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Night Falls on Caracas, With No Carter in Sight


December 3, 2004; Page A19 | It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once. Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom that it must steal in upon them by degrees and must disguise itself in a thousand shapes in order to be received.

David Hume
Of the Liberty of the Press, 1742

If the Ukrainian people manage to salvage their democracy they might think about erecting a monument to Jimmy Carter to thank him for not "observing" their elections. Just ask Venezuelans. After a fraudulent national vote last August blessed by Mr. Carter they are now experiencing the slow suffocation of liberty that Hume so eloquently described.

The parallels between the two recent, fraud-riddled elections are eerie, especially the heavy interference from Soviet-trained heads-of-state in both. But Ukrainians can still hope for a different outcome. Mr. Carter was not on hand to bless the theft there as he was in Caracas to endorse the success of Castro protégé Hugo Chávez in fighting off a recall through tampering with the vote and other chicanery. Without Mr. Carter whispering in his ear this time around, Secretary of State Colin Powell apparently felt free to say that the U.S. was "deeply disturbed by the extensive and credible reports of fraud."

Contrast this to what happened in Venezuela. As in Ukraine, there was flagrant intimidation and harassment of voters. The government had also packed the supposedly independent electoral council, which rejected transparent oversight of the voting-machine programming. After the polls closed it flatly refused all requests for an open, independent audit of the paper ballots, which would have determined the real winner.

Mr. Carter, having staked his "observer" reputation on this ridiculously lopsided game, sealed the fate of the Venezuelans when he rushed to anoint Chávez as the winner and advised Mr. Powell to do the same. This betrayal of a neighboring democracy may one day leave ugly scars on the Bush administration's legacy, on Mr. Powell's record and on the reputations of his inept underlings at the State Department.

The tragedy is already unfolding. As Hume predicted, Chávez did not immediately strip Venezuelans of their rights when he first took office in 1999. Instead, over the course of five years, he withdrew liberties bit by bit to produce the "legal" environment that duped Mr. Carter. Having defeated recall, he is packing the supreme court by adding 12 new justices to the existing 20, ending any hope of judicial independence. He also wants to bring all police power under the control of his interior ministry.

Those cops will be needed as Chávez casts his net ever-wider to ensnare his opponents. Using the murder of a prosecutor as a pretext, arrests and police shootings of Chávez adversaries are mounting, as are police raids. One notable but under-reported incident involved a police raid on a Jewish school for young children on Monday. The government claims it had reason to believe there were arms stored there, but a more reasonable reading of the event, consistent with Chávez's close relations with Middle Eastern militants, can't ignore the chilling anti-Semitic overtones.

State terror using arbitrary police power is not the only weapon Chávez is wielding. There also are new laws. A pending "reform" of the penal code will make a variety of public protest criminal. It would outlaw cacerolazos or the practice of banging pots and pans in protest made famous by Chilean housewives when Chilean president Salvador Allende was running the economy into the ground. Those Chilean women mobilized a nation with their cacerolazos. Chávez is well aware of that history, which explains why making noise with kitchen utensils will now be a crime of "intimidation" that can earn from three to eight years in prison.

None of this will work though if television and print media are not brought to heel. The effort has been underway for some years, using both the force of the police and hateful rhetoric from the bully pulpit. But clearly more is required. As Hume also pointed out, while enslaving must be done insidiously, the media must be silenced in one fell swoop.

"But if the liberty of the press ever be lost, it must be lost at once . . . either the clapping an imprimatur upon the press or the giving very large discretionary powers to the court to punish whatever displeases them. But these concessions would be such a barefaced violation of liberty that they will probably be the last efforts of a despotic government. We may conclude that the liberty of Britain is gone forever when these attempts shall succeed."

The relevance to Venezuela today is startling. A pending "content law" would give the government the discretionary censorship powers without legal recourse that Hume dreaded. The Inter-American Press Association has objected on the grounds that it would damage not only press freedom but also the public's access to information. To which the government might properly respond: precisely.

Some impressive world figures have noted the swelling repression and have written a letter to Chávez objecting. Signatories include former Czech President Vaclav Havel, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, U.S. Sen. John McCain, former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, Chairman Peter Eigen of Transparency International, Thomas R. Donahue, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO, and Richard Goldstone, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

The letter points out that the state's prosecution of nongovernmental organizations "for receiving democratic assistance is a violation of both the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the Warsaw Declaration of the Community of Democracies, a document your government signed along with over 100 others four years ago."

As if any of this will matter to Chávez, as he revels in his authority and power to quash dissent. He is just back from a visit to the mullahs in Tehran, the folks who plan to bring us an Islamic A-bomb. He also dropped in on the Kremlin, which will reportedly sell Venezuela lots of new automatic weaponry including attack-capable MiG 29 jets. Maybe it won't be long now before Mr. Carter returns to Caracas -- the new Havana -- to meet with imprisoned dissidents, photo-op with the smiling strongman and speak softly of peace for all. Watching it all from Kiev, Ukrainians ought to get busy on that monument.

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