Chavez-Vous? Hugo dances with democracy

If the Western media is to be believed, Hugo Chavez is making a strong application for membership of the axis of evil. In the last 48 hours alone, he “seized control” of Venezuelan ports, announced a visit to Iran, nationalised cement companies and called Obama a “poor ignoramus”.

While the media denounce him as a Bolivarian socialist, US right-wingers might agree with the assessment of Obama. A larger proportion of fiscal conservatives would also applaud another announcement to reduce government spending by 7 per cent to avoid recession. His nationalisations are being copied by Western leaders frazzled by the failure of their financial systems.

Chavez may sound like a mass of contradictions but of one thing there is little doubt: he loves power. He has ruled for ten years, won two elections, and last year won a referendum eliminating term limits opening a way for him run again as president in 2012. Here are the actions of a president-for-life.

He is now keen to eliminate opposition. On Thursday a prosecutor called for the arrest of Manuel Rosales. Rosales is the mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city, and is a leading opponent of President Chavez. The 56-year-old Rosales ran off against Chavez in the 1996 election and lost in a 3:2 margin but established himself as the leader of the Opposition.

The prosecutor Katiuska Plaza said she was seeking the custody order for Rosales on the basis of accusations of corruption levelled in the national assembly against him. Rosales could face three to 10 years if proven guilty of the charges. Rosales called the charges as “an order from Chavez” and said it was “a way of criminalising politics and also to crush those of us who have dissident voices in this country”. Rosales was referring to 2007 when Chavez shut down one of those dissident voices when he took over a private TV station. Chavez annexed Telesur in revenge for supporting the 2002 coup against him.

Writer Tariq Ali (whom the interviewer Jorge Sotirios called “the thinking woman’s Omar Sharif”) defended Chavez’s stance on Telesur. Sotirios said Ali is no stranger to South America and was once detained in Bolivia for his likeness to Che Guavara’s offsider “Pombo”. Ali said the government takeover of Telesur wouldn’t change the station which has always taken a Latin American view. He says the network is similar to the BBC and the CNN. While the British and American stations defend the “Washington consensus”, they defend the opposition to the “Washington Consensus”. And, says Ali, they are very open about it: “If we act in concert, we can do lot more things for our people, instead of constantly seeing ourselves through a mirror lifted up by the United States.”

Chavez’s control of the media is making it easier for him to be always seen in the mirror. In their annual report for 2008 Reporters San Frontieres says Chavez now controls nearly all the country’s broadcasting – a score of radio stations, the state-owned TV stations Venezolana de Televisión, Telesur, Vive TV, Asemblea Nacional and Tves, as well as the national phone company CANTV.

Venezuela still enjoys a vibrant public debate in which anti-government and pro-government media are equally vocal in their criticism and defence of Chavez. One can ask for little more in a democracy – even one where a long-term government is looking to change the rules in their favour; just ask Queensland Labor. The Chavez paradox shows little sign of unravelling.

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