August 13, 2004
By Peter Brookes
Sunday is a red-letter day for democracy and for the price
of oil: Vene zuelans vote on a referendum on whether to recall
President Hugo Chavez.
Long a friend of the United States and since 1958 one of Latin
America's most stable democracies, Venezuela stands at a
crossroads, headed for either democracy or Cuban-style
Elected fair and square in 1998, Chavez took office with
sky-high popularity on a reform platform. But he has since donned
the cloak of political strongman, run the economy into the ground
and helped roil world oil markets. Plus, he's a good buddy of
Cuba's Fidel Castro.
"Dictator" isn't used very often to describe Latin American
leaders anymore - beyond Castro, that is. But Chavez, a cashiered
army colonel who was once jailed for his leading role in a 1992
military coup, could make it two.
Though now highly unpopular (30 percent approval), Chavez may
well survive the no-confidence vote. Polling is expected to be rife
with voter intimidation, fraud and other voting irregularities.
Certainly, his record to date makes that chicanery seem likely.
He has already rewritten the Constitution to give himself more
power, sucked up power over the state oil company (PDVSA) and
stacked lower and Supreme Court(s).
He's also made a good start on purging the armed forces,
misusing them for partisan political purposes and social programs.
Threats to freedom of the press include physical attacks on
The fractious opposition has mostly been peaceful - though a
botched, bloodless coup nearly toppled Chavez two years ago. But
his misrule has pushed political and class tensions to such a fever
pitch that some fear civil war.
El Presidente has also made a shambles of Venezuela's already
impoverished economy. Per-capita income has dropped 25 percent
since 1998, propelling the economy backward to the 1950s. Inflation
is running at a household budget-busting 30 percent, unemployment
hovers at 18 percent and 33 percent live in extreme poverty despite
massive social programs.
And that's had worldwide repercussions, because Venezuela is a
major oil-producing nation - the world's fifth-largest, with one of
the biggest energy reserves outside the Middle East. It provides 15
percent of U.S. oil needs, making it one of our top four oil
suppliers (after Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico).
Even now, the possibility of another Venezuelan oil strike
continues to keep the oil market skittish, helping keep prices at
record $45-a-barrel levels.
Adding insult to injury, Chavez has also encouraged OPEC to
raise its prices, too. In one of his anti-American fits of
rhetorical rage, El Presidente has even threatened to cut off oil
supplies to the United States. That would certainly he a blow to
the U.S. economy (even with this week's welcome Saudi announcement
of increased oil supply.)
But then, Chavez is a big chum of Cuba's communist Cold
War-holdover, Fidel Castro. (He's also been friendly in the past
with Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Khaddafy.) In
exchange for getting Caracas oil on favorable terms, Havana is
providing doctors and teachers - and military advisers. Venezuela
is also knee-deep in Cuban intelligence (DGI) officers.
There's no telling what Castro's political plans for Venezuela
might be. Chavez already has stated his desire to unite Latin
America in a Castro-inspired campaign against U.S. policies. And
U.S. officials have expressed concern that Chavez's government is
supporting the Colombian narcoterrorist FARC rebels.
Democracy is under assault. Chavez is a throwback to the
military strongmen who once ruled Venezuela. What Chavez calls his
"Bolivarian Revolution" (after Latin American independence leader
Simon Bolivar) is in fact fashioned in part on Castro's Cuban
Washington has supported the referendum as a democratic solution
to Venezuela's political turmoil - one that offers the possibility
of peaceful regime change. But with Chavez in charge, it would be
shocking if the voting were free and fair.
Unfettered international election monitoring should be a
prerequisite, but it's unlikely. Chavez has insisted on stringent
controls over any poll observers. The (Jimmy) Carter Center and
Organization of American States will field teams, but the European
Union declined to participate under these restrictions. (In a
hysterical effort to add "international credibility" to the
referendum, Chavez's election monitor invitee list does include
Barbra Streisand and Michael Moore.)
If the referendum turns out to be flawed - or if Chavez resorts
to "extra-constitutional" actions - the global community should
withhold Venezuela's international privileges until the democratic
process is honored.
For instance, the United States should encourage the World Bank
to suspend all loans to the Venezuelan government. And the OAS
should consider suspending Venezuela's membership in the group.
Latin America has made great strides in embracing freedom and
democracy. Today, 22 of 23 Latin American countries are considered
to be democratic. (Cuba is the exception.) But some states,
especially those with leftist-leaning leaders and economic problems
(such as Ecuador and Argentina), might folow Venezuela's path. This
would be a significant setback for the hemisphere and its
The U.S. and the international community should stand shoulder
to shoulder in defense of Venezuela's proud democratic traditions
and aspirations. With other Latin American democracies leading the
way, the United States should help ensure that the term Latin
American dictator is relegated to the dustbin of history once and
Peter Brookes, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, served
in Latin America while on active duty in the U.S. Navy.
First appeared in the New York Post
Sunday is a red-letter day for democracy and for the price of oil: Vene zuelans vote on a referendum on whether to recall President Hugo Chavez.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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