The Threat Closer to Home

The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chavez and the War Against America by Douglas Schoen and Michael Rowan (New York: Simon and Schuster)

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is often dismissed as a showboater and a buffoon to Americans who might remember his performance in front of the United Nations General Assembly, marked by a diatribe against George Bush ("the devil came right here..and it still smells of sulfur") but  Douglas Schoen and Michael Rowan in their superb new book,  The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chavez and the War Against America, argue that he is a far more dangerous character than these images may convey. They marshal considerable evidence to make their case in this eminently readable and convincing book.

Hugo Chavez began his career in the army. After a failed coup attempt, he conditioned his surrender on being allowed to give a nationwide speech. In that speech he made a populist pitch and admitted that his objectives had not been achieved "For Now" (Por Ahora). The speech was popular, particularly among the poor (that term "For Now" has become a leitmotif that he recycles whenever he is frustrated in his quest for power). He was jailed after the coup but as others maneuvered to become the leader of Venezuela was released by one of them in a bid to gain influence with his followers. This was a mistake; within a relatively short period of time he was able to run and win a Presidential contest.

As the years went by, Chavez consolidated his power and became increasingly dictatorial. A failed coup attempt against him in 2002-which he blamed on America (with no proof)-, exacerbated his lust for power. He laid off thousands of people in the oil industry-crucial to the economy of Venezuela, replacing them with his acolytes and supporters. Army leaders were replaced with loyalists. Various media outlets were pressured to stop any criticism of Chavez; laws were passed by his assembly that restricted the freedom of the press; some outlets were forced to close. Media outlets that toed a pro-Chavez line were, conversely, well-funded and supported by his regime. Vast swaths of land were confiscated; foreign oil concessions appropriated. The process of consolidating his power continues to this day.

Schoen and Rowan are both well-regarded political consultants (Schoen's book "The Power of the Vote" is also very good) and bring to their book a comprehensive analysis of the steps Chavez has taken to abuse the voting process in subsequent elections and recall actions that he has "won". In fact, there are grounds to believe that his victories were fabricated by his control of the voting process.

- Voting machines were designed and built by a Chavez-picked team of "experts" who previously had little or no experience in creating voting machines. The results were easily manipulated;

- he stacked the electoral commission with his allies;

- he found two million "new voters" that included foreigners;

- he altered the voting location for over two million voters -- mostly opposition voters identifiable from their signatures on a recall petition -- so that they would have to travel to polling places hundreds of miles away; he forbade independent audits of the voter rolls.

His steps would make Chicagoans blanch with their audacity. Independent experts have shown that the end results could not possibly have occurred.

Chavez relied on an overseas arbiter to pronounce his elections fair. Who did Chavez get to vouch for him? None other than Jimmy Carter. That was merely one aspect of Carter's assistance to Hugo Chavez; he has for years defended and praised Hugo Chavez.

Nor is Jimmy Carter alone among Americans who have come to support Chavez and spin for him to American audiences. Aside from the sprinkling of Hollywood celebrities who have seen better days (Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, and Oliver Stone among them) are politicians from both sides of the aisle who seem to be doing the bidding for Chavez here in the States.

Credit should be given to Schoen who has been a legend in Democratic Party circles for years, and has received a great deal of business from the Party over his decades of political polling and consulting. He does not shield Democrats from his scrutiny. Foremost among these Democrats who have a symbiotic relationship with Chavez is Joseph Kennedy II, the son of Robert Kennedy. He founded and runs the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation that receives discounted oil from Chavez and sells it to low-income people in Massachusetts. Earlier reports suggested Venezuela was cancelling its funding of this program, but its state-owned oil company in the US, Citgo, resumed oil shipments January 29th. 

