March 5, 2004

March 5, 2004 | Commentary on Latin America

Venezuela Erupting

While the world's attention is focused on the departure of elected despot President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti, worse problems are brewing to the south. Venezuela's controversial president, Hugo Chavez, is provoking citizen anger by blocking a petition drive for a referendum on his dictatorial rule.

Having rejiggered electoral regulations in his favor, Chavez risks plunging Venezuela into a civil war. During the last week, his troops have shot seven unarmed demonstrators to death, and Milos Alcalay, his ambassador to the U.N., resigned in protest. Chavez is betting that the Bush administration will not react, fearful that he will cutoff petroleum exports to America and its allies.

But U.S. officials should not shrink from challenging this bully.

They should bring his undemocratic actions before the Organization of American States for debate, freeze accounts of law-breaking Venezuelan officials, and negotiate alternate petroleum supply arrangements with other countries. If they don't, Chavez will have carte blanche to consolidate his authoritarian rule and destabilize other governments and markets in the neighborhood.

Venezuela once prospered from its state oil industry. But over the past 25 years, it has evaded market reforms and suffered steady economic decline. In 1998, voters elected Chavez, a former coup-plotter and cashiered Lieutenant Colonel, because he promised - like Aristide in Haiti - to end corruption and lift up the poor.

Instead, Chavez had the constitution rewritten to insure his stay in power and bribed corrupt military officers to insure loyalty. Venezuela now rivals Haiti in poverty and underemployment. While the country's former middle class does not want to revisit past failures, few want to see Venezuela turned into a Haitian slum or a Cuban-style workers' paradise. But that seems to be the president's intent.

Like Fidel Castro, Chavez has made the armed forces the lead agency in Venezuela's government, isolating civilians as well as municipal and departmental (state) officials. While local police live in barrios and may be unwilling to harm their neighbors, the army and national guard are protected by barracks and isolation from civilian contact.

Cuban intelligence and security specialists now reportedly march alongside soldiers, wearing Venezuelan uniforms and tattling on dissenters. They have also helped train so-called "Bolivarian Circles" partisan gangs that spy in neighborhoods, intimidate opponents and enforce political loyalty.

Outside Caracas, his military units allow Colombian FARC guerrillas to camp out and resupply in Venezuelan territory. And he reportedly provides Bolivia's leftist coca union leader Evo Morales with money and advice. Morales was partly responsible for the ouster of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003.

Ever since an uprising took Chavez temporarily out of power in April 2002, he has been tightening the noose on his political opponents. A year ago, citizens collected more than two million signatures to petition a referendum on his rule. But Chavez halted that effort, claiming that the existing National Electoral Council (CNE) lacked authority to make a decision.

In late December, after a new, more partisan council drew up fresh guidelines, opponents peacefully collected 3.4 million signatures, more than the 2.4 million required for a referendum. Although Chavez dismissed it as a "mega-fraud," he said he would accept the council's evaluation.

Behind schedule in approving the petition, the CNE invented new rules. On Feb. 24, it said that personal details, such as an address written in by anyone other than the signer, would invalidate signatures. Organization of American States (OAS) and Carter Center observer teams both criticized "excessive technicalities" challenging the will of the electorate. In fact, most Latin American countries do not require anything more than a signature to make a document legally binding.

On Feb. 27, the Chavez-dominated Electoral Council said that petition organizers would have to ask some 800,000 signers to reaffirm their signatures and provide fingerprints. Signers might risk harassment from Chavez's Bolivarian mobs and loss of government benefits - a gauntlet that could reduce the signature count below the required 2.4 million. The council's minority members walked out.

Now the referendum process is a waiting game to see which side will kick over the table. Neither the OAS nor the Carter Center have been willing to condemn the CNE or blame the Chavez regime for fueling civic unrest. Consumed with Haiti, the Bush administration has remained mum.

Failing to challenge Chavez could hasten a conflict between troops and civilians fed up with his tricks and ruses. Or it could embolden him to cut oil exports to the United States and its Caribbean allies as well as destabilize other countries in the region.

Instead of waiting for shoes to drop, those interested in saving Venezuela's shrinking democratic space should stand on principle. The OAS and the Carter Center should condemn Venezuela's electoral council for changing the rules after the signatures were collected. They should urge the National Assembly to impeach the council if it will not reconsider its decision.

The Bush administration should build a case for suspending Venezuela's membership in the OAS based on the regime's violation of the Democratic Charter. It should also consider revoking visas and freezing bank accounts of Venezuelan officials involved in corruption and human-rights abuse.

Finally, Washington should start negotiating access to alternate sources of petroleum in case Chavez shuts off supplies. If we want Caribbean and Latin American allies to stand with us in protesting his actions, we should insure that help is not hostage to oil.

While none of these efforts will stop Chavez from implementing his plans, they may keep him constrained, minimize the impact of his actions, and encourage Venezuelan democrats not to lose hope.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Related Issues: Latin America

First appeared on the National Review Online