In December 2007, a group of paramilitary fighters armed with machine guns ransacked and vandalized a farm in northwest Venezuela. It was not the first time that government-backed thugs had paid a visit to this property. The owner of the farm, Diego Arria, is a prominent opponent of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, the radical leftist. “It was a strong message,” Arria says of the December 2007 attack. (He was not at the farm when it occurred.) “The government has a lot of groups like that.”
Throughout his long career, Arria, now 70 years old, has held a variety of high-level political posts, including governor of Caracas, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, assistant U.N. secretary general, and special adviser to U.N. chief Kofi Annan. In 1978, Arria made an unsuccessful bid for the Venezuelan presidency as an independent candidate. Shortly after that election, he founded a Caracas-based newspaper called El Diario de Caracas. More recently, he served as a campaign strategist for Manuel Rosales, who opposed Chávez in the 2006 presidential election.
Arria now works as a consultant in New York City, but he still spends a considerable amount of time at his Venezuelan farm.
“I know they are tapping my phones,” Arria says of Venezuelan authorities. “There is a climate of intimidation.” Government intimidation was especially fierce during the weeks prior to a February 15 referendum on political term limits. That referendum was a big triumph for Chávez: Voters cleared the way for him to seek reelection in 2012 and beyond.
Chávez, a former paratrooper, has now been in office for a decade. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports, two hallmarks of the Chávez presidency have been political discrimination and “an open disregard for the principle of separation of powers enshrined in the 1999 constitution — and, specifically, the notion that an independent judiciary is indispensable for protecting fundamental rights.” (Implementing a new constitution in 1999 — to replace the 1961 constitution — represented Chávez’s “first major achievement.”)
Chávez has also “undermined freedom of expression through a variety of measures aimed at reshaping media content and control,” HRW notes. Some of his tactics have been indirect. For example, Arria tells me, the Chávez regime has taken over many private companies that were advertising in opposition newspapers. Other companies have refrained from buying ad space in these same papers, fearing the repercussions.
Besides choking Venezuela’s democratic institutions and crippling its independent media, Chávez has also compiled a record of economic malpractice, which he dubs “Bolivarian socialism.” Venezuela is now dealing with food scarcities and severe double-digit inflation. According to some estimates, the annual inflation rate may reach 40 percent this year. As the Wall Street Journal reported in early March, private food companies in Venezuela “are straining under strict price controls aimed at slowing down high inflation set off by Mr. Chávez’s non-stop spending. The controls have led to shortages of staples like milk and rice.” These food shortages have also been driven by government land seizures. Chávez recently expropriated a rice-processing facility owned by Cargill, the U.S.-based multinational.
When oil prices were booming, says Arria, Chávez squandered “the greatest wealth the country ever had.” He wasted billions on an arms buildup that boosted the repressive capacity of the state but did nothing to address Venezuela’s real economic and social needs. “We are living with a military regime,” Arria complains. “Without the armed forces, Chávez would not exist.”
For several months now, lower oil prices have been draining the Venezuelan economy. Venezuela is also coping with an explosion of violent crime. As Jeremy Morgan of the Latin American Herald Tribune reports, a recent poll found that 86 percent of Venezuelans think crime is their country’s biggest problem. Small wonder that Venezuela has seen a spike in emigration. “We never had a brain drain in Venezuela” until the Chávez years, Arria observes. The exodus has included many Venezuelan Jews, who have been alarmed by a rising tide of anti-Semitism and also by the budding alliance between Chávez and Iran.
So is there any good news from Venezuela? Yes, says Arria. For one thing, the number of private civic groups is growing. For another, the new mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, has emerged as a popular critic of Chávez. Ledezma denounces the Chávez regime as “absolutely authoritarian” and has called for “a permanent civic protest.” Not surprisingly, the government is trying to curb his power.
Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, says that Chávez has “enormous vulnerabilities” and “can be beaten in 2012.” Unfortunately, the anti-Chávez opposition is deeply divided and has been weakened by government harassment. Earlier this month, Manuel Rosales, the main opposition presidential candidate in 2006, fled to Peru rather than face corruption charges. Rosales, the mayor of Maracaibo, claims he is a victim of political persecution by Chávez. He told a Peruvian newspaper that he feared for his life in Venezuela.
Arria hopes that other Latin American countries will stop turning a blind eye to the steady weakening of Venezuelan democracy. Why have so many of them been reluctant to criticize Chávez? Partly because of their economic interests in Venezuela, and partly because of domestic political considerations, Arria says.
During the recent Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, media coverage focused heavily on Pres. Barack Obama’s smiling handshake with Chávez. At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the idea of reaching out to Chávez diplomatically. “We’ve isolated him, so he’s gone elsewhere,” Clinton said. “I mean, he’s a very sociable guy. He’s going to look for friends where he can find them.”
Arria found these comments “shocking” and scandalous. He vigorously disputes the notion that U.S. policy under George W. Bush was responsible for isolating Venezuela. “No one isolated Chávez,” says Arria. “He isolated himself.” As for Clinton’s remark that the Venezuelan leader is “sociable,” Arria asks: “Has she ever heard Chávez?” He is a brutish, vulgar man prone to obscene tirades.
In Arria’s view, the Bush record in Latin America has been unfairly disparaged. He says the United States is caught in a Catch-22 of sorts. If the U.S. is too involved in Latin American affairs, it is blamed for being overly interventionist or “imperialist.” If it is less involved in Latin American affairs, it is blamed for being “indifferent” to the region. Striking the right balance can be difficult.
Arria acknowledges Latin America’s many woes — including widespread corruption, high crime rates, drug violence, and shoddy education systems — but he also points out that the past several years have been a time of tremendous political and economic progress in the region. Admittedly, this progress is now being tested by the global financial crisis, but Latin America is better prepared for such a crisis than it has been in the past.
While Arria is broadly optimistic about the region as a whole, he notes that Chávez has used his petrodollars to promote instability. “He is the worst thing that has happened to the region in the last ten years.” Even if the U.S. seeks a rapprochement with Venezuela, Arria doesn’t expect Chávez’s policies to change anytime soon.
– Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.