- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

The short-lived, 48-hour coup against Venezuela President Hugo Chavez happened for a very good reason: The leftist nationalist, who is more than cozy with Cuba, Iraq, Libya and Columbia's Marxist guerrillas, has been driving Venezuela's economy into the ground.

At a time when even the world's most socialist countries are rapidly moving toward free-market economies, Mr. Chavez has been turning this oil-rich but impoverished nation sharply leftward, with disastrous results. His job approval scores have plummeted from 80 percent in 1999 to the low 20s in the past few months.

Narrowly elected in 1998 on a promise to open the economy and alleviate poverty, Mr. Chavez has become Venezuela's Fidel Castro: Delivering three-hour plus speeches, placing political cronies in the state-run oil industry, which accounts for half of the country's revenues, and imposing sweeping state regulations on an already overregulated economy that cries out for huge doses of economic freedom.

His draconian 49 economic laws, dictatorially decreed last year, have plunged the country into chaos and worsened its two-thirds poverty rate. A land reform program has killed private property rights that are essential to economic growth and foreign investment, which has fallen precipitously. Its trade tariffs have risen, freezing needed imports out of the economy. There is a huge and growing black market

Venezuela is the fourth-largest oil exporter in the world and America's third-largest source of petroleum. But with all Venezuela's energy riches, Mr. Chavez has managed to cut its economic growth rate to zero. Inflation has shot up to 20 percent. The government is deeper in debt, and credit is extremely tight.

Mr. Chavez has turned increasingly hostile toward the United States. He criticized administration policy in Afghanistan. He has urged OPEC to push up oil prices to squeeze the U.S. economy at a critical time in the war against terrorism. Then he cut Venezuela's oil production to spike world oil prices, openly throwing his support to Iraq's oil extortion policies toward the United States.

But his far-left, anti-U.S. economic policies were not his only sins. As the military, business leaders, unions and the news media turned virulently against him, and public demonstrations turned into a general strike, Mr. Chavez attempted a media blackout by boosting the government's propaganda broadcasts over television and radio for hours on end.

The TV networks fought for their freedom to report what was going on in by running split screens, half showing the government's broadcast and the other half showing and reporting on the demonstrations by labor union dissidents.

Mr. Chavez denies he gave the order to shoot demonstrators when violence broke out last week, triggering the ill-fated coup by dissident military officers. Some two dozen were killed in the uprising. Investigations have been initiated and, upon his return to power when the provisional government collapsed, Mr. Chavez promised a more open government.

Behind all this lies the still-murky response by the United States that appeared to support the coup's leaders in the hours after the takeover. U.S. officials reportedly met with Chavez opponents in the weeks leading up to the coup.

It is certainly clear that the United States was not unhappy when word came that Mr. Chavez had been toppled from power, nor were Latin American countries like Brazil and Columbia.

Now, however, Mr. Chavez is back in power and a continuing source of concern to the United States as he moves Venezuela further to the left economically and politically. He came to power on a promise that his so-called "Bolivarian revolution" would institute a new web of state price controls, subsidies and other economic regulations that would more equitably spread the wealth derived from oil.

Instead, he has made Venezuela poorer than ever. There is no new job creation, no new business investment, no new foreign investment. The best and the brightest of this once-wealthy country are fleeing, and with them the chances of future growth and new enterprise.

Immediately after Mr. Chavez's return to power, oil market prices shot up on fears that he would continue to restrict production to turn the energy screws ever tighter on the United States, whom he now believes was part of the "Machiavellian" plot to remove him.

Despite his conciliatory rhetoric in the aftermath of the two-day coup, Mr. Chavez bears close watching in the months to come. President Bush said that in the war against terrorism, you are either with the United States or with the terrorists. Chavez appears to be increasingly on the side of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi and other thugs who are the enemies of the United States.


Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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