Hugo Chavez's New Power Grab

Like the canary in a mine shaft who dies at the first sign of toxic gasses, journalists are often the first creatures to suffer when a totalitarian dictator is ascending to power. There are few developed nations in the world that show the methodical approach to smothering free speech, but Venezuela's "great leader" is demonstrating the process in our very own hemisphere. Since other leftist heads of state are watching with dreamy eyes, it might be a good preventative measure if we all start paying attention to his techniques.

Signaling darker days ahead for that county's free press, Venezuela fell from 124th to 133rd out of 178 countries in the 2010 version of the Press Freedom Index ( In 2008, they were ranked in 113th place and they held 77th place as recently as in 2002. That was early in the Chávez reign, but he has grown with the job. To prevent any misunderstanding, I should clarify the Press Freedom Index ranking system: Just like a golf score, the higher number is normally considered bad for elected leaders . . . but they work pretty well for dictators fostering a climate of fear among their people.

And "fearful" is an accurate description of conditions in Venezuela after their government announced last week that they have used taxpayer funds to purchase a 20 per cent ownership stake in Globovisión and are on their way to gaining even more control. Reporters Without Borders calls Globovisión the only remaining over-the-air TV channel in Venezuela still critical of President Hugo Chávez. The network has long been under attack since showing support for the losing side during an April 2002 coup attempt against Chávez. Just last July, Diosdado Cabello, head of the Venezuelan Communications Authority (Conatel), said the state was planning to obtain "administration" of 50% of the channel's license, after one of the Globovisión franchise holders died.

Adding to the grave concerns of Venezuelan journalists and international observers, the Venezuelan National Assembly granted another "enabling law" (this one for 18 months) to President Chávez. The extraordinary powers, normally reserved for emergency conditions, will allow him to bypass the legislative process and rule by absolute decree.  Not letting a good crisis go to waste, the declared "urgency" this time around comes after several days of rain brought heavy flooding, 35 dead, and more than 100,000 homeless.

"There's no time to lose, not a second," he said in a speech broadcast on state-controlled media.

The last time Chávez ruled by "enabling law," he used his unchecked power to seize control of privately run oil fields, impose new taxes and nationalize telecommunications, electricity and cement companies.

His political opponents see this move as a grab for power before his party's super-majority erodes in the National Assembly in early January. Julio Borges, head of the opposition party, noted that President Chávez will no longer have the ability to gain enabling law when the new legislators are sworn into office; but the new law enables Chávez to rule without input from the National Assembly.

"The President is desperate to pass socialist laws and boost control over the media and internet," Borges said in an email statement. "He says he's giving more power to the people, but he's really exerting more power over the people."

Several news sources report that Chávez  did not specify what decrees he was considering but said they would cover rural and urban land, plus (and most ominously) the constitution. Adding to the climate of fear, he is using a familiar tactic: He is waiting until people are distracted by Christmas holiday festivities to announce his next moves.

"There are a series of laws that I want to decree on the 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 25th of December right in the middle of Christmas . . . and the New Year," he told Reuters. And so he did.

Among other items on the agenda of Chávez and the National Assembly is a proposal to regulate internet service providers and electronic media, according to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. The law would create a single point of internet access in Venezuela and would also give their government complete control of all internet content by levying heavy fines to punish any internet service provider allowing "prohibited" messages.

Several media and citizen groups have warned that the bill threatens freedom of expression and is an attempt by the government to police text messages, social networks, and email, the website reports. His critics say that President Chávez is looking to implement "censorship mechanisms" by developing "new legal tools" to silence any media organizations that are critical of his administration. (

The tragic lesson to learn from all of the emergency measures being taken by Chávez is that he is showing the entire world exactly how any power-hungry leader can achieve totalitarian control. There are countless other nations which have observed this process in a more personal way, but only a few of them were ever this similar (in terms of economic and social development) to the United States.

While North Korea and Cuba are already hopelessly isolated from any outside opinion or wisdom, and numerous African nations suffer these dark forces with little Western attention, the insulated observer might feel that such control would be unobtainable in a nation as developed as was Venezuela before Chávez  came to power. Their economy is now rated 172 out of 183 by the World Bank (

Because the freedom-loving segments of Venezuela's population continue to speak out, anybody not otherwise distracted can now have a front-row seat to the unfolding cautionary tale of how dictators seize power and destroy lives during an era of expanding communication technology. Revisiting the advice of Shakespeare's Dick the butcher, Chávez is teaching the world that killing all the lawyers before beginning a reign of terror is not nearly as effective as suppressing all the journalists. 
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