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“Socialism or Death” in Venezuela By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, January 16, 2007

January of 1989 was a particularly grim month for Cuba’s communist regime. An enfeebled Soviet Union was promising to make peace with the West and threatening to suspend aid -- Cuba’s economic lifeblood -- to its client states. Communism was everywhere on the defensive. Sensing the changing tide, Fidel Castro gave an impassioned defense of his dictatorship, then already 30 years old, committing Cuba to a fight to the finish, to “socialism or death!” The record of Castro’s crimes, its death toll likely stretching into the tens of thousands, has now revealed this to be a distinction without difference.

Fast forward to January of 2007: In Venezuela, Castro’s reverent student, Hugo Chavez, seems determined to follow in his path. In a line that must have warmed the heart of the decrepit tyrant in Havana -- assuming he is still alive -- Chavez last week committed his country to Castro’s course: “Fatherland, socialism or death,” Chavez declared, “I take the oath.”


It is rare for authoritarians of the Left to show their true colors so vibrantly. But where in the past it was possible to dismiss Chavez as a standard-issue demagogue, a charge his September bloviating at the United Nations about “the devil” President Bush did much to bolster, the latest developments make a compelling case that Chavez is what he always said he was: the next Fidel Castro.


Consider Chavez’s pledge to turn Venezuela into a “socialist state.” This is not, to be sure, the first time that Chavez has staked his country’s future on a discredited ideology. Never before, however, has he moved so dramatically to put his radical vision into practice. “All of that which was privatized, let it be nationalized,” Chavez announced this week.


He left little doubt about his sincerity. Private properties have already been seized for redistribution. Now power and telecommunications companies have been forced under state control; four prominent oil projects, currently administered by foreign companies, are next in line for official expropriation. Venezuela’s central bank also bids fair to become a holding of the state.


Such legally suspect measures are bound to provoke criticism and opposition. Chavez has therefore also sought to silence dissenting voices. With that aim in mind, the government has refused to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television. Ties to the political opposition have evidently made the television network intolerable for Chavez, who seems intent on turning the country’s media into personal p.r. agencies. Taken together with previous attempts to muscle private networks off the air and the scandalous Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television of 2004 -- one of whose provisions imposed 20-month prison sentences for the crime of “disrespect” to government authorities -- an unmistakable pattern of government attacks on free expression and press independence emerges.


As if the writing on the wall were insufficiently clear, Chavez has also decided to spell it out -- in the country’s constitution. Last week brought news of Chavez’s plan to ask the National Assembly, Venezuela’s equivalent of Congress, for power to pass a series of “revolutionary laws.” (Seeing as the assembly is packed with Chavez loyalists, who are unlikely to refuse their leader anything, the entire consultative process is so much political theater.) One of these laws would eliminate presidential term limits, enabling Chavez to seek office after his final term expires in 2012. Of course, with immanentizing the eschaton being a notoriously time-consuming process, Chavez has already confessed his preference for remaining in office until 2031. Venezuela, meet your new president-for-life.


Predictably, Chavez still has his defenders. In the United States, the task of condoning every new attempt to consolidate power as an affirmation of people’s democracy in action has been taken up most prominently by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. The center’s co-director, Mark Weisbrot, has reliably praised Chavez’s Venezuela as a “democratic” country and hailed the alleged success of the government’s economic policies.


In an interview last week with FrontPageMag.com, Weisbrot struck the same theme. In Chavez’s attempt to do away with private property, to silence opposition media and indefinitely to extend his political prospects, Weisbrot saw “nothing too radical.” Since many of the enterprises seized by the state were “previously state-owned,” Weisbrot explained, “there is nothing all that radical about returning them to state ownership.” That private owners were unwilling to part with their companies did not impress Weisbrot, who admitted that he was “not sure what the complaint is -- and what it has to do with democracy.” The bottom line, Wesibrot argued, was that “Chavez ran on a program of ‘21st century socialism,’ and won 63 percent of the vote, the largest majority of 9 elections in Latin America last year. So it should not be cause for surprise, or alarm, that the government would attempt to deliver some of what Venezuelans voted for.”


One may reasonably dispute whether the backing of slightly over half the population can be construed as carte blanche for turning the country into a communist backwater. Still, there is no gainsaying that Chavez had the support of a sizeable segment of the population. How that has come to pass, however, does Chavez -- and those who continue to applaud him -- little credit.


First, Chavez has plied the impoverished company with government largesse. Included in the welfare package are government-provided food, housing, gasoline, healthcare, and education through the university level; the constitution even contains special benefits for “housewives.” In other words, Chavez has used the country’s vast oil wealth to buy his people’s support. Not the least of the problems with this approach is that it’s entirely dependent on oil prices and, as such, unsustainable. As much was confirmed last month by the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report. Pointing out that "the government's antibusiness posturing" has produced a drop-off in oil production, the report predicted that Venezuela could not maintain its current rate of economic growth. The good times cannot last.


Second, Chavez has ruthlessly exploited the ethnic resentments of the pardos, the dark-skinned majority that by some estimates makes up 80 percent of the country’s poor. Indeed, a central component of Chavez’s popularity has always been his skill at stoking contempt for the lighter-skinned elite, the so-called mantuanos, who are held up in the popular imagination as a malignant fifth column. Chavez himself as made a generous contribution to this perception, using campaign stumps to rail against the hated “oligarchs” -- widely understood as a reference to the white business class -- and other “enemies of the people.” Chavez’s apologists on the Left prefer not to dwell on this history, and no wonder: The great “progressive” hope of Latin America, the reviler of George W. Bush, has fueled his political career on the fires of old-fashioned prejudice.


Not so long ago, policy wonks downplayed the impact of Chavez’s provocations. Venezuela’s democratic institutions, the reasoning went, would constrain his worst excesses. That view is becoming increasingly untenable. The military, the judiciary and the attorney general's office have become appendages of the government; the National Assembly, boycotted by opposition parties, is effectively a rubber-stamp legislature. Should Chavez get his way -- and in this political climate it would be foolish to bet otherwise -- governance will soon become the exclusive privilege of a single party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. If this is democracy, there is nothing democratic about it.


“We're heading toward socialism, and nothing and no-one can prevent it,” Chavez said this week, in another tribute to his Cuban mentor. All the evidence indicates that he has Castro’s ambition. If he should also end up having his success, one can only say: Pity the Venezuelan people.


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Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com

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