- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2010


As a veteran of the Washington policy world, I know all too well how easy it is for politics to trump principles.

And as someone who grew up in Miami right after the Castro-led nightmare, I am particularly familiar with how populist rhetoric can pave the way to a totalitarian state trapped in a cycle of fear and poverty - for, of course, the good of the people.

For years I have watched Hugo Chavez follow an all-too familiar course: From the bright upstart who in 1998 promised to improve the welfare of his fellow Venezuelans, safeguard their rights with a revamped constitution and clamp down on corruption, he has become the demagogue who has abolished term limits to ensure his grip on power, packed the country’s supreme court and clamped down on the media.

Power can corrupt, to be sure, and sadly, we don’t have to look as far as Venezuela for examples. But it is not Mr. Chavez’s principles that shock and dismay me (sicken, perhaps, but not shock). It is the leftist elite outside Venezuela, including in our own country, who continue to support a man increasingly open in his scorn for the cornerstones of a civil, liberal society: rule of law, separation of powers, a democratic electoral system, human rights and freedom of speech.

This is to you, Hollywood: Supporting a politician, in this country or abroad, merely because he opposes the right is a terrible basis for endorsement. Tactics matter, and never so much as when they undermine the very principles they are espoused to support.

Mr. Chavez’s own tactics are increasingly heavy-handed. In December, he jailed Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni after she conditionally freed a businessman who had been imprisoned without trial for nearly three years in violation of Venezuela’s own laws and international human rights principles.

Around the same time, businessman Ricardo Fernandez Barrueco was jailed in what now appears to have been the launch of a new round of Mr. Chavez’s power-consolidation efforts. The government seized Mr. Barrueco’s four banks as well as his food-distribution company and froze his assets. Like Judge Afiuni, Mr. Barrueco has yet to have his day in court (and given Judge Afiuni’s fate, it will take a brave jurist indeed to probe for the truth).

More recently, Caracas took over Venezuela’s eighth-largest bank, citing irregularities. One of them, no doubt, was that owner Nelson Mezerhane is also a shareholder in Globovision, the last anti-government television station left in the country. RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest public-broadcast station, lost its public broadcast license in an act of political retribution in 2007 and was permanently taken off the airwaves in January when it refused to broadcast a Chavez speech.

Mr. Mezerhane’s partner and Globovision’s majority owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, was arrested on charges of slander in March. Like Mr. Mezerhane, he has fled the country and is in exile. They are joined in exile by Pedro Torres Ciliberto, another prominent businessman, whose three banks were seized recently by the government.

All told, Venezuela has privatized about a dozen banks in the past several months, securing its control of roughly 30 percent of the industry. These latest moves come on top of Mr. Chavez’s well-publicized takeovers of other key markets, including oil, agribusiness and telecommunications, often nationalizing assets held by European and American companies that were invited to invest in the country years earlier.

We don’t have to look as far back as the Cuban Revolution (after which Mr. Chavez appears to be modeling his own consolidation of power) to see what these events portend. The 2003 arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, chief executive of the Russian oil powerhouse Yukos, is still fresh in the minds of many international observers, as is then-President Vladimir Putin’s subsequent takeover of the company and the rise of the newly authoritarian Russian state.

To all the aspiring socialists out there who cannot scrape together much sympathy for bankers and media moguls, consider them the rats in the coal mine (or, for those who have fled to exile, rats leaving a sinking ship).

Mr. Chavez’s misuse of power and the corruption of his government affect everyone, and true populists should care.

Six months ago, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report that found that basic principles of democracy and human rights are violated regularly in Venezuela. Since then, things have only gotten worse: The murder rate is soaring. Two bloggers were arrested for tweets they posted, with threats of further Internet censorship. A presidential decree has created a Center for Situational Studies of the Nation with broad censorship powers.

Next month, Venezuela will hold its first parliamentary elections in nearly five years. The opposition sat out the last election in protest. Now it is back and campaigning hard.

It is to Mr. Chavez’s opposition that Americans who believe in the audacity of hope should be giving their support.

Robert Raben was an assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration.

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