In a recent speech to the Council of the Americas, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice delivered an upbeat assessment concerning South America. She included the continent as part of the “larger tide of liberty” that was sweeping the globe, declaring the region “committed to democracy”. While the secretary’s optimistic tone is certainly pleasing to the ear, it fails to recognize the challenge posed by Venezuelan’s president, Hugo Chavez. An ally of both Fidel Castro and the government of Iran, Chavez has worked tirelessly to frustrate US efforts across the continent. His most recent provocation, among many others, was charging the few American military officers still in Venezuela with espionage, threatening them with arrest and ordering their removal. Unproven and menacing bombast has always been a familiar Chavez motif, but hinting at the imprisonment of American officers takes the situation to a whole new level. Even in the face of similar unrelenting threats and actions, the US government has been woefully inactive in opposing the spreading influence of Chavez across South America. In the words of noted Latin America expert J. Michael Waller, writing in a recently published report, the Bush administration has “largely ignored” the actions of the Chavez regime.
The intensity of Chavez’s anti-Americanism is matched only by his zealous campaign against democracy at home. The most basic democratic pillar of free speech is in critical condition as Chavez supporters recently enacted a law which criminalized anti-government dissent; banging pots against the road is now a quick way for a Venezuelan citizen to be thrown in jail. The private press, constantly derided by President Chavez as defying “public order”, is now neutered by yet another presidential edict which allows the government to shut down news organizations without explanation or review. These methods are all part of Chavez’s “Bolivarian” political philosophy, which represents a dangerous amalgamation of Maoist-Marxist-populist dogma. Groups of pro-Chavez thugs dubbed “Bolivarian circles” have been recruited to intimidate, assault, and even kill enemies of his “Bolivarian revolution”. In a final step towards absolute power, the Venezuelan supreme court, stacked with a majority of 17 Chavez appointed judges, has hinted at its willingness to alter the ragged constitution even further, this time in order to declare Chavez “President for Life”.
Corrupting a relatively successful South American democracy, while at the same time courting some of the most reprehensible regimes on Earth, is not an easy task for one man. The repressive transformation of Venezuela that has been carried out by Chavez would have been impossible were it not for the existence of a coterie of men who were unswervingly loyal to him and his warped ideology. This small group of advisors and fellow travelers has been instrumental in developing and concentrating power in the hands of the regime, yet they are eclipsed in publicity by the offensive bravado of their leader. This lack of knowledge can only hinder our policy towards Venezuela, for the simple reason that a dictatorship is never a one man show. Even the most repressive and egotistical of tyrants had required a band of enablers who are willing to carry out his demands without questions. Chavez is no different.
The Media Man
Historically, the imposition of state control over a nation’s media is one of the first steps toward a fully entrenched authoritarian state. Hugo Chavez and his henchmen have obviously read their history, having initiated a campaign to destroy any semblance of independent media inside Venezuela. At the forefront of this totalitarian effort is Jesse Chacon, the former head of the National Telecommunications Commission. Chacon is an ex-army officer and a long time ally of Chavez, siding with him during an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992. As head of the NTC, Chacon immediately went to work implementing a media strategy that has all but ruined the free media in Venezuela. The plan originated in 2002, when Mr. Chacon drafted a law that would ensure only pro-Chavez news would be broadcast.
Such Orwellian legislation helped bring about the abortive 2002 coup against Chavez, which eventually failed to remove him from office. Upon his return to the presidium, Chavez was more determined than ever to rein in the independent media, who he felt had colluded against him. He assigned the ever faithful Chacon to lead the investigation against the media outlets, an inquiry which resulted in a laughably conspiratorial report linking media figures with coup plotters and, of course, the CIA. The networks argued that their coverage of the coup had been stymied by the thousands of pro-Chavez rioters who, among their other acts of wanton violence, smashed media offices, assaulted their employees with clubs, and shot one of their reporters in the head. Such excuses were lost on Chacon, who regarded their actions as treasonous.
Chacon’s war accelerated in 2003, during nationwide strikes organized by the political opposition. “This is a country at war,” he stated, adding, “The world should not be surprised if we start closing TV stations in Venezuela shortly”. He cited the airing of opposition ads as proof of the networks criminality. As a reward for his dangerous rhetoric and actions against independent media, Chacon was appointed minister of communication and information. One of his first acts as minister was to send state security officials into the offices of a major television network, Globovision, where they confiscated and destroyed the broadcast equipment. A protest by network employees and their supporters was dispersed with rubber bullets and tear gas. Over the ensuing months, police stormed other media outlets, to ensure that “they were operating on the right frequency.” Private media outlets have since shown signs of self-censorship, fearful of increased government repression. As a substitute for the independent media he was busy destroying, Chacon funneled millions of dollar into supposedly independent “people’s stations”, which were, in reality, propaganda organs for the regime.
Once Mr. Chacon was finished effectively crippling the well respected television media of Venezuela, his boss graciously gave him the position of Interior Minister, placing the arch enemy of free speech in charge of the nation’s police. In that position, Chacon has kept busy protecting FARC terrorists from Colombian and international authorities while using the powers of state to harass and threaten anyone standing in opposition to his close friend, Hugo Chavez.
