BY JOACHIM BAMRUD
Violent attacks against Globovision, following trumped-up charges of legal violations. Stripping away power from elected local officials that are critical of the president. Nationalizations of coffee roasters.
Welcome to Hugo Chavez’ world.
Unlike Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Chavez has used the electoral process to try to gain legitimacy for his policies, Douglas Schoen and Michael Rowan point out in their excellent book, The Threat Closer to Home.
“Chavez's solution…was to launch a democratic coup, to use the electoral process for undemocratic ends,” they write. “Chavez has justified every encroachment on democracy – whether centralizing power in the presidency, extending presidential terms, downgrading independent institutions such as the legislature and judiciary, eliminating effective checks and balances on executive power, controlling the electoral system, taking private property, criminalizing criticism of his authority, or trampling upon the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and dissent – as a further perfection of it.”
Chavez' latest success was the February referendum on his re-election, which Chavez officially won by seven points. “If there had been free elections, I’m convinced they would have lost,” civil rights activist Maria Corina Machado told a recent meeting in Miami organized by the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy. Machado leads Sumate, a civic society group that promotes democracy in Venezuela.
However, it is a process that is deeply flawed. There has not been an independent audit of Venezuelan elections since August 2003, as Machado points out. Meanwhile, a new electoral law formalizes the lack of any independence. “The new electoral law…makes all illegal abuses legal,” she told the Miami meeting.
As a result, few Venezuelans have any faith in the constant elections taking place in the country, she says. She points to one poll that shows 39 percent of Venezuelans believe that their vote is not secret. She believes the number is even higher, but thanks to the climate of fear and reprisals, many Venezuelans are afraid to tell pollsters their true feelings.
STATE, FEAR GROWS
With the constant nationalizations, the number of Venezuelans who depend on the state for their living is growing – further undermining those who want to stand out in opposition to Chavez. “In Venezuela it will be harder and harder to say [critical] things,” Machado says.
Meanwhile, while democracy and the market have been weakened, corruption and crime have jumped during Chavez’ decade in power, Schoen and Rowan point out. “Rather than fight corruption as he had promised in his campaign speeches, Chavez became an expert practitioner,” they write. “Since he took over as the nation’s leader, Venezuela’s homicide rate has tripled, according to Chavez’s own statistics.”
The corruption not only means that Chavez and his cronies have gotten richer, but that funds allocated for poor have been repeatedly re-directed. “Independent studies estimate that the amounts taken from Venezuelan poverty and development funds by middlemen, brokers, and subcontractors – all of whom charge an “administrative” cost for passing on the funds – range as high as 80 percent to 90 percent,” Schoen and Rowan write. “By contrast, the U.S. government, the World Bank, nongovernmental organizations, and international charities limit their administrative costs to 20 percent of project funds.”
Like Zimbabwe, Venezuela has suffered from illegal confiscations of farms by Chavez peasants that knew nothing about how to properly run them. In the first four years of Chavez’ administration, Venezuela’s cattle production fell from 14 million to 10 million, according to The Threat Closer to Home.
”Chavez worsened the food crisis by tightening price controls, rendering it impossible for the remaining private farms and ranches to make a profit, and then prosecuting them for hoarding product or not producing anything,” the authors say.
The wave of nationalizations has come at a high cost for Venezuela. “These property confiscations, expropriations, and acquisitions cost the government of Venezuela untold billions of dollars as the efficiency and effectiveness of the economy continued – and continues – to decline,” Schoen and Rowan write.
Case in point: Telecom company CANTV and electricity company EDC – both nationalized in 2007 – have become inefficient, marred by corruption, administrative chaos and service deficiencies, Venezuelans complain.
From Peru to Honduras, Chavez has shown that he’s not afraid to use his power to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. While Peru can blame itself for plenty of its social problems in its poor southern region, experts also blame Chavez for supporting the recent violence in that area. Meanwhile, nearly all sectors of Honduras – including the private sector, congress, Supreme Court, Catholic Church and armed forces – say that Manuel Zelaya planned a Chavez-style government with indefinite re-elections until he was ousted on June 28.
