Venezuela's Chavez Tightens Grip ; President Hugo Chavez Begins His Third Term Wednesday, after Announcing Plans to Nationalize Power and Telecom Firms

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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 station, RCTV.

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 government.

"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 same fate."

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 retreating.

Chavez is also gearing up to change the constitution to allow his indefinite re-election - and has vowed to remain in power until 2021.

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. …


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