November 22, 2007

November 22, 2007 | Commentary on International Organizations

Chavez under fire

How refreshing. After years of this man's odious and idiotic ranting on the international stage, someone finally told Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to put a sock in it. At last week's Ibero-American summit in Santiago, Chile, King Juan Carlos of Spain was outraged by Mr. Chavez's attacks on former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar as a "fascist." The king angrily told Mr. Chavez "Why don't you just shut up!" Yes, indeed. It would have been nice if someone had told Mr. Chavez to "shut up" when he called President Bush "the devil" at the U.N. General Assembly last year. It is past time the international community starts challenging Mr. Chavez's shenanigans.

The fact is that the Venezuelan president is not just a clown, but he is a dangerous one. One observer characterized him as a malignant narcissist, a category that would probably also fit Adolf Hitler, whose name is too often taken in vain, but in this case it seems to fit. Everything is about being the center of attention, about them and their power, and they are willing to sacrifice the future of a nation for it.

Because of Mr. Chavez, the United States is now challenged in the Southern Hemisphere as it has not been since the fall of Communism. In fact, the Venezuelan strongman is promising to restore Communism, denouncing free-market capitalism as a failure. Over the past eight years, he has been taking inspiration from the example of Fidel Castro, and not only that, but he is himself inspiring Bolivia's President Evo Morales and others to follow in his footsteps. The Chavez revolution, though, has been a gradual process, which has allowed it to remain out of the focus of the international community.

It does not take much to see that what Mr. Chavez is selling is snake oil, an illusion mainly built on Venezuela's oil wealth, not on any alternative economic model. Venezuelans are no better off; the economy is in shambles; and citizens have lost important political freedoms. Venezuela no longer has an independent judiciary, nor does it have a free press or viable political opposition. All power is centered around the increasingly authoritarian presidency.

Ironically, after 50 years of Communism, the impoverished people of Cuba are longing for change. According to a poll just released by the International Republican Institute, more than 70 percent of Cubans believe a free-market economy would deliver a better life for them. Venezuelans, however, are still buying a bill of goods, and many of them love it when their leader stands up to more powerful countries like Spain and the United States.

In fact, on Dec. 2, the world might well hear the death knell for Venezuelan democracy. On that day, voters will go to the polls to mark their ballot in a constitutional referendum that would give Mr. Chavez even more sweeping powers. In addition to the oil industry, Mr. Chavez will also control the central bank. He will be able to override the parliament on political nominees. And he will be able to declare an indefinite "state of emergency." At a strapping 52 years of age, Mr. Chavez could be with us almost as long as Mr. Castro.

If the Venezuelans vote in favor, or if the results are fixed (as they are likely to be), Mr. Chavez will have perpetrated a constitutional coup that is likely to be emulated in Bolivia and elsewhere in the region.

There is, however, opposition growing in Venezuela to his frontal assault on political liberties. Student demonstrations in recent weeks in the center of Caracas have shown defiance against the regime that is truly encouraging. How long they will be allowed to go on is a different matter.

So far, the U.S. government has treated Venezuela mostly as an annoying public diplomacy problem. It is more than that, however. It is a national security problem. Mr. Chavez's ambitions and resources extend his influence. Venezuela's oil wealth gives him the means to build alliances, aimed at forcing American companies and political influence out. He is seeking to build strategic alliances not just in the Caribbean, but also with China, Iran and North Korea - and anyone else who wants to make common cause against the United States. During his rule, Venezuela has also become one of the principal transit points for drugs headed to the United States. In the 1930s, Europe and the United States treated Hitler as a bad joke. We should not make that mistake again.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Organizations

First appeared in the Washington Times