- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

The recent events in Venezuela were dramatic. Yet much of the discussion in the United States began and ended with the fact that President Hugo Chavez had been democratically elected in 1998. Ignored were his record of anti-democratic governance since taking office in 1999, his alliances with terrorist partner states like Cuba, Iraq and Iran, his sponsorship of state terrorism and the implications of these facts for the future.
On April 9-10, hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters from pro-democratic political parties, labor unions, and business and civic associations marched in the Venezuelan capital to show their opposition to the latest anti-democratic actions of Mr. Chavez.
In response, Mr. Chavez mobilized his paramilitary armed thugs, the "Bolivarian Circles," and they were televised shooting the unarmed protesters, killing and wounding more than 100 while others sped around Caracas on motorcycles looking for journalists to attack. Mr. Chavez also sent armed supporters to close down television stations reporting of the protests.
When Mr. Chavez ordered the military to use force to halt the peaceful demonstrations, 30 senior officers refused to obey. They said Mr. Chavez had violated "democratic principles" and that they would no longer recognize his authority because they wanted to "avoid more spilling of blood and the destruction of our brave people and their institutions." From their point of view, those military leaders were joining a broad-based civic movement calling for the end of an emerging Chavez dictatorship, just as had occurred in 1945 and again in 1958 when a civil-military coalition removed a dictator and Venezuela began its four decades as a political democracy.
Understanding the reasons all the pro-democratic groups in Venezuela oppose Mr. Chavez requires a brief review of his anti-democratic actions, which have been little noted outside of Venezuela.
Mr. Chavez moved Venezuela through four principal phases. First, the use of illegal and pseudo-legal means to invalidate the existing constitution (in force since 1961) and have a new constitution written by his supporters (1999). Second, under the new constitution, having himself eligible to be president for two six-year terms and obtaining a unicameral legislature that would give him dominant federal powers (2000). Third, beginning his "social revolution" by using presidential decrees in the fall of 2001 to begin confiscating private property.
The fourth phase began in January when Mr. Chavez established the Political Command of the Revolution under his direct control to supervise the "Bolivarian Circles," an armed militia of Chavez supporters who would intimidate and if necessary seek to defeat the political-civic opposition and the Venezuelan armed forces. This was intended to assure his indefinite continuation in power.
In a March television appearance, Mr. Chavez announced his decision to allocate $150 million from the federal budget to his armed thugs. This was illegal because the legislature had not given its approval.
The pseudo-legal ending of the existing democratic political system began in April 1999 when Mr. Chavez called a referendum to decide whether a Constituent Assembly should be convened to write a new constitution for Venezuela. The major democratic parties did not feel there was any need for a new constitution, but demoralized and intimidated, they made virtually no effort to contest the issue. The lack of citizen support for a new constitution was seen in the fact that only 39 percent of the Venezuelan electorate voted in the referendum.
In July 1999, elections were held to choose the delegates for the Constituent Assembly. Chavez supporters were confident, active and intimidating, while those representing the pro-democratic parties were fearful and only beginning to return to political activity. The groups opposing Mr. Chavez received 38 percent of the vote, compared with 42 percent for the pro-Chavez slates of candidates. By a fraudulent process the pro-Chavez 42 percent of the votes was translated into 93 percent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly while the opposition parties received only the remaining 7 percent of the seats.
In August 1999, this Chavez-dominated Constituent Assembly convened and immediately took actions to neutralize and usurp the authority of the existing judiciary and of Venezuela's elected Congress, where Chavez supporters had won only 20 percent of the seats.
On Aug. 25, 1999 the Constituent Assembly, in violation of the existing constitution, declared a "legislative emergency" and forbade the elected national Congress from meeting. From that time on, the elected national Congress was effectively sidelined. These actions in July and August 1999 marked the Chavez regime as anti-democratic and in complete violation of the then-existing Venezuelan constitution.
Democratic political leaders in Venezuela appealed to the OAS, the Clinton administration, and other countries to speak out against these unconstitutional actions but heard only silence.
Under the new constitution, Mr. Chavez obtained re-election as president and a new legislature, where his supporters held 60 percent of the seats, but the democratic opposition parties held the rest, a sign of their revival. Independent observers such as the Roman Catholic Church questioned the accuracy of the vote counting process for both the presidential and legislative elections.
Mr. Chavez now moved to use pseudo-electoral means to put his loyalists in control of the powerful independent labor unions grouped together in the Venezuelan Confederation of Labor (CTV). It has a long history of supporting political democracy, opposing dictatorship and a well-organized membership more than a million. On Dec. 3, 2000, Mr. Chavez held a national referendum on whether all the union leaders should be dismissed from their positions. With turnout at only 23 percent, the referendum passed.
Labor leaders claimed this referendum violated the Chavez 1999 constitution, provisions of which protect union leaders from state intervention. Nevertheless, the CTV leadership was required to resign and run in new union elections for office, and 80 percent of previous CTV leaders were re-elected.
Having escaped the Chavez takeover attempt, the CTV labor unions have been all the more vigorous in their campaign for the restoration of democracy and opposition to Mr. Chavez. They have called a major pro-democracy demonstration for May 1.
Coercive actions against journalists have been systematic but hidden. They include anonymous threats, ostensibly criminal attacks, and sending journalists verbatim transcripts of their conversations with democratic opposition leaders whether on their cell phones, in their offices or elsewhere. This disguised repression of a free press will undoubtedly increase.
Internationally, Mr. Chavez has established alliances with Cuba, Iraq and Iran, all state supporters of terrorism. He has provided the Castro regime with free oil, probably worth $2 billion, and worked closely with Cuba in support of the communist guerrillas in Colombia and other anti-democratic movements attacking nearby countries.
Even the Clinton administration departed from its silence on Mr. Chavez, stating in December 2000 that the Venezuelan was supporting "violent movements opposing the governments of Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador." There has been an increasing flow of credible evidence, including from the former Chavez chief of intelligence, that the regime has been and remains a state supporter of terrorism through its aid for the Colombian communist guerrillas and other radical groups.
If and as Mr. Chavez consolidates his control in the coming weeks and months, his actions will threaten democracy in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, where Mr. Chavez and Fidel Castro both hope to repeat the pattern of a pseudo-constitutional takeover through the election of the radical Ignacio da Silva as president in October. That could bring nearly 300 million people under the control of pro-Castro-Iraq radical regimes before 2004 a major gain for anti-U.S. terrorism and a major setback for the people there and for the Bush administration.

Constantine C. Menges is a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute.

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