Stifling Dissent in Venezuela

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In Venezuela, public officials willing to publicly challenge Hugo Chavez have dwindled to a precious few. Ministers and lawmakers have showered praise on the president's recently announced plans to nationalize entire sectors of the economy, pass laws by decree without legislative approval and take away the autonomy of the Central Bank. Disapproval from abroad is even less tolerated, especially from Washington — Chavez told the U.S. to "go to hell" on Sunday after a state department spokesman said the reforms caused concern. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Chavez's tightened grip on the economy should overlap with the exit of possibly the only government economist left willing to criticize him.

"Unfortunately, maybe I'm the only one," said Central Bank director Domingo Maza in an interview, admitting that he doesn't always agree with the president. "But I can't stop giving my opinion about what I think is correct and fair."

Within hours of Chavez's announcement ending the Central Bank's autonomy, the 84-year-old Maza, whose term as a Bank director will expire in a matter of days, disputed the decision on television and radio interviews that are known for being highly critical of the president. "I consider it my duty," he said later, listening to classical music in his office. "I am a man of principles. It's my responsibility as director and as a Venezuelan to defend the autonomy of the Central Bank."

Critics worry that taking away what little autonomy the Central Bank has left will give Chavez unfettered access to spend foreign reserves, which they say could further weaken the currency and spike already-climbing inflation. Maza also admitted that the nationalization call was generating investor fear and he even critiqued the management of the state oil company, saying it was sacrificing needed investments in oil infrastructure for massive spending on Chavez's social development programs.

The sincerity of the statements was refreshing because most officials would not dare utter them. While some critical talk probably exists behind closed doors at the presidential palace, political analysts say, free-thinking like Maza's rarely escapes high-level government circles. "It seems that if someone expresses differences in public, he immediately converts himself into a traitor," said Alberto Barrera, co-author of an acclaimed biography of Chavez. "It must not be easy to work with Chavez because he's a very egocentric person. More than collaborators, he wants devotees."

Officials and even long-time confidants who have expressed their differences have often had falling-outs with Chavez. Some of his closest allies from the days of a failed coup he staged in 1992 or from the early period of his government have dropped away from power or have become part of the opposition. When Chavez shuffles his cabinet — as he very often does — his new appointees can seem less apt to challenge him.

Luis Miquilena, a political mentor who helped steer Chavez to the presidency in 1998, has done an about-face since leaving the government in 2002. This week, he described it as a "hypocritical authoritarianism that tries to sell the world certain democratic appearances." Chavez has also recently let go former vice president Jose Vicente Rangel and former foreign minister Ali Rodriguez, who were some of the only figures left in the government with political clout of their own.

The government lambastes arguments like Miquilena's, responding that Venezuela is now more democratic than ever. It aims to empower local communities through communal governing "councils" and has set up forums for the common man to debate policy issues. Chavez supporters are also fond of reminding that the president was elected fair and square in 1998 and that the series of elections that have followed since then have ratified his mandate. Allies like National Assembly president Celia Flores say Chavez's reelection to a new six-year term last month means the people endorse his revolution and therefore give him the power to implement it as he sees fit.

Not so, say critics, who answer that the mandate doesn't mean Chavez has carte blanche to do whatever he wants. The National Assembly is about to kneel to the president's demands that it relinquish its own power as a check on the executive. Even though it was already wholly controlled by Chavez allies, next week the assembly plans to pass an "Enabling Law" that will give Chavez broad powers to pass the laws he wants by decree. "We think a democracy needs autonomous powers, and you're giving the president all the control," opposition leader Julio Montoya, a former lawmaker, told legislators this week.

But there isn't much the minority can do. Chavez allies control the Supreme Court, the state oil company and almost every state government. People have learned that dissent isn't just frowned upon, it's actually grounds for having your job application rejected: scores of Venezuelans say they cannot get hired by government entities because they signed in favor of a referendum to oust Chavez in 2004. Even smaller Chavez-allied parties could lose their voice if they merge into a unified socialist party the president is creating — which has giveN pause in some circles, like the communist party.

For Chavez, the U.S. is hardly qualified to raise concerns over democracy in his country. After all, Washington's credentials in Latin America include a long history of actively supporting brutal dictators and proxy wars and Chavez charges that it supported an unsuccessful coup against him in 2002. But as fewer and fewer government officials have Maza's sense of "duty" to give their true opinions, such concerns may be founded.