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