Hugo Chavez Tightens His Grip in Venezuela. Can US Do Anything about It?

Article excerpt

With the US focused on other parts of the world, Latin American neighbor Hugo Chavez has tightened his hold on power. The next Congress may press Obama to act, but what are his options?

While the Obama administration was focused on Iran, Middle East peace, and arms control with Russia in recent weeks, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been busy consolidating his already extensive powers, which now include a mandate to rule by decree.

The deterioration of democratic standards in a neighboring country is likely to emerge as a front-burner issue in Washington in 2011 - in part because voices in a new Congress are promising to prod what they see as a neglectful administration into action.

But it remains unclear what the Obama administration will be able to do about Mr. Chavez's recent acts even if it decides that Venezuela's slide from democracy is a priority.

With the Bush administration's unsuccessful attempts at thwarting the leftist-populist Chavez a fresh memory, and with the Obama administration's own foray into Latin American political peacemaking - in Honduras - having won few friends, Obama may be left with few options beyond regional diplomacy, some Latin America experts say.

"We can expect a lot more heated rhetoric, much tougher rhetoric about events in Venezuela in the coming weeks, especially once the new House of Representatives comes in," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "But the policy options are limited to the realm of encouraging a tougher stand in the region on what can only be called a power grab."

In response to a surprisingly strong showing by his opposition in September legislative elections, Chavez has pushed through a raft of laws designed to blunt the impact of the new National Assembly that takes office on Jan. 5. The measures range from further clampdowns on press freedom to tighter rules for political parties.

Rule by decree

But perhaps the most sweeping law allows Chavez to rule by decree - without consultation of the new Congress - until mid-2012.

Passage of the new laws has prompted cries of "coup d'etat!" from Chavez's political opposition and has prompted a cry of alarm from some in Washington. US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) Florida, who becomes chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee next month, is blasting the Organization of American States (OAS) for standing by as Chavez continues to consolidate power and silence his opponents.

"It is shameful that Chavez's actions to usurp power and impose Castro-style control over the media have been met with barely a whimper from most member-states" of the OAS, an organization she said is "supposed to promote and protect democracy in the Western Hemisphere. …