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20 February, 2009

Chavez on despots' term-cutting edge - But sinking oil revenues may provide a slippery power base

The Washington Times, Chavez on despots' term-cutting edge -

But sinking oil revenues may provide a slippery power base Helle Dale - Thursday, February 19, 2009 Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez must be the envy of aspiring despots the world over today. On Sunday, he received the endorsement of the Venezuelan people for potential life tenure as president of his country by a vote of 54 percent to 45 percent. Mr. Chavez has already been a blight on the map of Latin America for the last 13 years, and he now promises to run for office again and again and again - like a malignant Energizer bunny. THE WHOLE WORLD SHOULD TAKE ACTIONS TO PREVENT ANOTHER TOTALITARIAN REGIME IN THE AMERICAS Why the Venezuelan people voted for him is probably no mystery. For one thing, Mr. Chavez has been buying their votes with his version of "21st century socialism," meaning populist policies funded by oil revenue. For another, as this was the second time Venezuelans were asked to vote to eliminate presidential term limits, they may well have reasoned that the tenacious Mr. Chavez would keep asking them the same question until they got the answer right. As a consequence, they may just have resigned themselves to their fate. For the rest of us, the referendum produces that sinking feeling that democracy once again is on the retreat after almost two decades of great advances. The axiom about the inverse relationship between proven oil reserves and good governance certainly holds demonstrably true - i.e., the more oil you have in the ground, the likelier you are to be governed by a despot. But as easy as it is giving up on democratic reforms in regions where autocracy today is on the rise, supported by recent years' high oil prices, it is premature to do so. In countries like Venezuela , Russia or Iran , the presence of energy wealth and high oil revenues has masked the need for economic reform and diversification, as well as covering up mismanagement, waste and inefficiency. When oil prices tumble as they are now doing, this nasty gaggle of chickens will come home to roost. Mr. Chavez may well be looking forward to another six years in power and more, but he may get more than he bargained for. While oil revenues have kept him afloat with money to buy the favor of the Venezuelan people for two terms already, the recent drop in oil prices could eventually lead to social upheaval in Venezuela and an end to the Chavez era. The Venezuelan economy depends more on oil revenues today than ever. Oil accounts for 92 percent of Venezuela 's exports, compared to 64 percent a decade ago. Venezuela 's budget, which reflects $78 billion in public spending for this year, is based on a price of oil in the range of $60 per barrel. That is certainly not a realistic figure anymore. Due to declining demand for energy due to the global economic downturn, oil today stands at just $35 per barrel. It might decline as far as $25 per barrel in the second quarter, according to the forecast of Morgan Stanley. It sure sounds like Venezuela 's poor - Mr. Chavez's power base - are in for lean times (or leaner times, more precisely), which they probably will not like very much. Will this make Mr. Chavez less of a foreign policy problem for the United States in the future? Could be. According to the Annual Threat Assessment delivered Feb. 12 to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, "Chavez is likely to face new constraints in 2009 as he attempts to expand his influence in Latin America . ... falling oil prices could further undermine his ability to buy friends." Similar constraints will face other international troublemakers with oil - Russia and Iran , for instance. The scenario of the Russian government running out of money, even as it embarks on an ambitious course of revanchist expansion in its neighborhood, is of course very pleasing to contemplate. So is the thought of Iran having problems funding its nuclear program. Unfortunately, it is always the people who will suffer the funding shortages first before military programs see any shortfalls. Despots like those running Venezuela , Russia and Iran are always in search of external enemies to justify to their people the despots' hold on power - enemies usually identified as the United States or Israel . Still, their ability to weather declining oil revenues falls far short of that of the United States and other modern economies, a silver lining in dark economic times. Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. Copyright 2009 The Washington Times, LLC __________________________________________________________________________ Is Hugo Chavez the future? Mona Charen - Thursday, February 19, 2009 Venezuela 's president, Hugo Chavez, rebuffed by voters in his previous attempt to become president for life, has now taken a giant step closer to his goal. A reported 54.4 percent of voters approved a referendum on Feb. 15 that would permit Mr. Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely. It was the sort of "election" we remember from the communist days - or see today in Zimbabwe . According to the Economist: "Public buildings and vehicles were plastered with pro-Chavez propaganda. State television and radio channels turned over almost their entire resources to promoting the campaign. And even the Caracas metro obliged passengers to listen to campaign jingles." In 2007, opposition to Mr. Chavez's power grab was led by students. But this time, Mr. Chavez ordered that demonstrations against the referendum were to be broken up "with a good dose of gas." Now, a triumphant Mr. Chavez declares, the way is clear to lead Venezuela to "21st-century socialism." We know what Mr. Chavez means by this. He has been implementing his socialism, which is barely distinguishable from Fidel Castro's, since 1999. Freedom of the press is a memory in Venezuela . Newspapers and electronic media that opposed Mr. Chavez have been harassed. The 2004 "Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television" requires all outlets to carry Mr. Chavez's speeches in full, contains penalties for a variety of offenses and insults, and permits licenses to be revoked for a second offense. Globovision, a private 24-hour cable news channel, was recently accused of insulting Mr. Chavez. Pro-Chavez legislators have urged the attorney general to investigate. Meanwhile, thugs linked to the government lobbed tear gas canisters into the newsroom. RCTV, the second-largest television channel in the country, was closed down altogether in 2007. The Jewish community of Caracas has been the object of repeated harassment. Official media have anathematized Jews and Israel . A Jewish community center was violently attacked twice. In a Christmas Eve speech a few years ago, Mr. Chavez accused Jews of killing Christ and causing poverty and suffering around the world. Mr. Chavez maintains a close relationship with Iran 's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and has concluded a $20 billion joint venture deal with Iran . In recent weeks, Mr. Chavez ratcheted up the anti-Israel rhetoric, expelled Israel 's envoy to Venezuela , and encouraged his supporters to protest what he called a "genocidal holocaust against the Palestinian people" before Israel's embassy. In late January, vandals struck a Caracas synagogue. They defaced the building with anti-Semitic slurs and destroyed several Torah scrolls. They also stole a roster of synagogue members along with several computers and the tapes from the building's security cameras. Mr. Chavez issued a one-sentence condemnation of the attack but then immediately insinuated it was actually the work of his enemies: "Some sectors of the oligarchy want to overshadow the advances of the revolution with acts of violence." His supporters in the press took up this theme with gusto: "The synagogue case seems to us like a media show assembled by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad," opined Hindu Anderi, a pro-Chavez journalist, in a government newspaper. But when, a couple of days later, Mr. Chavez reversed himself and announced arrests in the case (though dubious arrests - one "suspect" is the former bodyguard of the rabbi), his press lackeys switched gears as well. Mario Silva, host of a government television program, scorned the synagogue's rabbi for failing to express sufficient gratitude to the regime for making arrests. "I still have not seen the first declaration from the rabbi of the synagogue saying, 'Sirs, I am thankful to the government,' " Mr. Silva sneered. A decade ago Venezuela was a thriving and free (if somewhat corrupt) ally of the United States . Today, it is a bitter enemy, and its domestic corruption is infinitely worse. The results of the referendum and the consolidation of power by Mr. Chavez suggest Venezuela will plunge even deeper into despotism and poverty. The global recession holds many terrors, but none so urgent as the danger that more nations, wracked by unemployment and declining living standards, will fall into the hands of political extremists and despots. Absent the Great Depression, could we imagine Germany falling under the spell of Adolf Hitler? There is so much at stake in stopping our momentum toward depression. Global depressions lead to political disasters. But our leaders seem more intent on satisfying their pent-up demand for government goodies and punishing their favorite whipping boys (bankers, businessmen) than in focusing on the real danger. Their dereliction may turn out to be a great crime. Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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