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Hugo Chavez -- mouth or menace?

Despite his anti-U.S. rhetoric and ambitions, the only country that Venezuela's president really threatens is his own.

December 02, 2007|Sergio Munoz | Sergio Munoz, a former Times editorial writer, is a contributing editor to the paper.

On Dec. 2, 1851, President Louis Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved the French National Assembly and asked the people of France to make him their sole ruler. Unsatisfied with the new presidential powers granted by his citizens, he called for still more power in another plebiscite a year later, and the French made him Emperor Napoleon III.

Today, 156 years to the day that Napoleon first sought unrivaled power, President Hugo Chavez could become the sole ruler of Venezuela if Venezuelan voters answer his call to approve 69 constitutional amendments in a referendum.

The German philosopher Hegel observed that all facts of great importance in history occur twice. Later on, Karl Marx amended Hegel's principle, saying that the facts may occur twice but "the first time as tragedy and the second as farce."

Napoleon III used his new powers to consolidate his rule at home and expand his empire throughout Europe.

Judging by his hyperbolic rhetoric, Chavez also wants to extend his influence outside of his country. The former paratrooper doesn't seem satisfied to simply be the cacique of Venezuela. Chavez instead wants to use his country's oil wealth to become Latin America's most important power broker and an influential player on the international stage. The Venezuelan president has repeatedly said that he wants to bring the U.S. empire to its knees.

Does Chavez have the military and financial resources to play in the same league as the U.S. and other world powers?

Venezuela's 2006 defense budget amounted to less than $2 billion, about 1.3% of its gross domestic product. His combined armed services -- army, navy and air force -- number about 82,000, according to GlobalSecurity.org. In contrast, the U.S. has more troops in Iraq than Chavez has in all three branches of his military.

But does Chavez pose any military threat to his neighbors? Not to Brazil. Last year, it spent about $13.7 billion on defense, or about 2.6% of its GDP. Its combined military force totals nearly 310,000. Colombia, whose defense budget last year was $3 billion, or 3.4% of its GDP, need not fear Chavez either. According to the Colombian Embassy in Washington, the combined forces of Colombia's army, navy and air force number about 300,000.

Economically, Venezuela has vast oil riches, earning more than $30 billion in oil export revenues last year alone. But its gross domestic product tells a different story. The International Monetary Fund ranks Venezuela the 37th-richest among all nations, while the World Bank puts it at 36th. By contrast, Brazil and Mexico are included in the organizations' lists of the top 15 richest countries in the world, though their poverty rates are quite high.

As for the U.S., Venezuela depends more on America than we do on it. For instance, Citgo, a refinery and distribution network in the U.S., is a major revenue source for the Chavez government. The country is also heavily dependent on U.S.-made components to keep its oil industry operating, and it imports vast amounts of American consumer goods. Clearly, Venezuela is in no position to push us around economically, even though it is the fourth-largest exporter of oil to the U.S.

So, if Venezuela doesn't have the armed forces or the economic resources to pose a real threat to the U.S. or even its neighbors, should Washington be concerned with Chavez?

After nine years in power, Chavez's most powerful weapon in global politics has been his mouth. After such early stumbles as approving of an aborted coup against Chavez in 2002, the Bush administration, to its credit, has learned from the mistakes of the Reagan administration's approach to Nicaragua in the 1980s and not blown out of proportion the capacity of the latest "comandante" to do harm outside his country.

For Venezuelans, the problem is not so much Chavez's words as his actions. Chavez is most dangerous to his own people because he's intent on doing away with democracy.

Having won the popular vote in four elections and plebiscites since 1999, Chavez is clearly a favorite among certain segments of the population, and he has used the country's oil wealth to sustain and build on his popularity. Oil export revenues pay for social and economic campaigns called "missions," one of which provides free reading, writing and arithmetic lessons to more than 1.5 million adults. Assisted by Cuban doctors, his government provides primary healthcare in the country's poorest neighborhoods.

But this has come at a price. No other leader in the hemisphere, save for Fidel Castro, controls the executive, legislative, judiciary and electoral functions of government as thoroughly as does Chavez. His goal, according to Venezuelan publisher Teodoro Petkoff is to extend his control deeper into the country's society.

Petkoff believes that Chavez is already close to that goal. Venezuela's national education system, for instance, has become a vehicle for the indoctrination of the so-called socialism of the 21st century. Universities may lose their autonomy and have to answer to the state. Although he says he doesn't want a media monopoly, Chavez is quick to punish his critics, as he did RCTV, briefly withdrawing its broadcasting license after it aired attacks on his policies.

But there's a bigger danger. Many Venezuelans believe that the proposed constitutional amendments, if passed, will turn the country's traditionally apolitical military into a political force in the United Socialist Party that Chavez wants to create. That happened in Cuba right after its revolution. Hopefully, voters will not let it happen in Venezuela.

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