Joseph Kennedy II  is not the only Democrat who has fallen under the sway of Chavez
.  A virtual Venezuela Caucus was established in Congress whose membership is heavily, though not exclusively, Democratic. But Republicans are not immune from scrutiny. Jack Kemp shilled for Chavez and was upbraided by the Wall Street Journal for doing so. Rudy Giuliani's law firm had Venezuela as a client.

The role that American have played in protecting and serving the interests of Hugo Chavez is particularly distressful in light of the subversion that Chavez practices across the hemisphere and the peril that he is exposing our nation to through is actions.

As has been true of megalomaniacal leaders throughout history, Chavez models himself after earlier historical figures. In his case, he uses fellow Latin Americans: Simon Bolivar, South America's foremost liberator, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro -- with whom he has forged a very close and mutually beneficial relationship. He has called Castro his "father" and "comrade". He subsidized the Cuban economy with his, or rather, his people's oil wealth. He certainly shares Castro's dislike of Americans but, unlike Castro, he has the  oil wealth to cause problems for America and our allies.

Chavez has liberally funded anti-American activists throughout the region. His role in supporting the Columbian terrorist group known by its acronym FARC has received a degree of attention, particularly after a computer was discovered in a Columbian army raid against FARC, and revealed close ties between FARC and Chavez. Columbia is one of America's closest allies in the region and hence a particular object of scorn for Chavez. His support for FARC may also be partly responsible for the flow of drugs into America (FARC is implicated in the drug trade).

However, Schoen and Rowan bring a range of additional relationships to light that should generate concern. Chavez can claim some credit for helping Evo Morales become president of Bolivia (he is a mini-Chavez, and has, like Chavez, confiscated oil concessions from multi-national oil companies). Chavez has been alleged to be funneling cash to Argentina's rulers to assure influence in that nation (he also bought a lot of that nation's debt). Chavez has spent billions of dollars in South America cultivating (or buying off) his friends and weakening support for America. His generosity (including paying the salaries of Cuban doctors throughout the region) and his anti-Americanism has enhanced his appeal to that continent's impoverished millions. This section of the book is illuminating and fascinating.

Chavez has also developed close relations with Iran, facilitated by both nations' membership in OPEC. He has blocked and tackled for Iran in various international forums -- helping to insulate Iran from pressure over its nuclear program. Chavez has made Venezuela a haven for Hezb'allah, the terror group supported by Iran. Hezb'allah has established a  base in the Western hemisphere, has been converting natives to Shia Islam, and has training camps for terrorists in a region of Venezuela that has hitherto escaped attention. Both Chavez and current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have expressed their dream of using their oil wealth to cripple, if not destroy, America.

The scope of Chavez's ambitions are breathtaking -- as are his malevolent intentions. Schoen and Rowan suggest steps that might be taken to weaken Chavez. The authors believe that the continent is ripe for development -- that Hispanics have been shown to be hard working and successful when they come to America and that there is no reason to hold that they would be any less successful in South America if the conditions were congenial. This might be the only section of the book that I might offer a quibble or two over.  Immigrants to America self-select: they choose to take the step of moving to America precisely because they are more ambitious and less tied to old ways than their fellow South Americans. America has always been a goal for the best and the brightest from all corners of the worlds.

Schoen and Rowan argue for a massive Marshall-type plan for South America to tap into this human capital.. Given the economic problems at home, Americans are unlikely to be willing to send billions of dollars down to South America when our home front is in such dire need.

A more fruitful idea of theirs is, of course, to reduce our dependency on Venezuelan oil. That is a given and the plunge in oil prices has already weakened Chavez to the extent that he has recently made overtures to foreign oil companies to return to Venezuela. Another suggestion would be to contain Chavez: develop Brazil, Columbia, and Chile as regional powerhouses that would serve as models for other South American nations.

Both authors seem to recoil at the idea of the capitalist model for the nations of South America but it has, despite some shocks, also helped to bring the peoples of those nations prosperity. With such prosperity, one can hope that the appeal of the would-be Simon Bolivar of the South would fade away.

Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.
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