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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And, as it happened, on the same day Hebraica was raided, Chávez was on a state visit to Iran. Just that morning, the Tehran Times had quoted his praise of President Khatami and the Iranian theocracy. Analysts in Venezuela suspect the true purpose of the raid originated in Chávez's eagerness to display solidarity with the Iranian mullahs. Chávez had traveled to Iran by way of Tripoli, where he described himself as "bathed in honor" after receiving the fantastically named Muammar Qaddafi Prize for Human Rights. In his acceptance speech Chávez was unequivocal: The "time is right to unite and face the imperialist challenge. Like Yasser Arafat, I now have only the revolutionary's gun since the olive branch has fallen."

Days afterward, Chávez accused Washington of unleashing "real terrorism" in Iraq and called for a "jihad" on American imperialism. Appearing on Al Jazeera, he described President Bush's foreign policy as vigilante violence: "It is not a war on terrorism, it is terrorism itself." From Iran, Chávez traveled to China, where he announced that China would replace the United States as the principal beneficiary of Venezuelan oil. By the end of his trip, Chávez had signed agreements with President Hu Jintao granting the China National Petroleum Corporation control of 15 Venezuelan oil fields, thereby securing for China a billion barrels of Venezuelan crude. Shortly after, Chávez declared himself a Marxist-Leninist in a speech in Calcutta. He then signed petroleum agreements with the Indian government while again indicating his desire to cut off Venezuelan oil exports to the United States.

In addition to his ideological alliances, petro-politics, and support for guerrilla terror throughout Latin America, Chávez has begun expanding Venezuela's military capability. In the past year he has more than tripled the Venezuelan military budget, purchasing 20 high-performance MiG fighter jets and 100,000 AK-47 machine gun rifles from the Russian government as well as an unprecedented number of helicopter gunships, surface-to-air missiles, and Onyx missiles (which can sink aircraft carriers). This spring, Chávez defended Iran's nuclear development program after warmly receiving their president in Venezuela and signing new "technological" treaties. In March he announced the creation of a two-million man reserve army to defend the revolution "against the American invasion."

THE VENEZUELAN OPPOSITION is a loose-knit, underfunded network of individuals and small organizations powerless to offer much more than moral opposition to Chavismo. The military hierarchy is incapable, after six years of demoralization, rampant corruption, and regular purges, of restoring any semblance of constitutional order. Any effective response to Chavismo will have to be, in part, international.

Most important for now is persistent public exposure of Chávez's increasing militarism, assaults on democracy, human rights abuses, and free speech violations, as well as his involvement with terrorist groups in South America and terror sponsors in the Middle East. Such exposure will ideally arouse international public opinion against Chávez and nurture new leadership inside Venezuela that will provide democratic alternatives to Chavismo.

Under Chávez, more than one million Venezuelans have voted with their feet in the largest political exodus in Latin America since the Cuban migrations of the 1960s. Venezuela's Jewish community has been halved over the past six years. Many of the children and grandchildren of those who arrived on the Koenigstein and Caribia have now left the country. Fortunately, there are no exit restrictions--yet.

Thor Halvorssen, a civil liberties advocate, is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.