There is serious trouble brewing in the South American country of Venezuela. The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is increasingly showing signs of totalitarian tendencies and that can only spell bad news for Venezuela’s citizens, her neighbors, and the United States.
That Chavez is a dictator in the making is clear. Ever since he came to power, he has slowly been extending his control over other branches of government. He has packed the courts with his supporters and fired judges who have aided the opposition, creating a judiciary that the U.S. State Department calls “corrupt.”
Just last week, the Venezuelan government passed a law prohibiting media outlets from “disrespecting” government officials. The law would prevent the press from saying anything about the military, legislators, the attorney general, the public prosecutor, or even the treasury inspector that could be construed as disrespectful. This added on to an existing law forbidding the defamation of the president, vice-president and the Supreme Court, further eroding the press’ ability to hold elected leaders accountable.
Chavez has also called for the creation of a 150,000-strong “reserve army” made entirely of volunteers. Claiming the United States is plotting to assassinate him and seize Venezuela’s oil reserves, the reserve units are ostensibly organized to repel invasions by a “foreign power.” But it is far more likely that the reserves are really political militias, designed to harass and intimidate Chavez’s opponents. Retired Colonel Jos? Machillanda, member of the Institutional Military Front and an expert in military matters, has said the reserves will transform the regular army into “Cuban-style militias.”
Even more worrying is the idea that these militias might become heavily armed militias. Until now, they have been training without weapons. Recently, however, Venezuela purchased 100,000 AK-47s from Russia. This move has drawn much attention from the United States, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has questioned the need for Venezuela to purchase these guns, speculating that many of the guns will not reach the army’s hands.
In that sense, he is quite correct, but his concern is mainly that the weapons will fall into the hands of the FARC in Columbia. It is far more likely that the rifles will find their way into the ranks of the militias, giving them decisive power to oppress their fellow citizens.
Yet the concern by the Bush administration over Venezuela’s arms purchases has merit. Along with the AK-47s, Venezuela is also negotiating the purchase of 40 MiG-29 jet fighters and 10 attack helicopters. This military buildup plays against the backdrop of tensions with Columbia over excursions both countries have made into each other’s territories. Two heavily armed neighbors engaging in border disputes is not a healthy recipe for peaceful relations.
Also, like any dictator, Chavez needs external enemies to solidify his support among the people. He has already displayed a propensity to blame the United States for his country’s troubles, and a regional war would stir up nationalistic fervor among the populace. An opposition eviscerated or completely vanquished by internal oppression will be ineffective in reigning in such militaristic impulses.
With a strategic offensive underway against the FARC in Columbia, the United States cannot afford the instability that a war will cause. So what can the United States do to reign in Chavez?
We can start by supporting the opposition in Venezuela. We can do this by direct monetary support, as well as by pressuring Chavez with sanctions or other economic penalties whenever he cracks down on dissent. The downside is that Chavez has promised to cut oil exports to the United States if we do, thus punishing us with high oil prices. But since the United States is the single largest importer of Venezuelan oil, such a move would hurt Venezuela far more than it would hurt us.
We can also try to isolate Venezuela internationally. Linking international support to Venezuela’s human rights record would be ideal in preventing Chavez from claiming moral high ground. And working bilaterally or through the United Nations, we should try to prevent countries like Russia from supplying Chavez with weapons or giving him financial support. By working with other countries we can prevent the type of conflict that can destabilize the region and hurt American interests as well as help real democracy flourish in Venezuela.
Sean Paroski is a senior applied mathematics major.