The Oil Man
Usually, former Maoist guerilla and Venezuelan terrorist are not things one would include in a resume. Such a history, however, did not prevent Hugo Chavez from placing Ali Rodriguez in charge of Venezuela’s critically important oil sector. Rodriguez, a 1960’s Venezuelan communist guerilla who, according to the Time Magazine, specialized in bomb making, was appointed energy minister of Venezuela in 1998. At the time, Chavez was seeking to gain total control over the PDVSA, the state owned oil company whose managers disagreed with new Chavez energy policies. Chavez angrily promised to bring the national oil company “under his thumb”. Rodriguez, a long time friend of Chavez, immediately went to work increasing the supply of petroleum to Cuba and reconstructing Fidel Castro’s aging oil refinery infrastructure, an initiative that has since expanded. He was also appointed President of OPEC, where he lowered production ceilings, driving up prices worldwide. Chavez would often gloat at his friend’s ability to make the “yanquis” pay more at the pump. When Chavez made his highly publicized trip to meet Saddam Hussein in 2000, Rodriguez was right by his side. The two personally handed the Iraqi dictator and mass murderer an invitation to the next OPEC summit.
Elevated to Secretary General of OPEC, Rodriguez continued to campaign against raising production to meet growing demand and prices, which also happened to be the cornerstone of Hugo Chavez’ national oil policy. When PDVSA workers took part in the national opposition strikes, Chavez unleashed the “Bolivarian circles”, leading to riots and mass arrests of anti-Chavez union members. Alarmed with the opposition’s power inside PDVSA, Chavez quickly called back his old friend Ali, who gratefully accepted the presidency of the company. Rodriguez deemed any strikes that followed as “disasters” that threatened the liberty of the Venezuelan people. When further strikes did occur, Rodriguez announced “big changes”, involving mass layoffs and the arrests of company managers. These measures, along with violent attacks by police and Chavez supporters, eventually broke the will of the strikers. With Rodriguez’s indispensable aid, Hugo Chavez was now in total control of Venezuela’s main industry. He was free to use this influx of petro cash to buy, among other things, 100,000 assault rifles and Mig-29 fighters from Russia.
Helping Hugo Chavez corner the Venezuelan oil industry is apparently a wonderful career move, as Ali Rodriguez was appointed the Foreign Minister in 2004. In his new lofty position, Rodriguez spends most of his time reengaging with the odious dictatorships of the world while warning of US sponsored assassination plots against his old friend Hugo. The former Maoist bomber turned foreign minister is back doing what he does best, namely cozying up to petty tyrants while demonizing the United States.
The Law Man
Diosdado Cabello got to know Hugo Chavez fairly well in 1992, when the two military men spent time in a jail cell together. Cabello was a fellow coup planner who was subsequently arrested and sentenced to two years in jail. Once his cellmate Hugo became president, however, things quickly turned around for Cabello, who was appointed head of the state telecom company Conatel in 1998. After two years of mismanagement, Cabello was promoted to the position of Secretary of the President. Not a week passed before Cabello had castigated the Catholic Church for daring to criticize the government’s actions to alleviate poverty. Their report was a “political pamphlet”, and was produced for the benefit of the always amorphous “opposition”. The meteoric rise of the ex-con Cabello continued in 2001, when Chavez appointed him Vice President. It was a startling career path, from jail to the Vice President’s office in 9 years. Loyalty to Chavez trumps respect for the law in Venezuela’s new governing circles.
The new Vice President quickly stepped into his role as chief dissident hunter. Any opposition to Chavez was deemed “illegal, “traitorous”, and “dangerous”. He was one of the main planners for the purge of anti-regime elements inside the military and in the oil industry. During the 48 hour coup attempt in 2002, the ever loyal Cabello challenged the coup leaders and helped restore his grateful friend back to the presidency. Once back in control, Cabello took over the effort against the rebel military officers, placing hundreds of them in jail. With that task accomplished, he was made minister of justice and the interior. There, he reportedly began working with security and military officials in arming and supplying the “Bolivarian circles” with military weaponry. The irony was not lost on opposition figures, who pointed out the inherent hypocrisy of the justice minister working with violent paramilitaries. Their objections were shouted down once more, never to see the light of day in a media market increasingly controlled by the regime. Other judicial duties of Cabello included threatening Supreme Court justices with mob violence if they dared investigate corruption charges against Chavez as well as taking direct control of all local police forces throughout Venezuela. The latest assignment for Chavez’s enforcer has been unseating Enrique Mendoza, a regional governor and one of the last major opposition figures left in Venezuela. The race was made decidedly easier for Cabello after Chavez threatened any governor with jail if they complained about the results. Not surprisingly, Cabello won.
For too long, the Bush administration has disregarded the threat represented by Chavez. A mentally unstable dictator, Chavez has done everything possible to destabilize South America while ruining democracy at home. The hemisphere is a far more dangerous place with Hugo Chavez and his associates at the helm in Venezuela. America, and the rest of world for that matter, would be far better served if the administration takes the matter seriously and begins to directly challenge the legitimacy of the Chavez government.