Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez faces an election on November 23, and he’s wasting no time in further undermining civil society and consolidating his power. Jaime Daremblum of the Hudson Institute reports:

On July 22, the Venezuelan president arrived in Moscow to finalize a number of bilateral energy and military agreements, including several arms deals that (according to a Russian newspaper) are reportedly worth around $2 billion. (His previous weapons acquisitions from Russia total some $4.5 billion.) On July 31, he announced plans to nationalize the Spanish-owned Bank of Venezuela, his country’s third-largest bank. That same day—the last day of an 18-month period during which he could exercise extraordinary powers granted by Congress—Chávez enacted 26 new laws that expanded considerably his control over the economy, the armed forces, and national elections. A few days later, on August 3, he vowed to “accelerate the socialist revolution” after Venezuela’s November elections.

The Heritage Foundation’s Ray Walser and James Roberts provide some details on the decrees:

Several of these new decrees bring Venezuelan military policy into closer alignment with the Chavista nationalist ideology. The national army, for example, now becomes the Bolivarian army, ideological education is made compulsory, and an extensive Bolivarian militia, answering directly to the president, will act as watchdog and protector for the Chávez revolution. The new decrees also grant the government extensive authority to control the production, processing, and distribution of foodstuffs, including criminalization and jail terms for anyone violating price controls or interfering with food production and distribution. Other decrees authorize Chávez to siphon off earnings from state enterprises to fund social programs and grant him the authority to create a new layer of appointed officials to serve as regional vice presidents and agents of the central governments operating outside of electoral control. … Chávez’s agents have blacklisted 272 mostly opposition candidates accused—without trial or conviction—of corruption. Pivotal opposition figures like Leopoldo Lopez, a popular mayor in greater Caracas, are barred from running for office.

Some other ominous developments in the Andes:

  • In Bolivia, Evo Morales, emboldened by a recent referendum, is expected to seek a new constitution that “redistribute[s] wealth from the country’s hydrocarbons industry, introduces land reforms, empowers indigenous backers in the Andean highlands, and opens the way for a run for a second presidential term.” (Walser/Roberts)
  • In Ecuador, on July 24, the constituent assembly approved a new constitution that will permit left-leaning President Rafael Correa, elected in 2006, to dissolve the Congress, influence the high court system, and exercise extensive control over the formerly autonomous Central Bank. It will also allow Correa two consecutive four-year terms, opening the door for his retaining office until 2017. The new constitution contains numerous nationalist planks, such as the rejection of international arbitration of investment disputes and a prohibition against foreign military bases, a clause aimed at ending the presence of the U.S. forward-operating, anti-drug air base at Manta. (Walser/Roberts)
  • And in Peru, Chavista front organizations called “ALBA houses” are attempting to undermine support for the center-Left government of Alan Garcia. These putatively charitable organizations, funded by Venezuelan oil wealth funneled through Bolivia, are indoctrinating Peru’s rural poor in radical Leftist ideology. (See “Fighting for Freedom in Rural Peru: ‘ALBA Houses’ Threaten Democracy,” by James Roberts and Edwar Enrique Escalante, The Heritage Foundation, August 18, 2008. Mr. Escalante is the Executive Director of ANDES LIBRES in Cuzco, Peru, an organization that provides a counter influence to the Chavista ALBA houses.)

Peru is but one example of a country with a center-Left government not under the sway of Chavez. Daremblum points out that these countries are friends of democracy and civil society:

… it should be clear by now that Chávez does not speak for the South American left. In 2003, a center-left Chilean government signed a free trade agreement with the United States. In Brazil, the center-left Lula government has pursued a sound, market-oriented economic agenda and worked with the Bush administration to promote ethanol production. Peru’s center-left president, Alan García, has embraced market reforms and free trade. In early 2007, the United States and Uruguay signed a “Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.” Uruguay, too, has a center-left government, led by President Tabaré Vázquez. In other words, Chávez is losing the ideological battle, and we should not inflate his stature or the extent of his influence.

As both Walser/Roberts and Daremblum argue, now is the time to show support for our democratic friends in Latin America. One positive step to help Colombia would be for Congress to pass the Colombia-U.S. free trade agreement.