, while another has gone into hiding. Even more disturbing have been the unexplained murder of three dissident soldiers and an anti-Chavez protester and the explosion of bombs outside the Colombian and Spanish embassies. Government officials have denied responsibility, but these acts, too, followed Mr. Chavez's words: his labeling of dissident officers as "traitors" and his attacks on Colombia and Spain for "meddling."

Without more meddling, and soon, Venezuela will likely see the collapse of what was once one of Latin America's richest economies and strongest democracies. Mr. Chavez appears to have tired of his half-baked populism; now he seems prepared to destroy what remains of civil society and the private sector. He placed strict controls on foreign currency and has vowed to take away the licenses of private television stations that supported the opposition. He fired 16,000 employees of Venezuela's state oil company -- the country's economic lifeline -- and moved to bring an institution long known for its professionalism under his personal control. Independent economists are forecasting a catastrophic drop in Venezuela's economic output this year; some foresee the virtual disappearance of the private sector. That would bring Venezuela far closer to Cuba, which maybe shouldn't be a surprise: Mr. Castro, who is Mr. Chavez's closest ally, reportedly has dispatched thousands of officials to Venezuela.

Spain recently joined with the United States, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Portugal to support a negotiated political solution to the crisis through the mediation of Cesar Gaviria, the secretary general of the Organization of American States and a former president of Colombia. The opposition, which at times has supported anti-democratic means of ousting Mr. Chavez, now endorses Mr. Gaviria's proposal for a new presidential election or a referendum on Mr. Chavez's recall. The current constitution would allow for a referendum to be held as early as August; that may be the easiest and best way out. But Mr. Chavez knows he would very likely lose a fair vote, and he will likely do everything possible to prevent it. That's why it is essential that the Bush administration join with the "group of friends" to insist that Mr. Chavez release his political prisoners, stop his revolutionary "offensive" and commit to a decisive vote. It may be democracy's last chance.