Monday, November 17, 2008
by Mary O’Grady
Hugo Chávez’s threat last week to bring tanks to the streets if his side does not win key states in Sunday’s gubernatorial elections is chilling. But it is not surprising. It is only the next logical step in what is the Venezuelan president’s drive to seize all power and silence all dissent.
Despite numerous setbacks for Venezuelan democracy, many still believe that they can rid themselves of Mr. Chávez democratically. Their expectations were raised last year when voters defeated a referendum in which Mr. Chávez attempted to rewrite the constitution to strengthen his authoritarian powers. Now they hope to deliver another setback by voting in anti-Chávez governors in at least three and maybe more than 10 of the country’s 23 states. The top post in the capital district of Caracas is also up for grabs.
There are currently at least 18 states with pro-Chávez governors, and despite deteriorating living standards, Mr. Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela is expected to be returned to power in a good number of them.
One reason is that the cards are stacked against the opposition. The government is using state funds for pro-Chávez candidates and has dramatically outspent the competition. The National Electoral Council is dominated by pro-Chávez representatives. Scores of individuals who are popular were declared “ineligible” to run. The government has refused to release the voter rolls so that the opposition can ensure that they are clean. On election day, lines are expected to be long and the widespread assumption that the government will use tricks to win could dampen opposition turnout.
Yet even these odds are not enough for Mr. Chávez. In recent weeks he has begun threatening to use the military against his own population in states where his municipal and gubernatorial candidates are defeated. On a trip to the state of Carabobo last week, for example, he told voters, “If you let the oligarchy return to government then maybe I’ll end up sending the tanks of the armored brigade out to defend the revolutionary government.” Just as troubling are the president’s declarations that in states where his candidates are not elected, he will withhold federal funding.
Venezuelans saw this coming. From his earliest days as president in 1999, Mr. Chávez began working to destroy any checks on his power. On April 11, 2002, after weeks of street protests against this effort, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched again in Caracas. Nineteen people were shot dead in the streets by government supporters. When Mr. Chávez asked the military to use force against the crowd, the generals refused and instead told him he had to step aside.
One might think that all Americans would have supported the demand to stop the bloodshed. But Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd threw a fit over Mr. Chávez’s removal. The self-styled Latin America expert insisted that since Mr. Chávez had been initially “democratically elected” in a fair vote, he should have been immune from challenges to his power, no matter the abuses. To this day the senator calls the event a U.S.-backed coup, even though a State Department Inspector General’s report found that the charge was false. Even the Organization of American States accepted the change in power.
Of course it wasn’t a coup, U.S. backed or otherwise, as witnessed by the fact that while Mr. Chávez was removed from power, he was allowed to keep his cell phone, chat with Havana and negotiate his future. With the inadvertent help of the opposition, which acted incompetently, Mr. Chávez was back in office days later.
The circumstances of Mr. Chávez’s political resurrection are still debated, but what is not in question is the reason Venezuelans had massed in the streets that day: They opposed the strongman’s consolidation of power, which they warned would lead to dictatorship.
Fast forward six and a half years, and it turns out that the protestors were right.
Nearly all economic, judicial, electoral and congressional power in Venezuela is now in the hands of Mr. Dodd’s “democratically elected” Chávez. Cuban doctors and teachers blanket the country, indoctrinating the poor. Cuban intelligence personnel are always on hand to support the Bolivarian Revolution while neighborhood gangs do the grass-roots work of enforcement. Political prisoners are rotting in Venezuelan jails without trials.
Being identified as a political opponent of the revolution is a ticket to the end of the unemployment line. Private property has zero protection under the law and the economy’s private sector has been all but destroyed.
Mr. Chávez appears surprised that after a decade of repression, Venezuelans are still struggling to regain their liberty. But he is just as determined to retain control, and has made it clear he will not accept defeat at the polls. This is your “democratically elected” president, Sen. Dodd.