Steve Chapman

Communism is dead in Russia, a shell of itself in China and just hanging on in Cuba. But Lenin's corpse has a rare reason to smile. A new workers' paradise is sprouting in Venezuela, under the direction of the sometimes clownish but always cunning President Hugo Chavez.

Most of the rest of the world learned the folly of autocratic socialism back in the 20th century, but Chavez prefers to repeat mistakes rather than learn from them. He has nationalized oil holdings, created new state-run firms, confiscated privately owned land and politicized finance, while endeavoring to take over telecommunications and power companies.

All this is part of his grand plan for "Bolivarian socialism" and "the formation of the new man." President Chavez does not dream on a small scale. "The old values of individualism, capitalism and egoism must be demolished," he says, and he is eager to get on with it, in spite of -- or, maybe, because of -- what else will disintegrate in the process.

In case you have lingering doubts about what sort of country he has in mind, Chavez offers a color scheme for his educational program: "red, very red." It is no coincidence that he is a close ally of Fidel Castro's Cuba. But his anti-Americanism endears him to noncommunist tyrants as well. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made multiple trips to Venezuela to embrace Chavez as "the champion, the leader of the struggle against imperialism."

Chavez, like Castro and Ahmadinejad, is hostile toward political as well as economic freedom. He has closed down some opposition media outlets, while cowing others through laws making it a crime to disparage him or his confederates. The judiciary and electoral council have been stripped of their independence. The government has refused to admit human rights monitors from the Organization of American States.

Sometimes Chavez is just, well, strange. In August, he announced that he would move the nation's clocks ahead, so the time in Venezuela will three and a half hours behind Greenwich Mean Time instead of four. "It's about the metabolic effect, where the brain is conditioned by sunlight," he explained.

But all this is merely a prelude to the next stage of his revolution. It is expected to commence after a national referendum to be held Dec. 2 on a package of constitutional amendments proposed by Chavez and his confederates.

The changes would not only repeal the two-term limit on his office, allowing him to serve for life, but also transfer virtually all power to one person: the president. He would gain the authority to supersede local governments on a whim, declare a state of emergency anytime it suits him and seize farms and processing plants if he deems it necessary for "food security."

The question is not what Chavez he will be able to do if this plan passes. The question is what he will not be able to do -- and the answer is, not much.

Still, Chavez apparently remains popular among the poor, who may be unaware of the economic stagnation generally produced by this brand of socialism. In following the example of Cuba, Chavez is doing something exceptionally novel: modeling his economy on one far poorer than his own. It's as though General Motors, dissatisfied with its fortunes, were to embrace the business plan previously used by American Motors.

But Chavez's "reform" plan is expected to pass anyway. One reason is that it includes such enticements as a new six-hour workday and expanded social security benefits. Other reasons: Government control of the media makes it hard for opponents to get their message out, and some dissenters are boycotting because they see the plebiscite as rigged against them.

Still, supporters of pluralistic, constitutional democracy have not given up. University students have marched in opposition to the proposals, despite violence from pro-Chavez forces and jeers from the president, who calls them "fascists" and "rich bourgeois brats." But as Douglas Cassel of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame put it in a recent radio commentary, "Show me a revolution opposed by university students en masse, and I'll show you a phony revolution."

A phony revolution may nonetheless be a durable one. If the Venezuelans who go to the polls next month give Chavez what he wants, they are likely to discover a paradox: They can bring about dictatorship through democracy, but not the reverse.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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