Jewish World Review August 19, 2004 / 2 Elul, 5764

Jonathan Gurwitz

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Venezuela's happy leader following Castro's lead | The second happiest man in the Western Hemisphere this week is Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. A former paratrooper, Chávez led a military coup in 1992 in which 18 people were killed and for which he was incarcerated two years.

Politically rehabilitated and running on a populist platform, he was elected to a five-year term as president in 1998. After a rewrite of the Venezuelan constitution in which Chávez's hand figured prominently, he was re-elected to a six-year term in 2000. Unofficially he has said he plans to remain in power until 2021.

Large segments of the Venezuelan population have grown weary of Chávez's autocratic style: his antagonism of labor unions, business groups and the Catholic Church; his penchant for suppressing the independent media and political dissent; his appointment of political cronies to run the judiciary, the military and the state-owned oil company; and his uncomfortably close relations with an international rogue's gallery, from narcoterrorists in neighboring Colombia to the extremist mullahs ruling Iran.

In accordance with the provisions of the new constitution, a broad coalition of political parties and civic organizations brought forward a recall referendum on Chávez's presidency. Overcoming a series of legal obstacles thrown up by Chávez, undeterred by violence and intimidation from the government and Chavista paramilitary groups, that referendum took place Sunday.

The level of public participation in the referendum is a testament to the democratic vitality of Venezuelan society, with voter turnout approaching 80 percent. That Chávez prevailed is not so much a credit to his popularity as it is to his ability to manipulate the political process in the worst traditions of Latin American dictatorships.

Chávez instituted a rapid naturalization process for more than 200,000 foreigners who in turn became instant Chávez supporters. He monopolized government-owned radio, television and newspaper outlets while harassing what's left of the independent media. He spent hundreds of millions of dollars in oil revenue on highly visible social programs that solidified the loyalty of Venezuela's poor, but which do nothing to solve the country's endemic economic problems.

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Yes, Chávez is a happy man, safely ensconced in the Miraflores presidential palace, confirmed by a referendum the Organization of American States and the Carter Center say was fair though the vote remains unaudited. Happy, because the opposition — which has followed the letter of the law throughout the referendum process — will likely respect the referendum's outcome unless allegations of massive fraud are proven.

The recent surge in oil prices that has enabled Chávez's social spending spree has also masked dangerous trends: the rapid devaluation of the bolivar, high inflation, a doubling of the unemployment rate, a precipitous fall in per capita income and a significant increase in poverty since 1998.

The great questions now are these: Can Venezuelan democracy survive another two years under Chávez? Will the remnants of a free press, an independent judiciary and political dissent endure until the next Venezuelan election, if there is a next election? Will democratic vitality and economic vibrancy persist, or will Venezuela go the way of Cuba?

Which brings us to the happiest man in the Western Hemisphere: Fidel Castro, who postponed the official celebration of his 78th birthday by two days to coincide with his protégé's triumph in Caracas. Cuba's media organs ironically lauded Chávez's victory as "proof of Venezuelan democracy," a system of government they are uniquely unqualified to evaluate.

They didn't suggest a similar referendum for el comandante as proof of Cuban democracy. Nor did they mention the 53,000 barrels of oil per day — more than $800 million per year at current prices — that Chávez subsidizes for Castro that keep the communist nation's moribund economy on life support.

Millions of Venezuelans signed and then re-signed petitions in the process that led to the recall referendum. The danger now is that Chávez will visit on them the same official oppression Castro has exacted on the 25,000 signatories of the Varela Project seeking democratic reform in Cuba, many of whom are now languishing in solitary confinement in Castro's gulag.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Gurwitz, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, is a co-founder and twice served as Director General of the Future Leaders of the Alliance program at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. In 1986 he was placed on the Foreign Service Register of the U.S. State Department. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, Jonathan Gurwitz