Communism's new champion
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez no longer tries to hide his leanings as he reaches for power.
By DAVID ADAMS
Published January 10, 2007
MIAMI - It took him eight years to come out of the closet.
But Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez finally revealed his true colors Monday: a bright, bold communist red.
He announced that he would nationalize the country's power and telecommunications companies and sent their stock plunging in New York and Caracas.
But it's hard to see what the surprise was about. Since he took office in January 1999, Chavez has marched around the continent - make that the globe - in a bright red shirt bad-mouthing capitalism and American imperialism.
So it must have stuck in his craw that two of the biggest utilities back home were in private U.S. hands.
Electricidad de Caracas, which provides energy to the capital, was privatized in the early 1990s before being sold to Arlington, Va.-based AES Corp. in 2000. C.A. Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela, known as CANTV, is the country's largest publicly traded company and is controlled by U.S. telecom giant Verizon Communications Inc.
"We are in an existential moment of Venezuelan life," Chavez said. "We're heading toward socialism, and nothing and no one can prevent it."
Chavez supporters point out that he won re-election in December with 63 percent of the vote on a socialist platform. "It should not be cause for surprise, or alarm, that the government would attempt to deliver some of what Venezuelans voted for," says Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Political Research.
"Chavez's method is very improvisational," says Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. "He's feeling strong right now. He's got a few more allies in the region, so he moves more aggressively."
Of course, Chavez doesn't make it all up as he goes along. "The consistent thing with Chavez is that he wants more power. He has this huge appetite and quest for it," says Shifter.
So what's next for Chavez? Oil, most likely.
Since the late 1990s, major oil firms, including the U.S. giants Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Conoco-Phillips, have invested billions of dollars in four refineries in the Orinoco River basin. Venezuela's state-owned company, PdVSA, owns between 30 and 49 percent of each project. Chavez made it clear that he didn't like his country's share, saying control "has to be passed on to Venezuela."
Chavez has already raised taxes and royalties on foreign oil companies. So far, the oil companies have gone along, not wishing to lose their stake altogether. With so many regions off-limits to U.S. companies, they can't be too picky.
Some critics wonder if Chavez is moving too fast. Last month Chavez announced he would not renew the license of RCTV, a radio and television outlet he accuses of backing a brief 2002 rebellion against him. RCTV's record of impartiality may not be stellar, but the state already has ample broadcast outlets.
If Chavez's mission truly is a communist state, then the country's education system could be his next target. He continues to chafe at the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, so it's possible he could try to limit its educational services. Last week he appointed his brother, former ambassador to Cuba, as education minister.
That might be too radical even for Chavez. He might settle for beefing up public education, with a good dose of Cuban-style socialist indoctrination.
Reforms aside, Chavez seems bent on promoting his own personality cult.
Monday he chose to speak in front of a 10-foot-tall photo of himself - hands outstretched as if to bless his flock.
He told his Catholic critics that Christ was a communist, too. Anyone who wanted to understand socialism in the 21st century, he said, should consult Marx, Lenin and the Bible.
Chavez ended with a flourish. Instead of his usual homage to Venezuela's favorite son, Simon Bolivar, he adopted Fidel Castro's legendary signoff: "Fatherland or death, we will win!"
-- Additional reporting by Phil Gunson in Caracas.
[Last modified January 10, 2007, 05:15:14]
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