The next American dictator?

Venezuela: President Chavez monopolizes power and militarizes society, in name of poor.

August 30, 1999

COL. Hugo Chavez launched a coup that failed in 1992 and came back to win election as president of Venezuela last December. His breathless moves since have caused critics to ask whether he was turning himself into a dictator.

The resignation of the Supreme Court last Tuesday suggested this has already happened. The effective abolition of the congress by the new constitutional assembly, on Wednesday, confirmed it.

President Chavez could not have managed this without allies: the people. He is democratically ending 41 years of discredited democracy. The new president raised eyebrows when he sent the army into schools and building projects. He promoted officers who had participated in his coup attempt. But on July 25, the people freely elected his henchmen to 120 of the 131 seats in his extra-constitutional Constitutional Assembly.

This body has six months to write a new constitution. Meanwhile, it has nullified other branches of government.

Congress went into recess until October, though it may never reassemble. When the assembly threatened to dissolve the Supreme Court, the court dissolved itself.

All that remains is for the next constitution to allow the president to succeed himself, which the current one forbids. Mr. Chavez says he is doing all this for the poor, who so far believe him. When they cease to believe, it will be too late.

A true throwback, Colonel Chavez admires Cuba's Fidel Castro, corresponds with the assassin Carlos the Jackal in a French prison, proposes joint ventures with Iran and China and forbids U.S. airplanes on drug-fighting missions in Colombia to fly over Venezuela.

U.S. relations with Venezuela are reaching a critical point. President Chavez differs from earlier leftist dictators in craving foreign investment. This may prove to be a lever for accommodation.

Meanwhile, democracy in South America is on the defensive with authoritarian comebacks in Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. The last is the most charismatic. Fidel Castro is history. Hugo Chavez, age 45, could be the future.

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