The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights outs Hugo Chavez

From the give credit where credit is due file: The Washington Post editorializes today on the damning Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report on Venezuela that was issued last week. The evisceration of Venezuela’s democracy is laid out in dispassionate detail–the judicial and media crackdowns, the elimination of the private sector and the targeted use of violence against any and all opposition. Our tendency has been to dismiss Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez as a minor annoyance–a buffoon who bumbled his way into power and would bumble out again at some point, or, worse, to embrace him as a modern day Che Guevara who channels low-cost heating oil through the kindly auspices of Joe Kennedy and Bill Delahunt to underprivileged Americans. But this report paints a very different and ugly picture of a canny, ruthless manipulator who has over the last decade effectively consolidated power the power of this once-vibrant democracy into his despotic hands.

The response so far has been a resounding so what? Why should we care, and even if we could summon the energy to care, what can we do about it? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are now we should care very much and there is precious little we can do–although if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would read this report it would be a start.

From a purely self-interested viewpoint, we should care because Venezuela is a large, potentially productive, resource-rich country that would be a valuable friend if it were not headed in the direction of being a deadly foe. Hugo Chavez can see the attention commanded by his nuclear allies Iran and North Korea. He has been arming up–can there be any doubt that he has nuclear ambitions as well? And if we are so concerned about the damage that could potentially be done by North Korean or Iranian missiles, how much more concerned should we be about the potential placement of such weapons much closer to our own borders? Chavez has demonstrated that he’s not squeamish about using violence on a small scale, and if history be our guide that generally translates into a reliance on larger-scale violence as an acceptable way to settle disputes. Chavez is also familiar with the tactical use of terrorism as he is quite cozy with the Colombian FARC and may well be harboring terrorist camps on his own soil. So by ignoring his activities we are enabling the rise of a trigger-happy thug with small regard for collateral damage in our own backyard. I think this merits our attention.

Now to the second point–what is to be done? Unfortunately, by delaying action for so long we have left ourselves few options. Chavez has made hating the Yanquis into an article of patriotic faith, so attempts to domesticate him are probably a fool’s errand. We have squandered the opportunities to support the opposition, and Chavez has taken advantage of our inaction to hector and intimidate these groups into ineffective submission. It has become fashionable to express solidarity with pro-democracy dissidents in Iran, which is of course a good thing, but it would be encouraging if we could rally similar support for those enduring the sickening grind of repression in our own hemisphere. But somehow Chavez, not those he oppresses, has emerged as the romantic hero of this story.

The much criticized U.S. intervention in the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez was another wasted opportunity. The episode has been held up as evidence of cynical American support for anti-democratic forces, but as Honduras has demonstrated there are coups–and then there are coups. It looks now as if that was the last chance to oust Chavez without substantial upheaval in the region and he has turned it into a public relations bonanza.

That upheaval now appears increasingly unavoidable. The sort of repression documented in the Inter-American Commission Report is not generally the recipe for a contented and prosperous state that co-exists peaceably with its neighbors. Chavez responded, predictably, by calling his critics names and threatening the body that issued the report. But words can only take him so far. Given his disastrous economic policies, Chavez is going to face increasing unrest from his once-docile population, and one of his options is provoking conflict with the American imperialists he has so successfully demonized in his country. By lashing out at us with more than fiery rhetoric Chavez could rally support that would encourage him to ever greater aggression in the region and beyond.

It is an unsavory circumstance, but the Inter-American Commission Report may provide something of an opportunity. With all eyes focused on Latin America in the aftermath of the Chilean earthquake, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is embarking on a six-nation trip through the region today. Rather than engaging in one of the Obama administration’s favored “listening tours,” it might be that this is Secretary Clinton’s opportunity to speak. With the report in hand she can demonstrate the fallacy of the Chavez-as-Robin-Hood myth, and point out to Venezuela’s neighbors the likely consequences of consorting with this violent and repressive regime. Clinton might recommend robust, coordinated action by the OAS, which is, after all, supposed to defend democracy in the region–action that could isolate and contain Venezuela. Clinton is ostensibly travelling to Latin America to consolidate Brazilian support for sanctions against Iran–while she’s at it, she might want to consider enlarging the issue to include Venezuela as well. With the evidence now before us, she could make a persuasive case if she finds her voice.