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Miguel Perez
Miguel Perez
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Hugo Being Hugo

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Say you saw Hugo Chavez shaking Barack Obama's hand and you thought the Venezuelan president was a different person. Say you no longer saw him as an arrogant, anti-American socialist dictator but as someone who could be swayed to rule by democratic principles and to act like a civilized human being. Do you still feel that way?

If you have been following Venezuelan news lately, you know it was only wishful thinking! In fact, since Chavez met Obama, instead of at least slowing his blatant efforts to turn Venezuela into a Cuba-style socialist dictatorship, Chavez has intensified them. Instead of pretending that he still rules by democratic principles, Chavez has taken off his mask and begun a new campaign to strip Venezuela of its few remaining vestiges of democracy.

He expresses complete disregard for Venezuelans' constitutionally protected right to own private property and continues to confiscate and nationalize everything he can get his hands on. He tries constantly to circumvent the authority of mayors and governors who belong to opposing political parties. He manufactures corruption charges and sends his puppet prosecutors after his political opponents, including Manuel Rosales — perhaps Chavez's main rival — who recently had to flee Venezuela and seek political asylum in Peru.

But perhaps the most blatant display of dictatorial behavior is the new war he has declared on the only remaining TV network that dares to quote opposition leaders. In Venezuela, many believe Chavez is on the verge of censoring the all-news Globovision network, thus eliminating the only remaining on-air station providing an alternative to the state-run Chavez propaganda channels.

In what was clearly a cheap excuse for censoring Globovision, Chavez described the network's executives as "white-collar terrorists," and the government's broadcast regulators announced they are investigating the station for inciting "panic and anxiety" — all because Globovision practiced sound journalism and scooped everyone else in reporting that Caracas had endured a minor earthquake. The May 4 pre-dawn Globovision announcement was an embarrassment to the Chavez regime, especially because instead of coming from Venezuelan government seismologists, the information came from the Web page of the U.S. Geological Survey. And that embarrassment has several of Chavez's puppet legislators calling for sanctions against Globovision. Claiming that stations that incite fear and unrest will not be tolerated, the Chavistas apparently are setting the table for Chavez to take Globovision off the air, as he did to RCTV, another critical station, two years ago. RCTV now reaches a much smaller audience, through cable and the Internet. And other once-critical stations, apparently fearing reprisals, have stopped criticizing the Chavez government in order to survive.

It's really amazing.

While Venezuelan state television blatantly is used to attack the opposition, Chavez tries to censor the stations that allow the opposition to speak! Some democracy!

Nevertheless, as Globovision waits to be sanctioned and perhaps taken off the air, the network's courageous general manager, Alberto Federico Ravell, keeps telling reporters that his job is to stand for freedom of expression. "This is not a station that believes in communism," he told Univision in an interview seen throughout the United States last week. "This is not a channel that agrees that all the power should be in the hands of one single person."

Ravell's stance is worthy of respect and admiration, especially because Chavez has vowed to censor the general manager and his network. "We're not going to tolerate a crazy man with a cannon shooting it at the whole world,'' Chavez said of Ravell during the president's Sunday radio and television program. "Enough! … This has to end, or I'll stop calling myself Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias.''

Of course, with Chavez being Chavez, don't expect him to be satisfied with just censoring Ravell and Globovision. He slowly has been restricting the opposition's criticism by gradually censoring more and more news outlets, and no one expects him to stop until Venezuela's news media is just like Cuba's — totally controlled by the government. In one of his uncivilized diatribes recently, Chavez threatened not only Globovision but also all news media in Venezuela. "You are playing with fire," he said, "manipulating, inciting hatred and much more. All of you: television networks, radio stations, newspapers. … Don't make a mistake with me."

While Chavez has been able to limit, intimidate or strongly manipulate television coverage of his government, fortunately many Venezuelan radio and newspaper critics still are able to expose their president's undemocratic behavior. And incidentally, many of them conclude that Chavez's new offensive is an act of desperation. Given the fragile state of Venezuela's economy — thanks to the fallen oil prices — they believe he is trying desperately to consolidate his dictatorship before the failed economy thrashes his popularity. Although Chavez still enjoys high poll ratings, his critics say that once he no longer can use Venezuela's oil wealth to buy the loyalty of more than half the voters, his days as a democratically elected president could be numbered. And that's why they believe he is in a hurry.

"He has decided to subjugate the vast sectors of our society that don't share his ideological project, and he doesn't care about the consequences," noted columnist Fernando Ochoa Antich in El Universal, which is a Venezuelan daily newspaper. Chavez is already the most totalitarian freely elected president in the world, controlling everything from the courts to the armed forces to the legislature. But in case he has to go to plan B and bypass the electoral process, in spite of his new friendship with President Obama, Chavez may be getting ready to become a full-fledged dictator.

To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.



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