Last Thursday, in another lapse into Hugonoia, the Chavez goverment expelled a U.S. Embassy military official from Venezuela. Friday, Donald Rumsfeld unhelpfully triggered Godwin's Law, mentioning that both Chavez and Hitler were "elected legally". Then the United States responded by expelling a "senior Venezuelan diplomat". Over the course of his administration, Chavez has used fears of a U.S. invasion to strengthen his military arsenal, and Rumsfeld's words will give Chavez that much more of an excuse. Chavez is also not above triggering Godwin's Law:
"The imperialist, genocidal, fascist attitude of the U.S. president has no limits. I think Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W. Bush," Chavez said from a stage decorated with a huge red image of himself as a young soldier.
Why pay attention to Venezuela? The prime reason is O-I-L. With the world's fifth largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela is a geological lottery winner and, because of this, its president has more influence than he otherwise would or should have. [Update: To be clear, "should" is my personal opinion.] A secure oil supply is in the United States' national interest, and Venezuela has played a major role. In 2004, the U.S. imported 12.8 millions barrels of crude oil and finished petroleum products per day, of which Venezuela supplied 11.8% (Venezuela is our fourth largest source of imported oil, behind Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia). At 551 million barrels per year and prices at $60 per barrel, that means the Venezuelan goverment--via its state-owned oil company, PDVSA--receives over $33 billion in revenues from the United States (or more accurately, from oil firms in the U.S.). Total Venezuelan oil revenues in 2005 were $85 billion, so the amount from the U.S. could be much higher. We are dependent on oil, so therefore we are dependent on Venezuelan oil.
But looking at it another way, the United States is in Venezuela's national interest. The CIA World Factbook:
Venezuela continues to be highly dependent on the petroleum sector, accounting for roughly one-third of GDP, around 80% of export earnings, and over half of government operating revenues.
Venezuela produces 3.1 million barrels per day, of which 2.1 million are exported. That means that nearly 25% of government operating revenues are financed by American-based oil enterprises, and 16% of their GDP can be traced back to the United States. Venezuela is further invested in the United States because of CITGO, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of PDVSA, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Venezuelan goverment. The next time you fill your tank at the local 7-Eleven, de facto CEO Hugo Chavez should say gracias to you for adding a few more petrodollars to his government's coffers.
But rather than gracias, the sentiments Chavez expresses towards the United States are closer to vete a cingar (WARNING: This R-rated link is not workplace safe). Chavez's rhetoric is virtually indistinguishable from Castro's, and if it just stayed there, Chavez would be just another loudmouth ingrate. And an entertaining one at that, since he apparently likes to parade American nutters through Caracas such as Harry Belafonte and Cindy Sheehan, giving them media platforms to bash Bush. But Chavez doesn't stop just there.
While Chavez refers to himself as a Bolivarian, his movement is morphing from democratic socialism to a South American flavor of communism, inspired in part by the anti-American writings of Noam Chomsky. Call it Bolivarmunism. Chavez's "new socialist revolution" looks much like Cuba 2.0, and we are subsidizing a good chunk of it. Anti-American tirades don't hurt Chavez since he can play the nationalism and victim cards to his home audience, and he makes oil traders abroad nervous, thereby raising oil prices and further enriching the Chavez regime. It's a win-win situation for the increasingly dictatorial president.
In 1992, Chavez's attempted a military coup d'etat and failed. Opting for Plan B, he was elected president in December 1998 and has since wrought his revolution by changing the system from within. There's nothing wrong with implementing social reforms and other good works, and Venezuela definitely needed more than a few. The problem is how Chavez has been doing it, which is by eroding his country's democratic institutions, using dollops of populism and largesse and other means to get his way. From Foreign Policy:
Chavez has achieved absolute control of all state institutions that might check his power. In 1999, he engineered a new constitution that did away with the Senate, thereby reducing from two to one the number of chambers with which he must negotiate. Because Chavez only has a limited majority in this unicameral legislature, he revised the rules of congress so that major legislation can pass with only a simple, rather than a two-thirds, majority.
