CARACAS, Venezuela – Hugo Chavez (search), the left-wing leader who is moving toward totalitarian rule at home in Venezuela and backing guerrilla movements in the region, could become a test for the new Bush administration.
"I think we have to view, at this point, the government of Venezuela as a negative force in the region," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her confirmation hearings last month.
Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil producer; Chavez basically controls 15 percent of U.S. oil imports. He allegedly is taking billions of dollars in revenue to grease the way to one-man rule of a country with a 50-year history of democracy.
His critics say the government's use of its oil wealth threatens the region.
Venezuela's oil revenues subsidize food prices for the poor, although a large bottle of cooking oil can cost just pennies. The money generated from the $50-per-barrel cost also is being used to buy weapons such as 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles and 30 attack helicopters from the Russians. There also have been discussions about a possible $4 billion purchase of advanced MiG fighter jets.
One U.S. State Department official noted, "We shoot down MiGs."
Political science professor Anibal Romero called Chavez a "dangerous fellow, a confused person who is deeply anti-American and is prepared to do terrible things."
Oil also is sold at cut-rate prices to Cuba, which in exchange supplies doctors, teachers and military advisors to Venezuela. Chavez opponents say Cuban leader Fidel Castro is his model.
"Some people here are very worried about what's going to happen. … If you don't have rules or somebody who respects the rules, they can do whatever they want — they can be [another] Fidel Castro," said Baruta Mayor Henrique Capriles.
Neighboring Colombia has accused Chavez of supporting the Narco-terrorist organization Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) (search), which is at war with the Colombian government. Other neighbors make similar accusations against the self-proclaimed "revolutionary."
"When you have a government in Latin America that's not willing to call the guerrilla groups 'terrorists,' that can tell you the way this government is being run," said Chacao Mayor Leopoldo Lopez.
The Path to Dictatorship
Violence has marked each step along Chavez's road to power.
The former paratrooper first tried to seize control by a coup in 1992; he failed and instead spent two years in jail. He later tried democracy and was elected as an outsider by Venezuelans six years later.
Chavez's opponents admit he is popular, especially among the poor. But being popular, they say, does not give the president the right to do whatever he wants. The police, military and armed thugs have been tools used freely by Chavez to hang on to power during a coup attempt and a national strike in 2002.
Now, buoyed by electoral victories and high oil prices, Chavez appears to be doing everything he can to snuff out democracy before the eyes of a nation and a world that does not seem to be paying much attention.
"The danger that we are facing as Venezuelans is the possibility of waking up and not having any of our liberties," Lopez said.
Chavez has packed the Supreme Court and the army with his supporters, seized control of the country's wealth and introduced a penal code that criminalizes dissent. Anyone who opposes him faces violence or prison.
"I spent 20 days without looking at the sun, the air, the sky," said Capriles, the Baruta mayor who was once thrown into solitary confinement for opposing Chavez.
Pictures showing violence against anti-Chavez protestors no longer are allowed to be shown on public or private Venezuelan television; the government claims it's protecting children from scenes of violence.
"Our own journalists don't know whether they can show whatever it is they are trying to cover," said Ana Christina Nunez, legal counsel for Globovision, the country's only 24-hour news channel.
But Chavez's program, "Hello, President," sometimes runs for six hours.
War Against Landowners
Chavez also is contributing to a growing rift between peasants and large landowners in Venezuela and pushing the idea that anyone can grow what they want on someone else's land.
Nerio Arias has been trying to grow melons for a year in Las Vegas, Venezuela, on land that has belonged to a British company for a century.
Spurred on by Chavez, who has declared war on large landowners, more than 1,000 of Venezuela's urban poor have set up bamboo shacks on fields used to graze cattle in a massive land-grab effort so they can try to raise their own products for income. The cattle fields are part of a farm that serves as the country's largest meat producer.
"Definitely it creates a climate of what is called legal insecurity," said Joaquin Roy, a professor at Miami University who said what's happening in Venezuela could be the first step of land takeovers that could threaten U.S. interests.
The cattle farm, however, is being threatened with bankruptcy and the farm manager has squatters moving into his backyard and doing what they want with the land.
"I live here with my family," manager Anthony Richards said. "This is our home. I've thought about moving my children out. It's in the back of my mind but I want to keep our family. I don't go around armed and I'm hoping people respect that."
The idea of poor people taking over private property and with the apparent help of local authorities is spreading fast across the country, which is making for some wary foreign investors.
It has already spread to some land belonging to a fence-making factory, where the rush is on to grab and build whatever you can while the rule of law has been suspended by Chavez.
Armed national guards have kept apart the landowners and peasants living on their land while a court controlled by the president determines whom the land belongs to. The law and what Chavez says are fast becoming one and the same in Venezuela.
"Chavez says I can have this land. Chavez says it's mine," said 75-year-old Arias.
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