Chavez is now more of a threat to the United States than Osama bin Laden, according to Schoen and Rowan. “Chavez arguably presents a greater threat to America than Osama bin Laden does on a day-to-day basis,” they argue. “This Latin American potentate, unknown to the majority of the American public, is a far greater threat to our national security than the cleric with the long gray beard, the easily recognized religious zealot, Osama bin Laden.”
While Chavez has been weakened by lower oil prices, this book clearly shows that it would be a mistake to underestimate Venezuela’s president and his desire to advance an anti-American, radical agenda across the world.
Even as Venezuela’s oil production falls to five-year lows, Chavez still controls a massive war chest from the billions of dollars in oil revenue the country receives each year. And that’s bad news for the United States, Schoen and Rowan say. ”Chavez has the means and motivation to harm the United States in a way that no other country – and perhaps no other terrorist organization – could,” they argue.
Venezuela’s leader has more soldiers on active and reserve duty than any other nation in Latin America, has forged a strategic military and oil alliance with terrorist sponsor Iran and funds a Communist insurgency against the United States, Schoen and Rowan say. He has also let the Hezbollah terrorist group set up a base in Venezuela and supported the FARC terrorists in neighboring Colombia, they add.
Meanwhile, Chavez has freely thrown around oil dollars in Latin America in an effort to boost his influence. “Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez has spent or committed an estimated $110 billion – some say twice the amount needed to eliminate poverty in Venezuela forever – in more than thirty countries to advance his anti-American agenda,” Schoen and Rowan argue.
Knowing full well that high oil prices are the key to sustaining that strategy, Chavez has been aggressive in pushing for quotas and other measures that could achieve increased barrel prices. “Americans think ExxonMobil is earning obscene profits, but its CEO’s penchant for increasing the company’s earnings is mild compared with Venezuela’s,” they write. “Of all the members of OPEC…Chavez has lobbied most aggressively for the highest prices since its founding.”
And Chavez influence in OPEC is considerable, thanks to his close alliance with Iran. “Iran and Venezuela are working together to drive up the price of oil in hopes of crippling the American economy and enhancing their hegemonies in the Middle East and Latin America,” Schoen and Rowan point out.
As The Threat Closer to Home shows, Chavez’s agenda has long been in the making. As far back as his adolescence, the Venezuelan strongman started sympathizing with Communist ideas. Since politics were traditionally allowed in Venezuela’s armed forces, Chavez learned to operate covertly during his career up through the 1992 failed coup he led. ”Perhaps among all recent world leaders, only the career KGB agent Vladimir Putin compares in talent for, and experience in, calculated deception on a grand scale,” Schoen and Rowan write.
Once he was in power in 1999 – after his surprise victory in 1998 – he systematically went about destroying political opposition and the private sector. Democracy was undermined by rigged elections and attacks against independent media, while the private sector was undermined by a wave of nationalizations and investor-hostile policies.
THE U.S. RESPONSE
So what should the United States do against the Chavez threat? Schoen and Rowan recommend four policies: Reducing significantly the oil purchased from Venezuela; imposing sanctions against Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism, drugs and crime; support the US-Colombia FTA to strengthen Colombia against the Chavez-supported FARC terrorism and expand the arms embargo against Venezuela.
They also argue for a more pro-active U.S. policy in Latin America aimed at promoting democracy and market capitalism through a Marshall-type plan.
Douglas Schoen and Michael Rowan have written an excellent book that clearly shows how dangerous Chavez is, not only to Venezuela, but also the rest of the world. It provides the key background for truly understanding Chavez’ agenda, actions and policies.
While the ouster of Zelaya may be his most severe defeat so far, Chavez clearly cannot be underestimated, as The Threat Closer to Home brilliantly shows.
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