Chavez has also become commander in chief twice over. With the traditional army, he has achieved unrivaled political control. His 1999 constitution did away with congressional oversight of military affairs, a change that allowed him to purge disloyal generals and promote friendly ones. But commanding one armed force was not enough for Chavez. So in 2004, he began assembling a parallel army of urban reservists, whose membership he hopes to expand from 100,000 members to 2 million. In Columbia, 10,000 right-wing paramilitary forces significantly influence the course of the domestic war against guerillas. Two million reservists may mean never having to be in the opposition.
As important, Chavez controls the institute that supervises elections, the National Electoral Council, and the gigantic state-owed oil company, PDVSA, which provides most of the government's revenues. A Chavez-controlled election body ensures that voting irregularities committed by the state are overlooked. A Chavez-controlled oil industry allows the state to spend at will, which comes in handy during election season.
Chavez thus controls the legislature, the Supreme Court, two armed forces, the only important source of state revenue, and the institution that monitors electoral rules. As if that weren't enough, a new media law allows the state to supervise media content, and a revised criminal code permits the state to imprison any citizen for showing "disrespect" toward government officials. By compiling and posting on the Internet lists of voters and their political tendencies--including whether they signed a petition for a recall referendum in 2004--Venezuela has achieved reverse accountability. The state is watching and punishing citizens for political actions it disapproves of rather than the other way around. If democracy requires checks on the power of incumbents, Venezuela doesn't come close.
Human Rights Watch has made similar observations of his more recent actions:
Since winning a national referendum on his presidency in 2004, Hugo Chávez and his majority coalition in Congress have taken steps to undermine the independence of the country’s judiciary by packing the Supreme Court with their allies. They have also enacted legislation that seriously threatens press freedoms and freedom of expression. Several high profile members of civil society have faced prosecution on highly dubious charges, and human rights defenders have been repeatedly accused by government officials of conspiring against the nation. Police violence, torture, and abusive prison conditions are also among the country’s most serious human rights problems.
Communist dictator is as communist dictator says and does. Economically, Venezuela is repressed and moving toward further repression. Examples abound:
- By withholding permits to mining firms, then expropriating the mines because of idleness, Chavez found a nifty to nationalize gold and diamond mines.
- Reaffirming the basic principles of Econ 201, there is no coffee on supermarket shelves because of price controls. According to BBC: "Since 2003, President Chavez has maintained a strict price regime on some basic foods like coffee, beans, sugar and powdered milk." The Guardian reported that "some supermarkets in the capital, Caracas, said they had also run out of sugar, chicken, powdered milk and maize." The Chavez response? More federal control: "In response, President Chávez has said that he might be forced to nationalise the coffee industry."
- Electricity rates have also been frozen since 2003. The result? Power failures are up 69%.
- Chavez is launching a five-year plan to eradicate poverty, using a combination of oil profits and social activists to grow the size of centralized government. After all, five-year plans worked so well in China, North Korea and Soviet Russia.
- The main Caracas bridge to somewhere now goes nowhere. They've known about the problems with the bridge (the only major artery that connects Caracas to the coastal lowlands and international airport) for twenty years, but nothing has been done on Hugo's six-year watch. He owns this one, and it's not going to get fixed until mid-2007 at the earliest (cite).
- Chavez is confiscating "unproductive" or "not legally held" farmland without compensation, even though the ranches are working farms, many with chains of title that go back to the 1800s (cite). Last September, Chavez vowed to accelerate his "land redistribution" mission.
- Forcing offshore oil companies into new contracts and a new tax regime on short notice, according to the Economist.
