Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, rebuffed by voters in his previous attempt to become president for life, has now taken a giant step closer to his goal. A reported 54.4 percent of voters approved a referendum on Feb. 15 that would permit Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely. It was the sort of "election" we remember from the communist days -- or see today in Zimbabwe. According to the Economist: "Public buildings and vehicles were plastered with pro-Chavez propaganda. State television and radio channels turned over almost their entire resources to promoting the campaign. And even the Caracas metro obliged passengers to listen to campaign jingles." In 2007, opposition to Chavez's power grab was led by students. But this time, Chavez ordered that demonstrations against the referendum were to be broken up "with a good dose of gas."
Now, a triumphant Chavez declares, the way is clear to lead Venezuela to "21st century socialism." We know what Chavez means by this. He has been implementing his socialism, which is barely distinguishable from Castro's, since 1999. Freedom of the press is a memory in Venezuela. Newspapers and electronic media that opposed Chavez have been harassed. The 2004 "Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television" requires all outlets to carry Chavez's speeches in full, contains penalties for a variety of offenses and insults, and permits licenses to be revoked for a second offense. Globovision, a private 24-hour cable news channel, was recently accused of insulting Chavez. Pro-Chavez legislators have urged the attorney general to investigate. Meanwhile, thugs linked to the government lobbed tear gas canisters into the newsroom. RCTV, the second largest television channel in the country, was closed down altogether in 2007.
The Jewish community of Caracas has been the object of repeated harassment. Official media have anathematized Jews and Israel. A Jewish community center was violently attacked twice. In a Christmas Eve speech a few years ago, Chavez accused Jews of killing Christ and causing poverty and suffering around the world. Chavez maintains a close relationship with Iran's Ahmadinejad and has concluded a $20 billion joint venture deal with Iran. In recent weeks, Chavez ratcheted up the anti-Israel rhetoric, expelled Israel's envoy to Venezuela, and encouraged his supporters to protest what he called a "genocidal holocaust against the Palestinian people" before Israel's embassy.
In late January, vandals struck a Caracas synagogue. They defaced the building with anti-Semitic slurs and destroyed several Torah scrolls. Additionally, they stole a roster of synagogue members along with several computers and the tapes from the building's security cameras. President Chavez issued a one-sentence condemnation of the attack but then immediately insinuated that it was actually the work of his enemies: "Some sectors of the oligarchy want to overshadow the advances of the revolution with acts of violence." His supporters in the press took up this theme with gusto: "The synagogue case seems to us like a media show assembled by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad," opined Hindu Anderi, a pro-Chavez journalist, in a government newspaper.
But when, a couple of days later, Chavez reversed himself and announced arrests in the case (though dubious arrests -- one "suspect" is the former bodyguard of the rabbi), his press lackeys switched gears as well. Mario Silva, the host of a government television program, scorned the synagogue's rabbi for failing to express sufficient gratitude to the regime for making arrests. "I still have not seen the first declaration from the rabbi of the synagogue saying, 'Sirs, I am thankful to the government,'" Silva sneered.
A decade ago Venezuela was a thriving and free (if somewhat corrupt) ally of the United States. Today, it is a bitter enemy, and its domestic corruption is infinitely worse. The results of the referendum and the consolidation of power by Chavez suggest that Venezuela will plunge even deeper into despotism and poverty.
The global recession holds many terrors, but none so urgent as the danger that more nations, wracked by unemployment and declining living standards, will fall into the hands of political extremists and despots. Absent the Great Depression, could we imagine Germany falling under the spell of Hitler or Italy under the sway of Mussolini? There is so much at stake in stopping our momentum toward depression. Global depressions lead to political disasters. But our leaders seem more intent on satisfying their pent-up demand for government goodies and punishing their favorite whipping boys (bankers, businessmen) than in focusing on the real danger. Their dereliction may turn out to be a great crime.