As he begins his third presidential term Wednesday, Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez has laid the groundwork for a sharp leftward
shift and launched a clampdown on dissent, in what analysts see as a
broad-based effort to strengthen his grip on power.
Emboldened by his resounding reelection victory on Dec. 3, Mr.
Chavez announced plans this week to nationalize power and telecom
companies as part of an accelerated move toward socialism. This
comes after he had begun to act on longstanding threats to close
media outlets aligned with the opposition, refusing to renew the
broadcast license of Venezuela's oldest commercial television
In the past week, he has purged his cabinet of ministers deemed
insufficiently radical, bringing in a new group of loyalists that
includes his brother, Adan. He has begun to merge the more than 20
parties in his governing coalition into a single force under his
control. And, under a controversial new law, he is set to take
control of nongovernmental organizations that could oppose his
"I don't think there is a lot of ambiguity about what Chavez is
doing," says Michael Shifter, an analyst at Interamerican Dialogue
in Washington, DC. "He wants to hold on to power for as long as
possible, and even though he just won a resounding reelection, he
doesn't want to take any chances of dissent building."
Crackdown on dissent
The Venezuelan president's decision to close RCTV, which has been
broadcasting since 1953, has been met with strong criticism from the
Organization of American States (OAS), the Catholic Church, and from
press freedom campaigners like Reporters Without Borders. Jose
Miguel Insulza, OAS secretary general, said the move smacked of
"censorship against freedom of speech and a warning to other media,
encouraging them to limit their operations so as not to face the
But Chavez, who referred to Mr. Insulza as an "idiot," says he
will defy any international criticism.
Chavez is also moving to take control of civic groups, some of
which have been critical of his government. Under a proposed law now
in Congress, NGOs will have to reregister with the government, even
if they have been operating legally for years. Foreign funding will
have to pass through the government, and NGOs would have to open
their files to anyone that requests it. Human rights campaigners say
it would effectively end their work.
"If approved, it will [effectively] outlaw all nongovernmental
organizations" working in Venezuela, says Liliana Ortega of the
Venezuelan human rights group, Cofavic. "There will only be groups
approved by the government."
Amnesty International has called on Chavez to revoke the bill,
with a spokesperson saying it would "restrict the legitimate work of
human rights defenders in Venezuela." But Chavez shows no signs of
Chavez is also gearing up to change the constitution to allow his
indefinite re-election - and has vowed to remain in power until
Mr. Shifter believes Chavez's effort to change the constitution
could meet with substantial opposition within his own coalition.
That could be a reason why Chavez is moving to take control of both
supporters and critical NGOs.
"He would be in better shape to assure his power if there are no
independent, critical civic organizations that could offer a channel
for dissent and challenge to the regime," says Shifter. …