The Magazine

Hurricane Hugo

From the August 8, 2005 issue: Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is a threat to more than just his own people.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By THOR HALVORSSEN
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In an interview with Voice of America in 1999, the late Constantine Menges of the Hudson Institute predicted that "Chávez will stir up revolution and violence throughout Latin America. The longer he is in power, the more he can use the oil wells of Venezuela to do so." When Menges spoke, the price of oil had briefly dipped below $10 per barrel. Since then, oil prices have quintupled, making the Chávez government the richest in Venezuelan history and vastly multiplying the damage it can do.

There is now incontrovertible evidence, for instance, that Chávez has financed, harbored, and supplied weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's narcoterrorists. Last December, high-ranking FARC terrorist Rodrigo Granda was arrested in Caracas. Granda had been living in baronial splendor under the protection--and at the expense--of the Chávez government. Bounty hunters kidnapped Granda and drove him to Colombia, where he is now imprisoned and awaiting trial. Days after the arrest, El Salvador president Antonio Saca announced plans to investigate ties between Chávez and his country's FMLN terrorist organization. In Nicaragua, Chávez has funded Daniel Ortega's Sandinista party; in Bolivia, he funds Evo Morales, the leader of the coca-growers' movement.

But Chávez's ambitions extend beyond the Americas. He has signed treaties for "technological cooperation" with the dictators of Libya, Iran, and Syria. He has numerous business interests in those countries, and has publicly described the terror-sponsors who rule them as his "partners" and "friends." The feeling is mutual. Iran and Libya have hundreds of millions invested in Venezuela. Significantly, Chávez was the only foreign leader to visit Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf war. During his visit he embraced Saddam and called him "brother."

There is no sign that these alliances proceed from anything other than Chávez's deepest convictions. Less than a month after taking office, Chávez wrote a fan letter to Illich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan-born terrorist imprisoned at La Santé maximum-security prison outside Paris. Popularly known as "Carlos the Jackal," Sanchez began his long, bloody career by shooting Joseph Sieff, a Jewish businessman in London. He committed terrorist bombings in France, hijacked airliners, and kidnapped the OPEC ministers in Vienna. After retiring to the Sudan, he was captured and sent to France to stand trial for murdering two Parisian police officers. Yet Chávez addressed Sanchez as "Distinguished Compatriot" and lavished praise on him. He described himself as "swimming in the profundities expressed in [Sanchez's] letter," and signed off "with profound faith in the cause and the mission." When the letter was leaked, Chávez dismissed all criticism and said he was simply expressing solidarity with a fellow Venezuelan.

THAT EXPRESSION OF SOLIDARITY IS CHILLING. During the last six years, Chávez has restructured Venezuela's institutions and policies to extend his rule; he has concentrated his power, and he has disabled the democratic opposition. Always proceeding with the patina of popular support and the pretense of legality, he has used a constituent assembly to establish a new constitution giving him wide powers. He has packed the courts with loyal judges and purged the military of anyone who might oppose his orders. The Chávez government has severely restricted freedom of the press, most recently banning any public or private expression of opposition to the government. After winning a Jimmy Carter-endorsed August 2004 referendum marred by accusations of fraud and voter harassment, Chávez revved up his revolutionary project. The raid on Colegio Hebraica was a significant shift in the politics of intimidation.

Predictably, the storming of Hebraica turned up nothing and the police publicly acknowledged that the search had been "unfruitful." Of course, the raid was fruitful insofar as it sent a message to the Jewish community. Venezuela's chief rabbi denounced the raid's "economy of intimidation," noting that "there is not a single Jewish family in Caracas that was not affected. Many of us have children in the school, grandchildren, great-grandchildren--or friends. An attack on the school is the most effective way of jolting the entire Jewish population."