Chavez in Full view.(COMMENTARY)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Chavez in Full view.(COMMENTARY)


Byline: Constantine C. Menges, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The recent events in Venezuela were dramatic. Yet much of the discussion in the United States began and ended with the fact that President Hugo Chavez had been democratically elected in 1998. Ignored were his record of anti-democratic governance since taking office in 1999, his alliances with terrorist partner states like Cuba, Iraq and Iran, his sponsorship of state terrorism and the implications of these facts for the future.

On April 9-10, hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters from pro-democratic political parties, labor unions, and business and civic associations marched in the Venezuelan capital to show their opposition to the latest anti-democratic actions of Mr. Chavez.

In response, Mr. Chavez mobilized his paramilitary armed thugs, the "Bolivarian Circles," and they were televised shooting the unarmed protesters, killing and wounding more than 100 while others sped around Caracas on motorcycles looking for journalists to attack. Mr. Chavez also sent armed supporters to close down television stations reporting of the protests.

When Mr. Chavez ordered the military to use force to halt the peaceful demonstrations, 30 senior officers refused to obey. They said Mr. Chavez had violated "democratic principles" and that they would no longer recognize his authority because they wanted to "avoid more spilling of blood and the destruction of our brave people and their institutions." From their point of view, those military leaders were joining a broad-based civic movement calling for the end of an emerging Chavez dictatorship, just as had occurred in 1945 and again in 1958 when a civil-military coalition removed a dictator and Venezuela began its four decades as a political democracy.

Understanding the reasons all the pro-democratic groups in Venezuela oppose Mr. Chavez requires a brief review of his anti-democratic actions, which have been little noted outside of Venezuela.

Mr. Chavez moved Venezuela through four principal phases. First, the use of illegal and pseudo-legal means to invalidate the existing constitution (in force since 1961) and have a new constitution written by his supporters (1999). Second, under the new constitution, having himself eligible to be president for two six-year terms and obtaining a unicameral legislature that would give him dominant federal powers (2000). Third, beginning his "social revolution" by using presidential decrees in the fall of 2001 to begin confiscating private property.

The fourth phase began in January when Mr. Chavez established the Political Command of the Revolution under his direct control to supervise the "Bolivarian Circles," an armed militia of Chavez supporters who would intimidate and if necessary seek to defeat the political-civic opposition and the Venezuelan armed forces. This was intended to assure his indefinite continuation in power.

In a March television appearance, Mr. Chavez announced his decision to allocate $150 million from the federal budget to his armed thugs. This was illegal because the legislature had not given its approval.

The pseudo-legal ending of the existing democratic political system began in April 1999 when Mr. Chavez called a referendum to decide whether a Constituent Assembly should be convened to write a new constitution for Venezuela. The major democratic parties did not feel there was any need for a new constitution, but demoralized and intimidated, they made virtually no effort to contest the issue. The lack of citizen support for a new constitution was seen in the fact that only 39 percent of the Venezuelan electorate voted in the referendum.

In July 1999, elections were held to choose the delegates for the Constituent Assembly. Chavez supporters were confident, active and intimidating, while those representing the pro-democratic parties were fearful and only beginning to return to political activity.

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