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'Chávez Has Begun to Take the Path of Dictatorship'

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The United States is failing to defend and project its principles, its values, and the universal human rights to which all people everywhere are entitled.

A majority of Venezuelan voters rejected their president, Hugo Chávez, last September. He has responded by tightening his grip on power and extending his repressive policies. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been too cautious, too hesitant, and too reluctant to stand up to Chávez and speak out forcefully for the Venezuelan people. The spread of democracy has stalled and Chávez seeks its retreat in the Western Hemisphere. The United States is failing to defend and project its principles, its values, and the universal human rights to which all people everywhere are entitled.

After a violent coup d’état attempt failed in 1992, Chávez re-emerged and was elected president in a credible 1998 vote; but his re-elections have been increasingly rigged.

Chávez has become the center of anti-American sentiment in Latin America. He ended U.S. and Venezuelan military cooperation. He stopped U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency operations in Venezuelan territory. In September 2006, Chávez addressed the U.N. General Assembly after President Bush and said the room smelled of sulfur because “the devil“ had been there. In early 2009, Chávez called President Obama “ignorant” and said Obama “has the same stench as Bush.”

How Venezuelans deal with Chávez’s power grab leading up to the 2012 election will depend in part on the attention paid to their situation by their neighbors in the Americas.

In October 2009, while in Damascus, Chávez said he and Syrian President Bashar Assad were building ties “to accelerate the fall of (American) imperialist hegemony.” And in Tehran he said of America and its allies, “We know that they will never be able to restrict the Islamic revolution in whatever way … We will always stand together, we will not only resist, we will also stand victorious beside one another.” To which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad added, “My brother, Mr. Chávez, and I and a few other people were once alone in the world; today we have a long line of revolutionary officials and people standing alongside each other.” Chávez has signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran.

Last year, Chávez blamed the United States for the earthquake in Haiti and accused the United States of using the earthquake as a pretext to occupy the devastated Caribbean country.

All the while, Chávez has pursued his vision of a socialist state in Venezuela. He nationalized electrical companies, declared government control over oil projects in the Orinoco forests, and withdrew from the International Monetary Fund.

Initially, he had some success in lowering the country’s chronically high inflation. More recently, the economy has struggled. There have been power cuts and shortages. In 2010, hundreds more businesses were expropriated by the Chávez government, from cattle ranches to construction firms. Chávez made agreements to sell oil on credit, interest-free, to Nicaragua, Equador, Bolivia, and some Caribbean countries. He aims to support those sympathetic to himself and his radical agenda, but it comes at the expense of his own people. These factors, plus Chávez’s chronic overspending on social programs, means that today the Venezuelan government is running out of money.

While other South American economies are healthy because of high commodity prices and consumer spending, Venezuela’s is shrinking. There are food shortages, and the country has Latin America’s highest inflation rate.

Chávez aims to support those sympathetic to himself and his radical agenda, but it comes at the expense of his own people.

To tighten his hold on power, Chávez has taken the usual repressive steps of authoritarian regimes. He has neutralized the independence of the judiciary. He has curbed journalists’ freedom of expression and shut independent television stations. He has restricted workers’ freedom of association. Security agents make extrajudicial killings. Prominent political opponents are targeted for criminal prosecution. The government seeks to discredit human rights organizations, and rejects international monitoring of its behavior.

Discontent rises among the Venezuelan people. In 2005, the divided political opposition made a mistake by boycotting elections, which strengthened Chávez and his allies. In 2010, the opposition showed they had learned valuable lessons and waged a smart campaign for seats in the National Assembly. This time, the opposition stayed united. In September, 52 percent of voters rejected Chávez and his repressive policies. However, due to gerrymandering, the opposition only won 40 percent of the legislative seats.

Chávez’s response to the voters’ rebuke has been predictable, heavy-handed, and repressive. Before the newly elected National Assembly is seated, he turned to the lame-duck, rubber-stamp congress he controls to approve a flurry of controversial laws that further tighten restrictions on the press, censor the Internet, constrict the activities of civil society, extend government control over universities, and curb political expression. Also, the congress passed new laws to authorize nationalization of domestic- and foreign-owned banks, and to reconfigure governance structures to bypass state and city entities and place more direct power in the executive branch.

