Many foreigners can travel to Venezuela without a visa. But now there's a new requirement once they get there. President Hugo Chavez announced on Sunday that foreigners who publicly criticize his government will be deported. He ordered officials to monitor statements made by international figures visiting the country. The comments came after the President of Mexico's ruling conservative party criticized Chavez for seeking to do away with term limits at a recent pro-democracy conference in Caracas. "No foreigner, whoever it is, can come here to attack us," Chavez said. "How long are we going to allow a person, from any country in the world, to come to our own house to say there's a dictatorship here, that the President is a tyrant, and no one does anything about it?"
Chavez, who has turbulent relations with the Bush Administration, has never been one to put up with those who disagree with him. He has had notable falling-outs with former confidants and insulted myriad foreign heads of state and their officials for criticizing his policies. But his newest statements were ironic, considering that what Chavez labeled a punishable offense in Venezuela is something he himself has done in the United States. Many Americans know Chavez best for calling President George W. Bush the devil at the United Nations last year. That remark, as well as similar anti-Bush comments made in Harlem on the same trip, occurred on Bush's soil.
[Chavez has also taken to attacking senior Catholic prelates lately. The Associated Press on Tuesday cited an item on state-run news agency website quoting Venezuela's President assailing Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who had been critical of Chavez recently. "Another parrot of imperialism appeared, this time dressed as a cardinal. That's to say, another imperialist clown," Chavez reportedly said.]
Critics say that the Chavez government is becoming less and less tolerant of differing opinions. In late May, it forced opposition-aligned television station Radio Caracas Television off the air by refusing to renew its broadcasting license, and promptly opened an investigation against Globovision, the only remaining channel critical of the President. The other major privately owned television network, Venevision, has shifted its coverage from critical to favorable, leaving the broadcast landscape largely bereft of independent voices willing to challenge the government.
Chavez counters that his government encourages critical thought. "Let's read, study, discuss, debate. Ideas, ideas and more ideas!" he said on Monday. Indeed, some within government ranks have been more than willing to denounce fellow Chavez allies in recent months. Pro-Chavez lawmaker Luis Tascon suggested there was corrupt behavior afoot at the state oil company and last week summoned company president and Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez to shed light on the matter in front of the national Assembly. Also last week, outgoing Defense Minister Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel said, in his farewell speech, that Chavez's beloved "socialism of the 21st century" was a vague model that was generating unease.
Vague and undefined as Chavez's model of socialism may be, he wants everyone to sign up. He said on Sunday that 90% of Venezuelans should support his government, even though nearly 40% voted against him in presidential elections in December. His government had been fond of saying that it wishes Venezuela had a respectable opposition, rather than the current mishmash of defeated parties lacking proposals. Even that wishful democratic stance may be gone now. On Monday, Chavez acknowledged that his government wants to ideologize Venezuelan society in order to phase out an "imperialist" way of thinking imposed in the past. "They accuse us of ideologizing and I say yes, of course," Chavez said on Monday. "Who has said the contrary?" The time to differ with Chavez is over for foreign visitors and may soon be up for his domestic opponents as well.