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A Little Fidel in Caracas

December 18, 2004

In 1992, Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez learned the hard way that a military coup was the wrong way to seize power when his attempt to rule Venezuela fizzled, landing him in jail. Seven years later, Chavez "converted" to democracy, and his fortune changed. He won the presidency.

Since then, Chavez and his cronies have been busy converting Venezuela's nascent democracy into a dictatorship. While paying lip service to democratic values, they have gradually been stripping Venezuelans of their basic rights and freedoms. The protests of other governments and of human rights organizations, meanwhile, have fallen on deaf ears.

Before winning an August referendum on his rule, Chavez promised to mend his authoritarian ways. If anything, his triumph seems to have emboldened him. Exercising his control over the National Assembly, Chavez is systematically clamping down on democratic freedoms.

Revisions to the penal code include longer prison terms for those convicted of libel and indefensible limitations on the public's right to criticize public officials. A particularly dodgy measure would make it a criminal act to bang pots and other kitchen utensils during public protests, a timeless form of political expression in South America. This week, his operatives in the National Assembly appointed 17 judges and 32 alternate judges to an expanded Supreme Court, further solidifying his control over the judicial branch of the Venezuela government.

A purge in the armed forces after a failed April 2002 coup attempt has left the military firmly on Chavez's side. Now, the only independent institutions in the country are some labor unions, the Catholic Church and the nation's beleaguered media. Last week, Chavez signed a new "social responsibility" law that forbade radio and TV stations to air inappropriate sex and violence between the hours of 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. Ostensibly, the law is intended to protect children; in reality, it will allow the government to fine and close down any station it finds objectionable. The law leaves the definition of violence up to government officials. A station showing news images of a "violent" protest against Chavez, for example, could be shut down under the new law.

The international community has little leverage on Caracas. That's largely because Chavez exports plenty of oil and anti-American rhetoric, which gives him considerable power in his dealings with both the developed world and his Latin American neighbors.

As increasingly frustrated democratic forces in Venezuela run out of options, the best way to prevent social unrest in that deeply divided country is for other left-leaning South American presidents -- like Ricardo Lagos of Chile, Nestor Kirchner of Argentina and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil -- to speak up. They need to convince Chavez that mimicking his buddy Fidel Castro is incompatible with the region's commitment to democracy.

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