Most significantly, the lame-duck legislature voted to essentially strip itself of power by handing Chávez authority to rule by decree for 18 months, including over social spending, finance, urban assistance and planning, and international affairs. Chávez now controls all affairs of the state unimpeded in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections. He can act unfettered, free from annoying democratic checks and balances.

Teodoro Petkoff, a Venezuelan-guerilla-turned-newspaper editor wrote, “This castrates the next National Assembly. Chávez has begun to take the path of dictatorship.”

Meanwhile, according to The Washington Post, Chávez said about his new decree powers: “They will not be able to create even one law, the little Yankees. Let’s see how they are going to make laws now.”

Chávez’s recent round of repressive actions should be a wake-up call. It is not too late.

In response to critics who charge he is assuming dictatorial powers to thwart the will of the majority, Chávez said, “They’re calling me a dictator? They’re the dictators, those who are crazy for installing the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie once again in Venezuela – but we’ll never again allow them.”

And where does the United States stand on this authoritarian tide in the Western Hemisphere? Regarding the Obama administration, Leopoldo Lopez, former Caracas district mayor and a leader of the Venezuelan opposition, said, “I don’t see a clear policy. On issues like human rights and the loss of ground on democracy, I don’t see much.”

Confronted by a serious setback in which the majority of voters supported his political opposition, Chávez is crowding the space for civil society and abridging human rights. But the Obama administration is quiet; its statements moderated, modest, and modulated. That’s simply the wrong policy.

I am told that the Obama administration wants to avoid any intervention, rhetorical or otherwise, that might be seen as America being in the regime change business. Due to President Bush’s rhetorical overreach and U.S. floundering in Afghanistan and Iraq, it perhaps is understandable that the Obama administration would want to be more modest on the March of Freedom and more cautious on championing human rights. Perhaps. But for two years America’s heedful, halting, and hesitant policy on democracy has contributed to the stall of democracy’s advance around the world.

Democracy must rise from the people of Venezuela, not be imposed from outside.

Democracy must rise from the people of Venezuela, not be imposed from outside. Its exact form and facilities will be an outgrowth of the history, heritage, and habits of the Venezuelan people and not an identical copy of any other country’s practices and procedures. But the Venezuelan people, like people everywhere, seek liberty. They want the freedom to seek their own destiny and to exercise their civil and political rights under the rule of law, not limited by the repressive hand of an authoritarian government.

While the door is continuing to close on human rights and democracy in Venezuela, it is not completely shut. The will and democratic spirit of most Venezuelans were demonstrated in the legislative vote last fall.  The political opposition is hoping that Chávez’s latest maneuvers will be seen for what they are: a desperate, dictatorial power grab. How Venezuelans deal with that leading up to the 2012 election will depend in part on the attention paid to their situation by their neighbors in the Americas.

President Obama should heed the words of another young Democratic president whose election signaled a generational change. In his inaugural address, President John Kennedy made a clarion call for America’s continued commitment to human rights at home and abroad when he said, “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

It is those rights, and the institutions and practices that protect them, that have made America exceptional. Fidelity to those rights and our commitment to support them abroad is our right and our responsibility.

The Venezuelan people are struggling under difficult circumstances. They are standing up to growing authoritarianism. A majority has spoken. Chávez’s recent round of repressive actions should be a wake-up call. It is not too late.  The United States should provide leadership in the Western Hemisphere and principled support for democracy and human rights in Venezuela.

Richard S. Williamson is a principal at Salisbury Strategies and a Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He has served as an ambassador and U.S. representative in several capacities to the United Nations, as an assistant secretary of State, and as assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs in the White House for President Ronald Reagan.

FURTHER READING: Williamson also considers the Obama administration’s foreign policy in “Turning a Blind Eye to Egypt” and discusses “Somaliland and the March of Freedom,” while Roger Noriega reveals “Chávez the Cocaine Capo” and wonders “Will the U.S. Hand Chávez a License to Kill?” Noriega also explains “Why Is Hugo Chávez Afraid of the U.S. Congress?” and outlines “Chávez’s Secret Nuclear Program.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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