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Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2003 / 25 Adar I, 5763

Robert W. Tracinski

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Dictatorship by the numbers | The leaders of the Venezuelan opposition have demanded immediate new elections to replace would-be dictator Hugo Chavez, arguing that the referendum scheduled for this August will give Chavez time to establish a dictatorship and render elections meaningless. These fears were dismissed by the international press as paranoia. Now they are being thoroughly vindicated.

How do you consolidate a dictatorship in the face of upcoming elections?

There are five basic steps:

1. Muzzle the independent media.
2. Use economic controls to starve your opposition.
3. Remove any prominent contenders for your office.
4. Terrorize the rank and file of the opposition.
5. Intimidate any foreign countries that might intervene.

In recent weeks, Hugo Chavez has taken all five steps.

Step one: Chavez has initiated formal proceedings to revoke the licenses of independent, privately owned television and radio stations. Meanwhile, his political militias, the Bolivarian Circles, have staged violent attacks on independent media outlets. After all, elections don't mean much if all people watch is propaganda on state-run television.

Step two: Chavez has used a moratorium on currency conversion -- needed to pay for imported goods -- to punish his opponents. Vowing "no dollars for coup-mongers," he has used this power, for example, to prevent opposition newspapers from importing ink. After all, elections don't mean much if your opponents are too busy worrying where their next meal is coming from.

Step three: Venezuelan police acting on Chavez's orders have arrested Carlos Fernandez, the head of Venezuela's largest business federation and a leader of the recent anti-Chavez strike, charging him with rebellion and sabotage. Another strike leader, Carlos Ortega, head of Venezuela's largest labor union, has gone into hiding. In one move, Chavez has neutralized two potential rivals for the presidency. After all, elections don't mean much if all of the other candidates are in jail.

Step four: Last week, four protesters were kidnapped while returning from an anti-Chavez rally. They were blindfolded, tortured and shot execution-style. Some of the victims were witnesses of a previous pro-Chavez political killing, and they had planned to testify against the shooter. Consider the message sent to the opposition when the mutilated bodies of their friends start showing up in the city streets. After all, elections don't mean much if your opponents are afraid to leave their houses and walk to the polls.

Step five: A few days ago, Chavez delivered a speech denouncing Spain, Colombia and the United States for interfering in Venezuela. Tuesday morning in Caracas, the diplomatic missions of Spain and Colombia were bombed. Credit was claimed by a splinter pro-Chavez group -- but this was not a bunch of kids cooking up homemade bombs in their basement. The bombs were powerful plastic explosives, the kind of weapons that are difficult to obtain without government complicity.

Note that these extralegal armed groups are the ones attacking TV stations and foreign embassies. This is a lesson Chavez seems to have learned from his ally Yasser Arafat. The lesson is to use terror -- but to keep it at arms length so you can deny direct involvement. Arafat's little dictatorship has a three-tiered structure: there is the official quasi-government, the Palestinian Authority; then the Tanzim, a militia loyal to Arafat and his Fatah faction; then there are groups like the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a terrorist cell used to do the really dirty work. Chavez has the national guard, the main military group under his control; then he has his street militias, the Bolivarian Circles; and now he has the Coordinadora Simon Bolivar, which claimed credit for Tuesday's bombings.

There have been no attacks on U.S. assets in Venezuela -- yet. But while the Bush administration is completely absorbed in diplomatic wrangling over Iraq, Hugo Chavez is turning Venezuela into a junior member of the Axis of Evil.

This administration likes to deal with its crises one at a time, farming them out to mealy-mouthed State Department functionaries in the meantime. But crises tend to come in bunches, as with Iraq, North Korea and Venezuela today. And they need to be addressed head-on before they get worse.

The administration's delay in taking strong action against Hugo Chavez is allowing a dictator to consolidate his control of an important oil-producing country in America's backyard, creating a problem that will be much bigger by the time the United States decides to confront it. And more important, further delay in ousting Chavez will probably mean that a lot of brave Venezuelans are going to die needlessly.

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