Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently warned that we must learn the lessons of those who ignored the mad ravings of Hitler and Lenin as foolish words that could never be put into action.
Rumsfeld talked about the harm that political corruption brings to any nation, and he went on to assess the current political situation in Venezuela. With candor that always marks Rumsfeld’s assessments, he stated the obvious, “[Hugo Chavez] is a person who was elected legally — just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally — and then consolidated power and now [Chavez] is, of course, working closely with Fidel Castro and Mr. Morales and others.”
Rumsfeld is hounded by the national and international press for his direct and matter-of-fact approach to politics. He sees his approach as simply reporting the facts. In this case, his unrehearsed but concise analysis of the current situation in Venezuela was clear and accurate.
Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, has become one of the greatest threats to international stability in the Western Hemisphere. Chavez has been peddling his socialist revolution as an alternative to free-market reforms and inciting anti-American protests alongside his comrade-in-arms, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. He thrives on the attention his remarks bring to him, but it is not his words that are most worrisome.
The threat to international stability derives neither from his opposition to neo-liberal reforms in Latin America nor his anti-American sentiment. On the contrary, Chavez threatens international peace and stability because he has been moving from a democratically elected populist to a dictatorship, and his country is home to the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East.
After attempting to gain power in two unsuccessful military coups, Chavez and his Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) came to power through a competitive election in 1998 with a socialist, revolutionary agenda. Chavez, however, backed by his military junta, quickly organized a National Constitutional Assembly to consolidate absolute power. Not surprisingly, the Assembly drafted a constitution that greatly augmented the authority of the executive branch including "rule by decree." At the same time the new constitution significantly reduced the powers of the legislative and judicial branches. Chavez and his gaggle of conspirators endowed themselves with the power to sack court justices who criticize their rule and have used this power to pack the courts with Chavistas (Chavez supporters).
Likewise, the recent national elections resulted in a 100% Chavista victory in the National Assembly, where all 167 seats were won by Chavez supporters. The courageous opposition boycotted the elections after it was discovered that fingerprinting machines at voting sites were connected to secret software, which would allow officials to pair the vote cast with the voter.
This opposition is particularly courageous because those who dare to stand against the Chavistas are denied jobs and public services for expressing their dissenting views. The fabric of democracy in Venezuela has been methodically unraveled and woven into a tapestry of Fascism.
In Venezuela, democracy and civil rights have not been the only political victims. The free-market system is slowly being dismantled in favor of a more state-controlled economy. Chavez, exercising his "rule by decree" power, has declared that the state can seize what it considers "under-utilized" property and redistribute it for better utilization. The decree runs roughshod over private property rights, undermines the faith in business/private contracts, and provides Chavez with another means to punish his opponents.
Chavez, who dons his characteristic red shirt and paints himself in the image of Simon Bolivar (the famous South American liberator), has exercised his ever-increasing and expanding power to push initiatives like his "Revolution of the Poor." The "revolution," by all objective standards, has been a resounding failure and produced more patriotic vitriol than meaningful results. In spite of double digit growth in 2004, almost 75% of the Venezuelan people still live in poverty, and nearly 40% live in extreme poverty.
While Chavez has been the self-proclaimed defender against so-called "Yankee Imperialism," he has his own imperial designs for Latin America in the form of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). The ALBA would remove the influence of the United States in Latin America and would integrate the entire continent politically, socially, economically and militarily. As a result, Latin America would resemble, and likely be dominated by, Venezuela and Cuba. The ALBA sounds like a pipe dream, but the uneven balance of leftist governments and recent elections (i.e. Evo Morales) in Latin America make the scenario more plausible.
Furthermore, vast oil reserves and revenues are being used to court potential allies (China, Cuba, Iran and North Korea) and threaten enemies (the United States), which threatens U.S. national security and political stability in the Western Hemisphere.
Oil reserves and revenue are being used to implement his imperial design for South America. Chavez and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner are working to build an oil pipeline spanning the entire continent from Caracas to Buenos Aires. However, Kirchner should remember that the one who controls the oil spigot (and money) holds the power, and Chavez will not hesitate to use (or, at least, threaten) oil as a weapon.
In fact, Chavez has repeatedly threatened to withhold oil shipments from the United States; however, the use of oil as a weapon goes both ways. Venezuela’s extra-heavy crude must be processed by special refineries, which are currently owned by the United States, and more than 80% of Venezuela’s central government revenues come from the oil industry.
While the March of Freedom is moving across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, Chavez and Castro are trying to turn back the clock on democracy in the Western Hemisphere. The United States should exercise great prudence in its foreign policy, particularly with Chavez.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and State Department officials have been successful at ignoring Chavez, but they need to spend more face-time with Latin American governments willing to work with the United States. Benign neglect of Latin America simply cannot be an option. The United States cannot get side-tracked or bogged down by bellicose political rhetoric from Chavez or his surrogates. It should remain steadfast in pursuing its agenda in the region like negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
In particular, the U.S. should remind Venezuela that having oil reserves does not permit its government to act with impunity. The nation of Venezuela has international obligations and responsibilities, and it must live up to its responsibilities, specifically the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Chavez’s socialist experiment has persisted since 1998, and Venezuela is beginning to resemble Hitler’s Germany in its descent from democracy toward dictatorship. With this in mind, the United States must work towards creating a Western Hemisphere that will be a shining example of democratic peace and prosperity for the world. It is within in our power and important to our security to assure that the dictators of the world have had their last unity session in Castro’s Cuba.