The Derailing of Hugo Chavez

chavez032510.jpgI used to argue that Russia was one of the easiest places in the world to get thrown in prison over practically nothing – just ask Jamison Firestone or Yana Yakovleva – but Hugo Chavez appears to making Venezuela into a new contender for the title.

Chavez’s latest prisoner is the opposition media owner Guillermo Zuloaga, who although had been targeted by prosecutors many times in the past (a judge was once even fired for refusing to order a bogus arrest), had more or less been allowed to continue working.  Not any longer, and the circumstances of his arrest and imprisonment couldn’t be any more ironic:  he appeared before the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA, or SIP in Spanish) and remarked that there you can’t say that Venezuela has freedom of press when the state uses its power to shut down media.  That taboo statement, and perhaps more, is what put the bracelets on Zuloaga.

Just a thought, Hugo – if you wanted to prove Zuloaga wrong, wouldn’t you just let him go free?

This latest political prisoner comes right on the heels of an even worsecase – the jailing of former Zulia governor and potential futurepresidential contender OswaldoAlvarez Paz, who had the temerity to pronounce his views on howVenezuela is rapidly turning into a narco-state – something that wasindependently verified by the U.S. Government and Accountability Office(GAO).  Not to mention the ongoing imprisonment of the Judge MariaLourdes Afiuni, who has faced many threats to her life while beingillegally imprisoned only for having released another politicalprisoner.

These three prisoners are only highlights of the current derailing of the regime of Hugo Chavez.  Credible supporters have abandoned him in flocks, including many members of the ruling party.  There remain only a few who stick around to defend this kind of conduct, and given its brazen cruelty and illogic, their position is becoming more and more shameful and embarrassing.

Caracas Chronicles, one of my favorite blogs and a must read for all of you out there, has recently torched Mark Weisbrot, a U.S.-based Chavez apologist who has bravely toed the party no matter what Venezuela’s president does … though it seems like that job is becoming harder and harder to do.  Next in line, one would hope, would be the Spanish, who seem to be intent on becoming Europe’s most embarrassing government in terms of human rights.  Despite all the scandalous revelations of links between the Venezuelan government, FARC, and the Spanish terrorist group ETA, Jose Luis Zapatero and his foreign minister Moratinos prefer to pretend that nothing at all is happening.  Perhaps the business lobby in Spain, which has hundreds of millions invested in Venezuela (and is eagerly awaiting all the unpaid debt), is helping to guide the line:  The CEO of Repsol recently made comments to investors that the political developments in Venezuela “pose no risk” to the company’s investments.  That’s a rather absurd thing to say the same week that more prisoners are thrown into the tropical gulag beyond the pale of the law.

These arrests – especially of such high profile people such as Zuloaga and Alvarez Paz – should not be mistaken for signs of strength or a more entrenched sense of impunity among the chavistas … this is the behavior of the fearful.  The stopwatch on this government is ticking down quickly, and control will become harder and harder with each hour of the day they have to cut the power, when the water shortages hit the impoverished base who depend on Chavez, and the incredibly sharp stagflation grinds the petrodollar economy to a halt.

The damage from all this is going to have some politically indiscriminate and high human costs, and the transition away from this government, whether it happens sooner or much later, is something that is going to require the world’s careful attention and fair and open-minded support.  But make no mistake, what we are currently observing in Venezuela is not going to be able to sustain itself.