Acton Commentary

The Chavez Road to Serfdom


Liberty and democracy in Venezuela are crumbling under the dictatorial leadership of Hugo Chavez. Venezuela, the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, has an unemployment rate nearing 21 percent. The government monopolizes and mismanages the country’s most valuable natural resource, with its potential yearly earnings of $130 billion dollars. Under the Castro-style leadership of Hugo Chavez, the rule of law and promotion of property rights is nothing more than a fairy tale. To date, more than 3 million citizens, aware of these facts, have formally demonstrated their desire to have Chavez removed immediately, before the nation collapses.

These 3 million people signed a petition calling for a recall referendum on the despotic rule of Chavez. The five-member National Electoral Council, unfortunately, recently rejected this petition. Venezuela’s Constitution allows a petition for a recall halfway through a president’s term of six years. The council voted 3-0, with two abstentions, to reject the petition because the signatures were collected too many months before the August 19 halfway point of Chavez’s current six-year reign, which began in 2000. The petition effort to recall Chavez, as a result, will resume in October.

The recall effort has won the full support of the Catholic bishops conference of Venezuela. Archbishop Baltazar Enrique Porras Cardozo of Merida, citing the “great insults committed by the president of the nation, Hugo Chavez,” called for the urgent holding of the recall referendum, as provided in the nation’s Constitution.

Chavez, a former military officer, was involved in a failed 1992 coup to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andres Perez. Chavez spent two years in prison before bursting onto the political scene a few years later in 1998, declaring Marxist class warfare in Venezuela and winning the presidency. He promised to use the coercive power of the state to bridge the gap between the wealthy and the poor. But under his reign, poverty has actually increased. In addition, corruption and violence are now the norm. There have been several national strikes crippling the oil industry, the economy is in decline, and the national currency, the Bolivar, plummeted 25 percent against the dollar last year as the government instituted exchange rate controls. This explains why his approval rating hovers at 35 percent.

The President, who has expressed admiration for Fidel Castro, recently instituted new policies and programs in the wake of the recall petition. The L.A. Times reports that Chavez is now providing basic reading and writing instruction for the poor. Hundreds of thousands of children are in school for the first time. Government credits are being issued giving poor families the ability to plant crops, organize businesses, repair homes, and so on. Last week, Chavez’s personal attempt to teach literacy classes to poor children via a live, two-hour broadcast from his palace was marred by his misspelling a simple verb. The government interrupted all other programming on television to broadcast the event. (Venezuelan telecommunication laws grant the president the power to break into television broadcasts at his whim.)

But an astute observer of these antics is fully aware that this president’s recent post-petition reforms are merely designed to prolong his political control. As a champion of Cuba-style communism and a friend of the deposed Saddam Hussein and his regime, Chavez is merely dangling a carrot in front of the poor promising to use force to bring down those who produce the nation’s wealth. He refers to business owners as “fascists.” While it is true that many in the Venezuelan business community have not been concerned about producing quality products and providing a dignified work environment, turning free enterprise into the enemy has led to economic disaster.

Government credits, furthermore, have been issued to the poor for the purchase of homes, but those who participate can only sell their homes in the case of an emergency and with permission from the government. The poor are being tricked into believing that they have property rights when, in the end, the government has final authority on how the land is used. The poor still have no economic liberty even though they are led to believe so.

A new state television network will soon begin operation because Chavez believes that private stations air programs and commercials directed against his government. In other words, the private stations promote free speech and air the opinions of the citizens. The government’s interests, then, are best supported on state television. In some countries, like Castro’s Cuba or the Iraq of Sadam Hussein, people might call this new station a propaganda machine and a tool to distract the masses from the real issues that plague the nation: namely, the political and economic enslavement of Venezuelans.

What remains absent from much analysis on Venezuela is specification of which political and economic structures promote human dignity and freedom. Chavez is correct to promote home ownership, but poor Venezuelans should have plenary ownership that gives them freedom to use the land in a way that best meets the needs of individual families and communities. Moreover, there is no effective check on the power of Chavez and his government. The political apathy of the business sector is now crippling the economic prosperity of the entire nation. The Venezuelan Constitution ratified by its citizen—not the opinions of the Chavez inner circle—must be the basis of law. Poverty fosters illiteracy, increasing the dependency of the poor on surrogates for sustenance and knowledge. As a result, the citizenry are not in control of their own political and economic future.

If Chavez were a real champion of the people, he would provide a context for Venezuelans to lead lives of independence rather than subjugation. Complete privatization of the oil industry would be a great first step, leading to the development of ancillary markets, increasing employment opportunities, and thereby bolstering the wealth of the poor. Without free enterprise and a decentralizing of power, Venezuela will never actualize its $130 billion potential. In the final analysis, the primary obstacle to economic and political liberty in Venezuela is the government of Hugo Chavez—an opinion shared by more than 3 million Venezuelans.