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Chavez's Venezuela: No Laughing Matter

from the September 26, 2006 eNews issue

Over the past seven years Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has virtually destroyed what was once the most stable and prosperous democracy in South America. Over half of Chavez's constituents live in poverty. Inflation in Venezuela has risen to 15 percent and unemployment rates stand at 13 percent. In addition, violent crime, particularly in the capital city of Caracas, has risen exponentially in recent years. Venezuela now has the highest number of deaths by gunfire per capita in the world, the situation has been described as being "absolutely out of control."

Before Chavez came to power in 1998, oil-rich Venezuela was a wealthy nation and one of South America's oldest democracies. This wealth attracted a large influx of poor immigrants from neighboring Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and the Caribbean. The poor became increasingly resentful of the wealthy and middle class. Hugo Chavez, imprisoned for a failed coup in 1992 but was later released, became the champion of the poor during the 1998 elections.

Chavez, an avowed socialist, won the election with 56 percent of the vote. He immediately embraced Cuba's communist leader, Fidel Castro, as Venezuela's chief ally. He also called Iraq's Saddam Hussein his "brother" and aligned himself with Libya's Moammar Qadaffi. Chavez then formed alliances with North Korea's Kim Yong-Il and then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Over the last year, foreign relations between the United States and Venezuela have steadily gotten worse. In a recent speech before the United Nations General Assembly Chavez referred to President Bush as "the devil" and "a tyrant." His comments provoked laughter among members of the General Assembly, and have become the topic of much media attention. He described the United States' as the "greatest threat looming over the world today," and said that "The United States empire is on the way down and it will be finished in the near future, for the good of all mankind."

Oil for Harlem

Just one day after Chavez's speech at the United Nations he appeared at a church in Harlem, where he continued his criticisms of the Bush administration and discussed the expansion of a heating oil initiative. Last year the Venezuelan-owned oil company Citgo began a program to provide cheap fuel to low-income families in Boston, Chicago, and New York. The non-profit organization involved in distributing the fuel, Citizens Energy Corporation, was founded by Joseph Kennedy II, a liberal activist and son of the late senator Robert F. Kennedy.

The fact that someone like Chavez is taking an interest in helping America's underprivileged should raise red flags. After all, Chavez dealings with the United States have been anything but diplomatic. Make no mistake, this latest maneuver is not an act of charity. It is a calculated political maneuver to buy influence among members of congress. He has made similar deals in neighboring countries as a means of strengthening ties with those who share similar ideals. In Nicaragua, for example, Chavez has sold oil at below market price to political leaders with socialist leanings.

Speak No Evil

Despite growing inflation, unemployment, poverty, and crime, Hugo Chavez has retained a measured amount of popularity. Chavez has managed to survive several efforts to remove him from office, including an attempted coup and a national referendum. He has held on to power in large part because of an aggressive propaganda campaign that has shifted the blame for the people's problems on everyone from the nation's bureaucrats to the tyrannical empire that is the United States.

Chavez is up for re-election in December. In a bid to retain the presidency and thus "continue the revolution" Chavez has been tightening his grip on Venezuela's freedom of speech. Chavez has passed new laws regulating the media as well as a new penal code that criminalizes virtually any expression to which the government objects. The new laws state that "anyone who offends with his words or in writing or in any other way disrespects the President of the Republic" can be thrown into prison. The laws apply to comments made both publicly and privately. Journalists accused of receiving any type of foreign funding can be thrown into prison for up to 30 years and are not entitled to legal due process.

A Growing Threat

In the past year Venezuela's defense budget has increased by 31 percent, to over $2 billion. That number does not include a $2.2 billion defense deal recently made with Spain. Venezuela is buying helicopters, boats and military transport planes. They have also purchased 100,000 Russian-made Kalashnikov assault. Plans are also being made to buy submarines and Russian fighter jets. (In addition to its arms deals, Russia has also endorsed Venezuela's bid to join the UN Security Council.)

Venezuela is one of the founding members of OPEC and is strongly aligned with the Islamic oil producing nations of the Middle East. President Hugo Chavez has repeatedly defended Iran in its dispute with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program, saying Iran has a right to atomic energy. In recent months the trade volume between Iran and Venezuela has skyrocketed. When the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-member governing board voted to report Iran to the UN Security Council, only Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela voted against the resolution.

Venezuela is emerging as a potential hub of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere, providing assistance to Islamic radicals from the Middle East and other terrorists. Middle Eastern terrorist groups are operating cells in Venezuela, including support cells for organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Thousands of Venezuelan identity documents are being distributed to foreigners from Middle Eastern nations, including Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, and Lebanon.

The restriction of democratic freedoms in Venezuela and the infiltration of Islamic radicals into South America are serious concerns. Although the situation in Venezuela has been largely overshadowed by events in the Middle East, it still poses a serious threat to the interests and security of the United States.

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