- Confiscation of paper firm Venepal: "According to Conindustria, Venezuela's industrialists' organisation, around 40% of the country's 11,000 industrial concerns have gone bust since Mr Chávez came to power. He recently threatened to expropriate some 700 idle firms, along with more than 1,000 working below capacity, unless their owners resumed full production. One large company, the paper firm Venepal (now Invepal), was confiscated earlier this year and put back into operation with government money under a co-management scheme. Many state-owned enterprises are now attempting to implement different forms of workers' control, with mixed results. Nowhere, though, has the state relinquished its majority stake."
- Chavez is planning on requiring that all privately-owned banks appoint two "state representatives" to their boards.
Such is what happens when a dictatorial president believes that the choice is "either capitalism, which is the road to hell, or socialism, for those who want to build the kingdom of God here on Earth." The disintegrating freedoms of the Venezuelan people are a matter of general concern for the United States, just as are the scant freedoms in Iran and Saudi Arabia and other unfree countries. But the more direct concern is Chavez's deliberate spreading of anti-Americanism and his brand of communism to the region, and his using oil wealth to do it. While Chavez frequently rails at the U.S. for meddling in South American affairs, Chavez meddles in the affairs of his South American neighbors:
- At Chavez's request, the unicameral legislature added an eighth star to its flag. The first seven represent Venezuela's seven provinces, and the new addition represents approximate half of neighboring Guyana, a sovereign nation. The folks at the World Socialism Forum should change their chants from "Imperialism No! Socialism Yes" to "Venezuelan Imperialism Yes! Socialism Yes!" Guyanans should worry. Just imagine the outcry if Bush proposed--and a Republican Congress passed--a law whiched added two stars to its flag to represent British Columbia and Alberta, and an amendment that forbade Americans from waving their own flags in public.
- In Peru, Chavez is meddling in the country's electoral campaign. Fortunately, it's backfiring.
- Bolivia: Compadre Evo Morales was elected president last December with the help of Chavez. Morales is a self-proclaimed Chavez stooge, referring to Hugo as "mi comandante". More from BBC here.
- Colombia. Chavez has ties to FARC, a U.S. recognized terrorist organization, although it's hard to know how strong those ties are.
- Nicaragua, where Chavez has "stumped for Marxist Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and offered him cheap oil."
- Brazil, where Chavez supports the Landless Workers Movement, which is pushing for "dramatic land redistribution", to be followed by dramatic Zimbabwean-like poverty and hyper-inflation.
- Ecuador, where its newspaper El Comercio "recently reported that members of an underground leftist movement there had received weapons training in Venezuela."
- Mexico, where "there are published reports that the Venezuelan Embassy has become a hub for antigovernment activities." More from El Universal.
- In the United States. Play ball with Hugo and get cheap oil. Delahunt is one of Chavez's most prominent American apologists, and there are concerns that Chavez is using CITGO as a political tool in America.
Measure Chavez also by the countries whom he strengthens ties with.
- North Korea, in ideological solidarity.
- Cuba, his closest ally.
- When Saddam was in power, Chavez was the first democratically elected head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War.
- Zimbabwe, where there is much love between the dictators.
No surprise that his alliances with the scum governments of the world are only matched by his scum rhetoric:
A day after the September 11 terrorist attacks, President Chavez declared that "The United States brought the attacks upon itself, for their arrogant imperialist foreign policy." Chavez also described the U.S. military response to bin Laden as "terrorism," claiming that he saw no difference between the invasion of Afghanistan and the September 11 terrorist attacks.
So what to do with the Chavez regime? There's not much to do. Keep a close watch, strengthen ties with other Latin American nations, continue to pursue freedom and democracy wherever possible, watch history run its course, hope that a coherent opposition party can arise, and help the Venezuelan people pick up the pieces after Chavez runs his country into the ground. It's already perceived as 130th least corrupt, and things could get ugly if oil prices take a fall. The Economist calls him more of a troublemaker than a threat, which sounds about right, unless he gets a nuke, then the balance of South American power is changed forever.