Civil Society Under Siege in the Andes

Alex Adrianson /

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:

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.