Venezuela's Robin Hood

One way Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez consolidates his power is to silence his opposition - to restrict the media, as he did late last year, and to suppress protests by making many such acts a crime.

The other way is to ramp up his populist appeal with sweeping promises. As long as he's got the poor behind him - and 60 percent of Venezuelans live on $2 a day or less - the leader who sits atop this oil-producing giant appears untouchable.

The first tactic is bad enough. It stifles dissent that can check power. And it sets off alarm bells in Washington, which is concerned about the negative influence that this admirer of Fidel Castro might exert on Latin America. Venezuela is also the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the US.

But his populist strategy is likely to hurt the very people who believe in the Chávez revolution, because it gives them false hope.

One big, empty promise is Chávez's decision last month to revive his 2001 land-reform plan. Chávez himself describes it as "war against the large estates."

This ill-conceived plan calls for "idle" land to be broken up and redistributed to landless peasants. The government will determine what's idle.

In the process of reviewing what land to expropriate, it's also deciding what crops and livestock should be produced. The plan supposedly applies to both private and government agricultural holdings, but so far only private lands are being targeted.

The stated reasons for this Robin Hood scheme are to help the poor and to make Venezuela self-sufficient in food - one of Chávez's pet projects.

Land redistribution in many other countries doesn't have a very good track record. In the 1960s and '70s, much of Latin America (including Venezuela) tried such land reform, and failed. Small plots aren't very efficient, and they often get doled out to political supporters who are inexperienced in farming.

That's what happened recently in Africa's Zimbabwe, where agricultural production dropped precipitously after farms owned by whites were confiscated and given to backers of Zimbabwe's leader, Robert Mugabe.

The Chávez plan fails on many counts, the most important being the undermining of private property rights and a market-driven economy. Already, skittish investors are refusing to finance Venezuela's private landowners, for fear the properties will be expropriated.

Government control of agriculture is on the way out globally. Didn't Chávez notice the 1990s, when central planning collapsed in Eastern Europe, along with long lines at grocery stores?

Venezuela's poverty is a real challenge, but if Chávez were serious about tackling it, he would help the private sector through incentives, not draw and quarter it. Which leads one to the conclusion that this is more about his power than any substantive improvement in the lives of the poor.

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