Alarm bells are sounding in Washington, on Wall Street and around the world over President Hugo Chavez's latest moves to consolidate his Bolivarian Revolution in oil-rich Venezuela. He is — we are told — shutting down a television station, creating a single-party state, nationalizing key industries including some major oil projects, threatening perpetual re-election and vowing to impose "21st century socialism."
On the surface, it seems to Chavez's critics that he is finally doing what they have long predicted — creating a totalitarian state in the image of his mentor, Fidel Castro. But the situation in Venezuela is a little more complex than what many in the media and the establishment make it out to be. Take, for example, Chavez's decision not to renew the license of RCTV television network when it expires in May.
At first blush, this would certainly seem to be reason for alarm — a government shutting down a television station because it doesn't like its editorial bent. But RCTV is not exactly your average television station. In April 2002, it promoted and participated in a coup against Chavez in which a democratically elected president was overthrown by military rebels and disappeared for two days until large street protests and a counter-coup returned him to power.
For two days prior to the coup, RCTV suspended all regular programming and commercials and ran blanket coverage of a general strike aimed at ousting Chavez. Then it ran nonstop ads encouraging people to attend a massive anti-Chavez march on April 11, 2002, and provided wall-to-wall coverage of the event itself with nary a pro-Chavez voice in sight.
When the protest ended in violence and military rebels overthrew the president, RCTV, along with other networks, imposed a news blackout banning all coverage of pro-Chavez demonstrators in the streets demanding his return. Andres Izarra, a news director at RCTV, was given the order by superiors: zero chavismo en pantalla, no Chavistas on the screen. He quit in disgust and later joined the Chavez government.
On April 13, 2002, after the coup-installed President Pedro Carmona eliminated the Supreme Court and the National Assembly and nullified the Constitution, media barons, including RCTV's main owner, Marcel Granier, met with Carmona in the presidential palace and, according to reports, pledged their support to his regime. While the streets of Caracas literally burned with rage over Chavez's ouster, the television networks ran Hollywood movies like Pretty Woman.
Venezuela's media, owned largely by the country's wealthy elites, are arguably the most rabidly antigovernment media in the world. In the past, opposition figures have appeared on television openly calling for a coup against Chavez, who says he is leading a revolution on behalf of Venezuela's majority poor.
Chavez's decision not to renew RCTV's license is not exactly akin to George W. Bush shutting down CBS or NBC because they ran a few stories critical of him. If RCTV were operating in the United States, it's doubtful its actions would last more than a few minutes with the FCC.
Likewise, Chavez is not creating a single-party state as widely reported but is melding together an amorphous array of parties that support him. He is not outlawing opposition parties. He has no need to, as he showed when he glided to a record landslide victory in the Dec. 5 presidential vote by a 63 percent to 37 percent margin in a free and fair election.
Chavez also is not nationalizing the entire economy without compensation to companies, as Castro did in the early days of the Cuban revolution, but rather is buying back a few key strategic utilities such as the CANTV telecommunications company or taking a majority government share in four heavy oil projects in the eastern Orinoco River basin.
While the government has generally compensated owners at fair market value when it has taken over properties or businesses in the past, Chavez said that with CANTV it would deduct debts to workers, pensions and other obligations including a "technological debt" to the state. In the case of the oil projects, Chavez said that by May 1 the government will take at least a 60 percent share in joint ventures with companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., Total SA and Statoil ASA and compensate them fairly.
"What we want is to negotiate," he said. "We hope these companies cooperate" and agree to become minority partners. He insisted Venezuela does not plan to copy the Soviet or Cuban model of complete state dominance of the economy.
Of course, the jury is out over whether Venezuela's government can run nationalized or partly nationalized companies better than the private sector did. Chavez also has taken other steps that are cause for concern. His decision to seek the power to rule by decree on certain matters for the next 18 months raises a red flag, along with his expressed desire to eliminate term limits.
The world should remain vigilant to ensure a free press, a free political system and a mixed economy where property rights are respected remain in place in Venezuela. If Chavez infringes on any of these rights, it should be vigorously protested and condemned. But so far it hasn't happened.
Jones, a former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in Venezuela, is the author of the forthcoming book "Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution."