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Jewish World Review Dec. 11, 2002 / 6 Teves, 5763

Robert W. Tracinski

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Venezuela's lonely rebellion | Rebelling against tyranny is a lonely business these days. If the brave citizens of an oppressed country dare to resist evil, they can expect the rest of the supposedly civilized world to react with hostility or indifference. That's the case right now in Venezuela, where an alliance of business leaders and labor unions is demanding the resignation of would-be dictator Hugo Chavez.

Chavez is a former military officer who attempted a coup against Venezuela's government in 1992. In 1998, he used a brand of Marxist populism to get himself elected president, then set out to establish a dictatorship inspired by his hero and ally, Fidel Castro. Chavez set up armed gangs called Bolivarian Circles, extra-legal militias loyal to his political movement. Then he and his backers in the legislature rewrote the nation's constitution to extend his term in office and give him the power to rule by decree.

About a year ago, Chavez used that power to impose 49 decrees giving him near-total power over the economy. He also staged a political takeover of Venezuela's state-controlled oil monopoly -- the backbone of the Venezuelan economy. Chavez declared to his supporters: "The revolution is invincible, and no one is going to stop it, because it has infinite powers."

But there were brave souls in Venezuela who stood up to deny Chavez "infinite power." The nation's largest business federation joined with its largest labor union, organizing strikes and protests to demand the end of the economic dictatorship. The protests reached a crisis this April, when a gang of Bolivarian thugs -- acting on Chavez's orders -- opened fire on a crowd of protesters. In a bloodless revolution, Army leaders reacted by allying themselves with the protesters and deposing Chavez. The leader of the business federation was installed as an interim ruler, vowing to organize new legislative and presidential elections.

The April rebellion was an inspiring sight: people from all walks of life had joined together in courageous resistance against tyranny.

So naturally everyone condemned it. American newspapers reported the event as a "coup" -- as if it were the protesters, not Chavez, who were attempting to impose dictatorship. The Organization of American States and the Rio Group, a 19-member council of Latin American countries, both condemned the rebellion. And what about the United States, which would have much to gain from the overthrow of a Castro ally in the oil-rich nation of Venezuela? Our intrepid State Department vigorously denied that it approved of the rebellion. (So much for U.S. foreign policy being ruled by greed for oil.)

Chavez, sensing the changing momentum, seized power again, vowing revenge against the protests' leaders and against Venezuela's independent media, which had given the rebellion sympathetic coverage.

Fortunately, the people of Venezuela were not so easily defeated. They have rallied again with a vast general strike protesting Chavez's rule. The strikes have brought Venezuela's oil wells and refineries to a standstill, while a group of dissident military leaders have seized control of a public square in Caracas to create a safe space for mass demonstrations against Chavez. (The space was violated a few days ago when Bolivarian thugs once again opened fire on protesters there.) This time, the protesters are making a less controversial demand: they want a national referendum on Chavez's presidency -- an attempt to oust the would-be dictator through new elections.

But the international response has been discouraging. The Organization of American States sent a negotiator to try to find a compromise between those who want freedom and the dictator who wants them under his boot. The Washington Post tsk-tsked at both sides, chiding Venezuela's workers that "national strikes are no more the solution than martial law" -- as if they are as guilty for resisting dictatorship as Chavez is for imposing it.

And what about the U.S. government? Venezuela is strategically important to the United States, providing 13 percent of our oil, shipped directly across the Caribbean to refineries on the Gulf Coast. That's a crucial source of oil if we are headed into a wider war in the Middle East -- and all we have to do is declare our support for elections. But our State Department has gone mute, and presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer has only mouthed some pablum about finding a "non-violent solution."

There are now two countries in the world where a popular rebellion is building against a dictatorship: Venezuela and Iran. In both cases, America's interests and the cause of human freedom demand that we stop sitting on our hands and start supporting these freedom fighters.

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