As presidents go, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is a very thin-skinned one.
After the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa described him as "laughable," Chavez threatened to welcome Vargas Llosa with "loaded cannons." This was at the beginning of Chavez's five-year term, which he has since constitutionally extended to six years, with an option for a second term.
At the time it sounded like a little Latin tit-for-tat. Yet the menacing tone returned. When some Venezuelans objected to the new constitution expanding Chavez's power and shrinking economic and social freedoms, their president warned "I will put my boots on and unsheathe my sword."
Recently a former Peruvian presidential candidate, Lourdes Flores, on a visit to Caracas, compared Chavez to deposed Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, whom she called "authoritarian and dictatorial." The Venezuelan president immediately shot back that "foreigners who insult Venezuela will be expelled."
This is not xenophobia gone amok. This is extreme lack of tolerance for criticism. Its effect is to further polarize the Venezuelan society.
Trying to assess the popular feelings about the president is no easy task. Television watching is not helpful. To the contrary, it is most confusing. One mediocre channel is supportive of the government, the other 10 national broadcasters are critical or outright hostile to Chavez, with Globovision, a Venezuelan imitation of CNN, being the most professional and the most effective. But on any given day, the president strikes like thunder on all 11 broadcasts with some embarrassingly erratic and populist speech-cum-chat. These appearances are called \o7 "cadenas," \f7 which, ironically, is Spanish for both channels and chains. Depending on where the Venezuelan viewers sit, they see it as one or the other.
Chavez's supporters wish they could have the president's ear so that he would solve all their problems--for them \o7 cadenas \f7 are channels of privileged communication from the Great Communicator himself. Chavez's opponents say that he is a Castro totalitarian monster, about to gag and handcuff every member of civil society. Of course, this group sees \o7 cadenas \f7 as meaning chains.
One satirical writer took a more sophisticated approach: He suggested that although Chavez irritates his opponents when he speaks, he creates even more anxiety when he keeps quiet. Silence from the presidential palace, he says, is like silence from the playpen: It makes every parent panic.
Venezuelan human rights activists are worried that while Chavez is not a dictator, he is slowly dismantling all the institutions that provide checks and balances of his ever-growing power and this, they say, is where the danger is. The United States has mostly ignored Chavez's behavior--in spite of Venezuela being the third-largest oil provider to the U.S.--because it rightly identified the pattern as nose-thumbing at the \o7 gringos. \f7 But it may become increasingly difficult for Washington to ignore him.
With this "thou shalt not criticize me" attitude, Chavez appears to be crossing the line between an erratic behavior and an authoritarian one.
His opponents certainly cross the line themselves. They do not shy away from taking shots at him, and they even do it in the U.S. media. Last month, a mysterious group, Junta of National Emergency, bought a one-page ad in the Washington Times to denounce Chavez. The long text obsessively warning of "Castro-comunismo" presented a case for the resignation of Chavez and his team. Extracts from the ad were read on that evening's news and circulated among the e-opposition--even a temporary visitor like myself got it.
What is to be done? Watch for the slightest signs from Caracas. Because his \o7 modus operandi \f7 is to first modify the law and then use it to grab even more power. Hugo Chavez may be on a collision course with democracy itself. His reign looks increasingly like a chronicle of a dictatorship foretold.