Thursday, September 21, 2006

In Chávez's Crosshairs

September 22, 2006

Fidel Castro is not far from death. That's one conclusion to draw from his failure to get out of bed for the summit of the non-aligned nations held in Havana last week.

The other telling sign that the long-winded tyrant is not coming back, despite Cuban claims that he is on the mend, was Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's performance at the United Nations on Wednesday. Clearly the revolutionary baton has been passed to the kook from Caracas, Castro's wealthiest and keenest protégé.

After this week, Americans are likely to be focused on the nexus between Venezuela and Iran, whose president rivaled Mr. Chávez as the scariest speaker at the General Assembly. Yet there is an equally pressing threat from Venezuela right in the U.S. backyard. The battleground is Bolivia, which Mr. Chávez badly wants to control so he can seize that country's natural-gas reserves and become the sole energy supplier in the Southern Cone. In doing so, he hopes to seriously damage the Brazilian economy and crush Brazil's geopolitical ambitions as the leader in South America. In its place he wants to plant the flag of Venezuelan hegemony. If he gets away with it, Argentine and Chilean sovereignty would also be diminished and continental stability lost.

To avoid this grim outcome and preserve Bolivian democracy, the U.S. could start by studying Mr. Chávez's path to power, which included help, both passive and active, from Washington.

Theatrics aside, the Venezuelan's verbal assault this week against the U.S. was hardly a news flash. Mr. Chávez has been spouting this stuff for eight years while Venezuelan democrats have been begging the world to take note of it. Democratic Congressman William Delahunt, former Republican Congressman Jack Kemp and the Washington law firm of Patton Boggs all worked to give Mr. Chávez an image makeover in the U.S. so that Venezuelan cries for help might be ignored even as the aspiring dictator was consolidating power.

It seems to have worked too. Let's not forget what happened when Venezuelans tried to remove Mr. Chávez in a 2004 recall referendum. The European Union refused to act as an observer, citing lack of transparency. But that didn't stop Jimmy Carter or the Organization of American States, both of which went along to "observe" a vote cloaked in state secrets. When OAS mission director Fernando Jaramillo cried foul at the many government pre-referendum pranks and Mr. Chávez complained about him, OAS chief César Gaviria yanked Mr. Jaramillo from the country just ahead of the vote.

Exit polls showed that the Venezuelan president was badly beaten in the contest but the chavista-stacked electoral council declared him the winner. Mr. Chávez refused to allow independent auditing of voting machine software or a count of paper ballots against machine tallies. Mr. Carter together with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega and the OAS, rushed to endorse the vote despite the lack of transparency and many testimonies to state-sponsored intimidation and dirty tricks. In the heat of the battle, the National Endowment for Democracy cruelly threatened the country's most important independent electoral watchdog that if it didn't accept Mr. Chávez's victory, NED would pull its support.

Mr. Chávez now boasts that he was democratically elected and foments hatred against his neighbors, including the U.S. Wednesday's Castro-esque message claimed that the "non-aligned" movement intent on going nuclear has only pure motives, while the U.S. president is the devil.

Still Hugo knows that rhetorical bullying from the U.N. pulpit can take him only so far. Both Mexico and Peru rejected Chávez proxies this year in presidential elections. While he might still get a foothold in Nicaragua if Daniel Ortega wins there in November, what he really wants to do is knock Brazil down a few notches. And there is no better way to do that than to hit its energy supply. This explains the blitz the chavistas are now putting on in Bolivia to make that country a (hydro) carbon copy of Venezuela.

Mr. Morales rose to executive power by first using violence to bring down two constitutional presidents and then forcing a new election, which he won. He dreams of an indigenous, collectivist Bolivian economy under the thumb of an authoritarian government. Never mind that most native Bolivians are highly entrepreneurial.

His power is boosted by his support for Bolivian coca growers against U.S.-mandated eradication efforts. He is also being coached by Mr. Chávez. He has nationalized investments in the natural-gas industry and he ruled that agricultural land be redistributed to peasants. He has purged the military of its highest ranking professionals and he has arrested or threatened to arrest some 150 of his political opponents. Bolivia is now blanketed with Cuban doctors and teachers. Cuban security detail protect the president while Venezuelan energy advisers are said to be setting policy in the natural-gas sector.

Yet there is serious resistance in the eastern states and some admission from La Paz that the country is too poor to cut itself off from the world. Last week Mr. Morales had to fire his energy minister after Brazil threatened to exit the country when the minister announced the seizure of two more Brazilian owned refineries.

Such acquiescence toward Brazil has to be frustrating Mr. Chávez and any chance to defeat those in his way now lies with the rewriting of the Bolivian constitution. But there is a problem there too. Mr. Morales's party has just over 50% of the constitutional assembly seats. That means that in order to steamroll the opposition the government must force a change in the approval requirement to a simple majority from a two-thirds vote, which is now the law.

Seven of the nine state governors have objected to this but Evo's side is again threatening violence. Bolivia could use some help from the international community. One thing the U.S. could do to weaken Evo is end insistence on coca eradication, which while failing to reduce drug use has alienated peasants. What is clear is that doing nothing while Mr. Chávez seizes power on the continent is not an option.

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