- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

It is not often we have the opportunity to watch a dictatorship being established. But few question this is now under way in Venezuela.

Following his 2006 re-election, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has made no secret of his intention to remove whatever remaining restraints exist upon his power. Mr. Chavez has asked, for example, for constitutional changes eliminating term-limits on the presidency. He also wants to abolish the central bank’s independence as part of his socialist Venezuela agenda.

Mr. Chavez also intends to ask Venezuela’s legislature — controlled by his allies — for the power to impose several “revolutionary laws” by decree. This proposal will remind those conscious of historical analogies of the infamous “Enabling Act” passed by Germany’s Reichstag in 1933, establishing the legal foundations for the National Socialist dictatorship.

No one seeking to build socialism, however, has ever been content with totally controlling the state apparatus. Invariably their attention turns to other spheres of society. For several years, Mr. Chavez has been reducing the size and independence of Venezuela’s private sector, most recently by nationalizing power and telecommunications companies. He has also stated his intention to close private media outlets critical of his policies.

This recent decision produced polite but firm objections from the leaders of Venezuela’s Catholic Church. Mr. Chavez’s response was to publicly attack the Archbishop of Caracas, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, and to issue veiled threats of aggression against the Church.

Such behavior should not surprise us. There are three things all aspiring dictatorships seek to control or destroy. The first is private property. Undermining this institution encourages economic dependency on the state while simultaneously stripping people of private resources they might use to support political opposition. Thus we see Mr. Chavez nationalizing various industries, confiscating land, and attempting to control private companies, especially in the oil industry.

A second target of dictatorships is the family. Most such regimes seek to weaken family loyalties by turning children and parents against each other and encouraging everyone to regard the state as an alternative parent. Here Mr. Chavez’s moves have involved attempting to militarize as many young people as possible, and his education law which will, Cardinal Urosa Savino believes, result in the “politicization and ideologizing of education” and diminish parents’ ability to control their children’s education — especially their religious education.

This brings us to the third objective of any dictatorship: suppression of religious liberty. The autonomy enjoyed by the church creates a sphere of activity independent of the state. Invariably this results in dictators attempting to demolish religious faith, as one saw in the Soviet Union, or a Kulturkampf against churches, as occurred under the Nazi regime.

Mr. Chavez is undoubtedly aware that the Catholic Church is one of the few autonomous institutions left in Venezuela. Thus far Mr. Chavez’s Kulturkampf has manifested itself in publicly insulting any Catholic bishop questioning government policy (he once called Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara an “outlaw”) and his efforts to diminish church influence upon education. The latter earned him a public reprimand from Benedict XVI during Mr. Chavez’s 2006 visit to the Vatican.

The other element of Mr. Chavez’s strategy for neutralizing the Catholic Church is his self-immersion in Christian imagery. Mr. Chavez uses what Archbishop Jose Baltazar Porras of Merida calls the language of “Messianism” to try and persuade people that socialism is Christianity — hence, Mr. Chavez’s recent reference to Christ as “the greatest socialist in history.” “The Kingdom of Christ,” Mr. Chavez has stated, “is the kingdom of socialism.”

President Chavez is probably unfamiliar with the mountains of papal and church documents condemning socialism in theory and practice. He is, however, acutely conscious of the esteem in which the Catholic Church is presently held throughout Latin America.

A much-cited 2005 Latinobarometro poll analyzing public opinion in 17 Latin American countries revealed that just 18 percent of Latin Americans trusted political parties, 28 percent trusted their legislatures, 38 percent trusted private business, 42 percent trusted the military, and 43 percent trusted their presidents.

But the poll also revealed the Catholic Church is the most respected organization in Latin America. Seventy-one percent of Latin Americans surveyed stated they trusted the Catholic Church. The figure was even higher in Venezuela (74 percent). No wonder, then, Mr. Chavez is so anxious to “Christianize” his political program, even while disparaging the church to which 96 percent of Venezuelans belong.

Just after Mr. Chavez’s re-election, Cardinal Urosa Savino declared the Catholic Church’s opposition to any “line of totalitarianism, a statist vision.” The Church, the cardinal insisted, is not seeking confrontation. He and the Venezuelan bishops have, however, put Mr. Chavez on notice that they will continue to speak against Venezuela’s slide into populist-left caudillismo, no matter how much Mr. Chavez drapes it in Christian symbolism.

Many Christians have been martyred for far less.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute.

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