WHILE EUROPE TURNS RIGHT, LATIN AMERICA seems undecided at a crossroads where one path leads to free minds and free markets and the other turns back to caudillos and dictatorships, right or left.
What happens this Thursday in Venezuela will influence which path Latin America chooses for decades to come.
On Thursday up to a million Venezuelans are expected to take to the streets. Their protest march to Miraflores, the presidential palace in Caracas, marks the three-month anniversary of a similar march on April 11 that turned into a bloodbath.
That earlier march was to protest the ultra-Leftist policies of President Hugo Chavez Frias. He had been democratically elected in 1998, and the marchers believed Venezuela was a vibrant democracy with freedom of speech and assembly.
But as the marchers approached his palace, thugs began firing guns into the large throng of peaceful protestors. Fourteen of the unarmed marchers were killed and more than 100 were wounded. Between 60 and 70 people died later that day amid street violence and looting.
Videotape by local television stations showed that apparently at least some of these gunmen were Chavistas, as Chavez’s rabid supporters are called, and were members of his "Bolivarian Circles," as he calls his own Marxist militia version of Hitler Youth and SS storm troopers.
This private army of ideological thugs and bullies, according to Chavez critics in Venezuela’s National Assembly, has been illegally funded with government money, $4 billion of which has unaccountably vanished from the nation’s macroeconomic stabilization fund.
Chavez ignored a public outcry demanding the arrest of these killers, and to this day his government has stonewalled calls for a "truth commission" to objectively document what happened on April 11. As to the media and its videotapes, Chavez has threatened to take away the government broadcasting license of any TV station that dared to air what he decides is anti-government "propaganda."
Three days after the bloodbath, Venezuela’s military removed Chavez from power in a coup. (Chavez had been a paratrooper in the military, rather like French populist Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 1992 Chavez lost his uniform after leading a failed coup attempt…both coups prompting his wives to seek divorce.)
But 30 hours later, the military restored Chavez as Venezuela’s President, presumably after he promised to moderate his extremist politics. The man who had replaced Chavez as head of the interim government, Pedro Carmona, reportedly had disconcerted the Army by dissolving Venezuela’s National Assembly, Supreme Court, and Chavez-crafted 1999 Constitution. Response to the coup, according to Bloomberg News, "left 42 dead and [caused] $800 million in losses."
The United States, after decades of working to replace coups with the ballot box in Latin America, was also displeased by this retro removal of an elected leader, however Leftist.
Oil-rich Venezuela is the #3 foreign petroleum supplier to the United States. Chavez has befriended not only Fidel Castro, but also the anti-American dictators of Libya and Iraq and, reportedly, the Marxist guerrillas of neighboring Colombia.
Since his restoration, Chavez has been busy accusing the United States of plotting his removal or assassination. He has been purging senior officers from the military and replacing them with young Chavistas, thereby politicizing the military.
When former military officers made public statements in protest, Chavez had retired Col. Hidalgo Valero arrested and threatened with 30 days in jail for "unauthorized use of his army uniform" after Valero wore it at a press conference. A subsequent protest march featured the odd spectacle of retired officers carrying their uniforms on clothes hangers, after which one Chavez official told a reporter that these retirees should be arrested anyway for using their uniforms.
Ignoring public demands that the Organization of American States (OAS) be brought in to investigate the killings and allegations of corruption, Chavez instead invited former President Jimmy Carter to visit Venezuela to lend legitimacy to his regime. Carter arrived in Caracas last Saturday and was scheduled to depart this past Tuesday.
Only weeks ago Jimmy Carter was in Havana, kissing Chavez ally Fidel Castro, Marxist caudillo of Cuba, on the lips. Carter, you will remember, denounced evidence that Castro was involved in germ warfare research by telling reporters he had inspected one biotechnology center there - but later admitted that, because Castro arrived when he did and gave a typically long-winded speech, non-germ-expert Jimmy Carter never did his scheduled "inspection" at all.
Since Carter’s visit and call for easing trade restrictions against Cuba, Fidel Castro responded to a public petition seeking free speech and free elections on the island prison with a new measure declaring that "socialism" is "irrevocable" and will rule Cuba perpetually, no matter what the public wants. The press has quoted no statement by Jimmy Carter - who himself was repudiated as a terrible President and removed by voters in 1980 - condemning Castro for this anti-democratic clampdown.
Jimmy Carter says he has told Chavez that "what he needed was to have reconciliation with the 35 percent of Venezuelans who despise him." Chavez, in fact, is despised by far more than this of his nation’s 23-million population. Only the diversity, left to right, and division of Chavez’s opposition prevents it from overwhelming him.
Chavez has tried not only to confiscate property of the "rotten oligarchy" rich, but also has schemed to grab power from his nation’s non-Marxist labor union leaders and to curb the independence of judges and freedom of the press. Labor has threatened his regime with work stoppages, and business leaders have proposed bringing his government down with a national "tax strike."
Carter urged opponents to enter into a dialogue with Chavez, but most have denounced this as a Castro-inspired effort to buy time and keep Chavez in power. But when opponents asked Mr. Carter to secure a Chavez pledge not to attack their march this Thursday and asked Mr. Carter to stay and observe their march as he once oversaw Chavez’s election, former President Carter’s first reaction was that he could not be bothered. Leftist-lover Jimmy Carter’s "peace-making" did not extend to being a potential witness to Leftist thugs again intimidating and gunning down unarmed opponents.
In Cuba, meanwhile, the economy is caving in. With Castro reneging on debts, and with confiscatory taxes and regulations on business (including workers paid via the government, which keeps their pay in dollars for itself), direct foreign investment plummeted from $488 million in 2000 to only $38.9 million in 2001. A decline in tourists has closed 12,000 Cuban hotel rooms, reports Fred Barnes, and Cuba’s sugar production is nearing its lowest level in more than a century.
During April’s brief abortive coup, the interim President cut off the 50,000 barrels of oil a day that Chavez had been shipping to his pal Fidel Castro - about one-third of Cuba’s needs, as the June 6 Wall Street Journal reported, "much of it financed over 15 years at 2% interest." Chavez, by making this deal with an uncreditworthy deadbeat dictatorship, was in effect keeping Castro afloat with virtually-free oil. Even Chavez, in his tenuous situation, has been afraid to resume this giveaway to Havana at the expense of Venezuela’s people.
Castro and his friends from the American Left (e.g., Jimmy Carter and this week’s Havana visitor and embargo-foe Ralph Nader) are becoming frantic to end the embargo before Fidel sinks of his own evil weight beneath the waves of the Caribbean.
But with economic and political problems hectoring Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and other Latin American nations, the temptation of leaders to reject honest economics, privatization, and other measures to transfer power from themselves to the people might win the day and drag politics into the past.
Will Chavez be removed before his Presidential term ends in 2007? And if so, how? On Thursday turn your eyes to Caracas for a glimpse of our Hemisphere’s future.