"Chávez’s grab for socialist-emperor status is grotesque and dangerous — as Fascism was — a terrible example for a region that has been consolidating democracy"

New York Times
Shutting Up Venezuela’s Chávez

It was a fascist general in 1930s Spain who coined the phrase “Viva la muerte!” or “Long live death!” Essentially meaningless, the words captured the cult of soil, blood and savagery that coursed through European Fascism, in its Francoist and other forms.

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela hates fascists; they are central to his repertoire of insults. But he has not hesitated to deploy the imagery of death to bolster his leftist brand of petro-authoritarianism, now operating under the ludicrous banner of “Fatherland, Socialism or Death!”

The slogan looks almost quaint in its anachronism. Chávez would no doubt claim Cuban revolutionary, rather than Spanish fascist, roots for it (Fidel Castro also invoked fatherland and finality). The bottom line is this: Latin America’s oil-gilded caudillo is getting serious about ruling for life, just like Franco and Castro.

I might add Vladimir Putin to that list. Like the Russian leader, Chávez has already used gushing oil revenue, a pliant judiciary, subservient institutions and the galvanizing appeal of vitriolic anti-Americanism to concoct a 21st-century, gulag-free authoritarianism. But even Putin has not contemplated going as far as Chávez now intends to take his “Bolivarian revolution.”

Venezuelans will vote Sunday in a referendum that would remove all limits on presidential re-election, grant Chávez direct control over foreign currency reserves, allow him to censor the media under a state of emergency declarable at his discretion, expand his powers to expropriate private property and create the second formally socialist nation in the Americas alongside Fidel’s.

“The measures amount to a constitutional coup,” said Teodoro Petkoff, who edits an opposition newspaper. Certainly, they would prod Venezuela from an oppressive rule comparable to Mexico’s under its once impregnable Institutional Revolutionary Party toward the dictatorial absolutism of Cuba.

Unlike other votes during Chávez’s nine-year presidency, and unlike the assured victory of Putin’s United Russia Party in voting the same day, the referendum is not a foregone conclusion.

Overcoming inertia, opponents led by students have energized a “No” campaign. A general once close to Chávez has denounced a looming coup d’état. Polls suggest a close outcome.

But awash in petrodollars — oil accounts for about 90 percent of Venezuelan exports — Chávez commands formidable resources. They are centered in the armed forces; a huge nomenklatura scattered across the bureaucracy and newly nationalized industries; the so-called Boliburgesía (Bolivarian bourgeoisie) of traders grown rich working the angles of a corrupt system; and the poor whom Chávez has helped and manipulated.

Certainly, the oil money Chávez has plowed into poor neighborhoods (at the expense of an oil industry suffering chronic underinvestment) has reduced poverty. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America said last year that the extreme poverty rate had fallen to 9.9 percent from 15.9 percent.

But more than spreading socialist ideals, Chávez has spread a form of crony capitalism, dedicated to his greater glory, that has imbued the economy with all the resilience of a house of cards.

Foreign investment has plunged, scared off by nationalizations. A huge disparity between the official and black-market exchange rates has encouraged get-rich-quick schemes for favored “Chávistas” while erecting endless barriers to trade. Price controls on staples have made eggs unavailable. This week, you can’t find chickens. Chávez’s socialism delivers subsidized gasoline and glittering malls but no milk.

Latin America has been here before, with the disastrous import-substitution and highly regulated models of the 1960s and ’70s. Most of the region has moved on, but not Chávez, who trumpets “growth from within,” whatever that is. The World Bank’s recently released “Doing Business 2008,” a ranking of the ease of conducting commerce, places Venezuela 172nd out of 178 countries.

Despite this, the country does huge business with the United States, as its fourth-largest crude oil supplier and a big importer. Chávez’s “socialism” and his chumminess with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad do not extend to cutting off the “imperialist empire.” Chávez is too shrewd to sever his lifeline.

A possible conclusion would be that he’s harmless — a wily barracks-bred buffoon whose leftist rhetoric is just a veneer for a petrodollar power play. Perhaps that’s why the United States — and Latin American nations — have been so muted, or silent, before Chávez’s attempted “constitutional coup.” Oil speaks.

But Chávez’s grab for socialist-emperor status is grotesque and dangerous — as Fascism was — a terrible example for a region that has been consolidating democracy. King Juan Carlos of Spain got it right when he recently interrupted Chávez’s trademark verbal diarrhea with a brusque: “Why don’t you just shut up?”

Venezuelans should watch that regal routine on YouTube — it’s even been set to music — and follow suit on Sunday.