Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Chavez takes over

Hugo Chavez's captive National Assembly voted to give him the power to legislate by decree for 18 months, marking another step in Venezuela's remarkably open journey from democracy to dictatorship.

So what does he have in mind?

Chavez, a former paratroop commander re-elected with 63 percent of the vote in December, has said he will decree nationalizations of Venezuela's largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector, slap new taxes on the rich, and impose greater state control over the oil and natural gas industries.

The one I have the most problem with is the nationalization of the telecom. State control of the media is the first prerequisite for tyranny, and there's no compelling reason for it.

The law also allows Chavez to dictate unspecified measures to transform state institutions; reform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations; decide on security and defense matters such as gun regulations and military organization; and "adapt" legislation to ensure "the equal distribution of wealth" as part of a new "social and economic model."

Chavez's defenders like to minimize his powers, noting that they are carefully defined and restricted to certain topics. But read the above list: what has been left out? His new authority is properly described as "sweeping." The only real check is the National Assembly's ability to revoke his power.

Chavez plans to reorganize regional territories and carry out reforms aimed at bringing "power to the people" through thousands of newly formed Communal Councils designed to give Venezuelans a say on spending an increasing flow of state money on projects in their neighborhoods, from public housing to potholes.

Local control over spending is a fine principle, but a lot depends on how those Communal Councils are formed and operated. Anyone want to bet that they turn into a patronage mill for Chavez supporters?

Sad as it is to see what is happening to democracy there, our proper response is to do nothing. As I've written before, Chavez is genuinely popular in Venezuela. His actions have majority support at the moment. I think Venezuelans will come to regret throwing democracy away, but if they want a socialist dictatorship they should have it, and it should be none of our business.

But it is sad to see George Lucas made into a prophet: "So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause."

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