Ever since Honduran soldiers bustled Pres. Manuel Zelaya out of his residence and onto a plane for Costa Rica, Hugo Chávez has been posturing as Latin America’s intrepid guardian of democracy. Chávez’s chutzpah is risible, yet the populist strongman has played an unfortunately large role in driving the regional debate over Honduras. Meanwhile, his dismantling of Venezuelan democracy continues apace.
Just ask Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, the victim of a slow-motion coup that has steadily drained his power and resources. On July 3, the mayor commenced a hunger strike to focus attention on Chávez’s harassment of opposition political figures. Ledezma decided to stage his protest in the Caracas offices of the Organization of American States (OAS) — a fitting choice, since the OAS has been disgracefully reluctant to criticize Venezuela’s slide into authoritarianism. He ended the hunger strike last Wednesday, after OAS boss José Miguel Insulza pledged to meet with Venezuelan state and local officials who have been targeted for persecution by the Chávez regime.
Leader of the aptly named Fearless People’s Alliance, an anti-Chávez party founded in 2000, the 54-year-old Ledezma previously served as governor of Caracas (a post that no longer exists) in the early 1990s and then as chief executive of the city’s Libertador Municipality from 1996 to 2000. During his 2008 mayoral bid, he dealt with pervasive government intimidation but still managed to edge the Chávez-backed candidate, Aristóbulo Istúriz. Ledezma won election in November and took office in early December. (Many other opposition politicians were banned from competing in Venezuela’s November 2008 elections on the basis of trumped-up corruption charges. This group included the enormously popular Leopoldo López, 38, who was mayor of a Caracas municipality from 2000 to 2008.) In a magnanimous gesture, he invited the Venezuelan president “to work with us to save Caracas,” a city plagued by horrific crime rates and deep poverty.
On April 15, Chávez installed Jacqueline Farías as “head of government” for the Caracas Capital District. Her position was created by the Venezuelan National Assembly, which Chávez has reduced to a rubber stamp for his regime. The assembly also passed legislation to transfer federal funds, city assets, budgetary clout, and control of municipal services from the Ledezma administration to the Farías administration. Officially, Ledezma still presides over Venezuela’s capital and biggest city. In practice, he has been stripped of almost all his mayoral authority. Chávez has basically annulled the outcome of November’s election by establishing a new political entity in Caracas and turning Ledezma into a figurehead.
Last month, the beleaguered mayor traveled to New York and spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas. Ledezma came to “request solidarity” in the defense of Venezuelan democracy. He lamented the decline and corruption of his country’s public institutions, noting that Chávez has manipulated the legal system to bludgeon his critics. In a September 2008 report, Human Rights Watch said that the Venezuelan regime has “effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government.” Indeed, “the president and his supporters carried out a political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004,” after which the court “largely abdicated its role as a check on arbitrary state action and a guarantor of fundamental rights.”
Chávez’s subjugation of the judiciary, the legislature, and other democratic institutions has been accompanied by repeated assaults on Venezuela’s independent media outlets, which have mostly been crippled. Earlier this month, Venezuelan minister Diosdado Cabello announced that the government was revoking the licenses of some 240 radio stations. Chávez is also tightening his grip on television content and pursuing a legal campaign against Globovisión, a 24-hour TV news network that, as The Economist points out, “is the last remaining national channel that is critical of the government.”
In addition to stifling democracy and trampling press freedom, the “Bolivarian socialist” has made a hash of Venezuela’s economy, squandering an oil windfall while triggering food shortages and double-digit inflation. Chávez has alarmed foreign companies with nationalization schemes, land seizures, and other illiberal policies. The Associated Press reports that automakers such as GM and Ford are “shrinking their business” in Venezuela “because the government won’t give them enough dollars to import parts.” In the most recent World Bank survey of the easiest global business environments, Venezuela ranks 174th out of 181 economies. That is the same ranking it receives in the latest Index of Economic Freedom, compiled by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, which covers 179 economies.
Venezuela is also grappling with a massive crime problem. The capital city in particular has become a cauldron of illegal activity, much of it fueled by gangs and drugs. The U.S. State Department notes that “Caracas has been cited as having the highest per capita homicide rate in the world.”
Rampant violence, high inflation, food scarcity — none of this is good for the incumbent regime’s popularity. And in last November’s state and local elections, the opposition scored a host of big victories. Chávez responded by seeking to reverse these gains through autocratic methods.
Ledezma affirms the need for unity, not just among mayors and governors, but also among student activists, oil workers, and other opposition members. He stresses that no anti-Chávez politician is safe from government harassment. Maracaibo mayor Manuel Rosales, who challenged Chávez for the presidency in 2006, recently fled to Peru rather than face dubious corruption charges, saying he feared for his life. Others who have come under harsh attack include César Pérez Vivas and Pablo Pérez, governors of the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Zulia, respectively. Like Ledezma, both were elected in November and have emerged as leaders of the democratic resistance. Pérez Vivas said last month that Chávez is pushing his country down “the path of dictatorship.”
Ledezma emphasizes that the struggle in Venezuela is not about right-wing and left-wing politics; it is about democracy and authoritarianism. Chávez is no longer encumbered by term limits, which voters abolished in a February referendum (a referendum preceded by fierce government intimidation). The next presidential election is slated for 2012. Between now and then, Ledezma hopes to spearhead “a permanent civic protest.” The mayor says he is not asking U.S. and Latin American officials to intervene in Venezuelan domestic affairs. He merely hopes for a demonstration of “solidarity.” Such a demonstration is long overdue, especially from the OAS.
– Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.