- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

In Venezuela, the heavy-handed charges against two opposition leaders suggest President Hugo Chavez is determined to prove his harshest detractors right. And the best that can be said of the recent violence perpetrated by Chavez supporters is that the president has become unable to secure the safety of citizens.

At midnight last Wednesday, business leader Carlos Fernandez, one of the leading organizers of a two-month strike that ended Feb. 4, was arrested by armed police agents while at a restaurant and charged with rebellion and incitement, among other things. Labor leader Carlos Ortega, also a strike organizer, faces a warrant for his arrest on the same charges and has gone into hiding. The Venezuelan Embassy didn't respond to our request for comments on these actions.

These grave charges seem inconsistent with involvement in a strike, however injurious it may have been to the economy. But they become even more worrisome when examining their context.

After the strike was called on Dec. 2, Mr. Chavez began threatening extra-judicial retaliation against those involved. Earlier this month, when Venezuela imposed new currency-exchange restrictions, Mr. Chavez said "orders [to officials] will be: not one dollar to coup mongers." And Mr. Chavez had "sentenced" strikers from the bully pulpit. Shortly before Mr. Fernandez was arrested last week, Mr. Chavez said oil-industry strikers were "terrorists" and "coup mongers" and must be sent to jail. On Friday, Mr. Chavez demanded 20-year prison terms for Messrs. Fernandez and Ortega. "These oligarchs believed that they were untouchable. There are no untouchables in Venezuela. A criminal is a criminal," he said.

Mr. Chavez has managed to carry out his extra-judicial designs through the judiciary. And human-rights groups are taking notice. "The judiciary has a key role in preventing these events from triggering an escalation of the human-rights crisis," said Amnesty International in a statement Friday. Amnesty also has expressed concern regarding the vigilantes wreaking violence to counter opposition to Mr. Chavez. Earlier this month, the corpses of three dissident soldiers and one woman were found, with signs of torture. The victims had participated in an anti-Chavez demonstrations. Amnesty called for an impartial investigation into the killings.

The terrorist bombings at the Spanish Embassy and Colombian Embassy yesterday were also perpetrated in Mr. Chavez's name. Leaflets scattered at both sites said, "Our revolution will not be negotiated, only deepened." Interestingly, Mr. Chavez had recently lashed out against the governments of Spain, the United States and Colombia for criticizing the Chavez administration. "I ask of all of the countries of this continent and the world … Are you going to stop this meddling?" He said, "It's worth remembering that the Spanish ambassador was here, in this room, applauding the [April] coup," and added, "We say the same thing to the government in Washington. Stop making mistakes."

The timing of the bombings, which injured five persons, was not lost on the White House. "We note that these bombings followed the sharp verbal attacks by President Chavez on the international community as well as Venezuelans," said State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker.

Any of these recent incidents is worrisome enough. Collectively, they suggest that the current Venezuelan government is not merely a left-wing populist regime, but may be evolving into a police state. If Mr. Chavez does not pull back into constitutional government, it will be a tragedy for the Venezuelan people and the beginning of a substantial foreign-policy danger for the hemisphere.

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