Thursday, April 24, 2003

Meddle With Mr. Chavez [Editorial]

Saturday, March 1, 2003

U.S. OFFICIALS long sought to play down the danger that Venezuelan President
Hugo Chavez poses by pointing out that his acts rarely matched his words. Mr.
Chavez, who was elected president after promising a socialist revolution for
Venezuela's poor majority, might talk about confiscating property, supporting
leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia or admiring Fidel Castro and Saddam
Hussein, but in practice he mostly remained within democratic boundaries.

Yet now the gap between Mr. Chavez's inflammatory rhetoric and his actions is
narrowing. Having survived a strike by his opposition, Mr. Chavez has proclaimed
2003 the "year of the offensive"; so far he has taken steps to bring the economy
under state control, eliminate independent media and decapitate the opposition.
One of the strike's three top leaders has been arrested, while another has gone
into hiding. Even more disturbing have been the unexplained murder of three
dissident soldiers and an anti-Chavez protester and the explosion of bombs
outside the Colombian and Spanish embassies. Government officials have denied
responsibility, but these acts, too, followed Mr. Chavez's words: his labeling
of dissident officers as "traitors" and his attacks on Colombia and Spain for

Without more meddling, and soon, Venezuela will likely see the collapse of what
was once one of Latin America's richest economies and strongest democracies. Mr.
Chavez appears to have tired of his half-baked populism; now he seems prepared
to destroy what remains of civil society and the private sector. He placed
strict controls on foreign currency and has vowed to take away the licenses of
private television stations that supported the opposition. He fired 16,000
employees of Venezuela's state oil company -- the country's economic lifeline --
and moved to bring an institution long known for its professionalism under his
personal control. Independent economists are forecasting a catastrophic drop in
Venezuela's economic output this year; some foresee the virtual disappearance of
the private sector. That would bring Venezuela far closer to Cuba, which maybe
shouldn't be a surprise: Mr. Castro, who is Mr. Chavez's closest ally,
reportedly has dispatched thousands of officials to Venezuela.

Spain recently joined with the United States, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Portugal
to support a negotiated political solution to the crisis through the mediation
of Cesar Gaviria, the secretary general of the Organization of American States
and a former president of Colombia. The opposition, which at times has supported
anti-democratic means of ousting Mr. Chavez, now endorses Mr. Gaviria's proposal
for a new presidential election or a referendum on Mr. Chavez's recall. The
current constitution would allow for a referendum to be held as early as August;
that may be the easiest and best way out. But Mr. Chavez knows he would very
likely lose a fair vote, and he will likely do everything possible to prevent
it. That's why it is essential that the Bush administration join with the "group
of friends" to insist that Mr. Chavez release his political prisoners, stop his
revolutionary "offensive" and commit to a decisive vote. It may be democracy's
last chance.