- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The 1950 movie “Harvey” starred Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd - a middle-aged, somewhat eccentric man whose best friend was an invisible six-foot, three-and-a-half-inch tall rabbit named Harvey. Throughout the film, Dowd convinces others the rabbit exists. But not until the movie’s end do viewers learn whether Harvey is real or just a figment of Dowd’s colorful imagination.

Unfortunately, Elwood P. Dowd lives today as president of a South American country. Dowd’s real-life version is Hugo Chavez, the middle-aged, somewhat eccentric leader of Venezuela. And, just as Jimmy Stewart sought to convince others about the existence of an invisible rabbit only he could see, today Mr. Chavez seeks to convince others an invisible enemy exists, visible only to him. To Mr. Chavez, that enemy - the United States - is his justification for taking various initiatives depleting valuable domestic resources (better used to address the country’s internal ills) and destroying his nation’s democratic foundation. Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of Dowd made for a cute story; Mr. Chavez’s portrayal does not.

For years, Mr. Chavez has sought to convince all who will listen that the U.S. is conspiring to invade Venezuela. In 2005, he called the U.S. “the most savage, cruel and murderous empire that has existed in the history of the world,” which “won’t stop caressing the idea of invading Cuba or invading Venezuela.” He claims “socialism is the only path,” praising Cuban leader Fidel Castro and “Che” Guevara. He struggles to “save the world threatened by the voracity of U.S. imperialism.”

Allegedly to protect him against his non-existent rabbit, Mr. Chavez just embarked upon another billion-dollar-plus shopping spree, buying more Russian weapons, including air defense systems and submarines.

Any Venezuelan possessing common sense knows what Mr. Chavez is doing. Transitioning the country from democracy to totalitarianism, he seeks to distract the people’s attention. It is a ploy of all tyrants seeking to strengthen their own power base by creating an outside threat - an enemy either real or imagined. As people focus on the external threat, they are blindsided by the internal one, enabling a leader to strip them of individual freedoms. The Russian arms purchase also underscores the wannabe dictator’s concern that his regional influence may be waning.

Elected president in 1999, Mr. Chavez did something that should have immediately set off alarms for democracy supporters - quietly opening his nation’s doors to Cuban security personnel. Their mission was twofold - provide him protection against the same people who had elected him to office and re-structure Venezuela’s intelligence services along the lines of Havana’s. Having used the vehicle of democracy to gain power, he then sought to strip it of all “unnecessary” parts that might interfere with his long term objective - to gain power for life. This meant subtly stripping Venezuelans of individual rights.

Critics of his socialist policies tried to stop Mr. Chavez - but both a 2002 coup and a 2004 presidential recall effort failed. Disconcerted, Mr. Chavez turned to using the country’s enormous oil resources to buy supporters, both domestic and international. Pushing his socialist program as his re-election approached, he issued special pay bonuses for all government workers to “encourage” support. He took his landslide election victory as a mandate to run the country as he desired. He signed a law giving him authority, for 18 months, to rush legislation through unchallenged by any other domestic authority. Having neutered the government’s legislative and judicial branches, he sought to make himself president for life, proposing 69 amendments to Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, including this right. While all proposed amendments were defeated, it was a shockingly close vote - only a 2 percent margin - undoubtedly emboldening Mr. Chavez to try again.

As Mr. Chavez strips his country of oil revenues to support Cuba and other like-minded leftist leaders and buy unnecessary weapons, Venezuela lapses into a state where corruption eats away at the government infrastructure. Now one of the most corrupt places on Planet Earth, Venezuela has become a lawless territory where justice is not sought but bought.

The Cubans are not the only foreigners Mr. Chavez welcomed to Venezuela, posing a threat to his countrymen’s freedoms. In a move to antagonize the U.S. but which, unwittingly, endangers Venezuela itself, Mr. Chavez welcomed representatives of Hezbollah. This springs from his close relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who financially supports the terrorist organization. But by embracing Hezbollah and Iran, Mr. Chavez releases a vibrant strain of hatred, intolerance and violence into South America in the form of Islamic extremism, seeking death within the world community not only for the U.S. but all non-Muslim states - which includes Venezuela. Mr. Chavez ought to read the Iranian constitution’s mandate giving Mr. Ahmadinejad authority to export the Islamic revolution throughout the non-Muslim world.

In the last scene of the movie “Harvey,” Dowd’s sister tries to commit him to a sanitorium. But Dowd even convinces the doctor Harvey exists. Harvey then is given the choice of remaining at the sanitorium or leaving with Dowd. As Dowd departs, shutting the door, viewers see an invisible hand open it behind him to leave as well.

In the movie, Dowd’s friend exists; in real life, Mr. Chavez’s enemy does not. Unfortunately, no invisible U.S. hand will reach down to open a sanitorium door to put this Venezuelan strongman away where he belongs. But, absent a wake-up call as to Mr. Chavez’s designs on tyrannical rule, millions of Venezuelans will suffer the consequences.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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