As he begins his third presidential term Wednesday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has laid the groundwork for a sharp leftward shift and launched a clampdown on dissent, in what analysts see as a broad-based effort to strengthen his grip on power.
Emboldened by his resounding reelection victory on Dec. 3, Mr. Chávez announced plans this week to nationalize power and telecom companies as part of an accelerated move toward socialism. This comes after he had begun to act on longstanding threats to close media outlets aligned with the opposition, refusing to renew the broadcast license of Venezuela's oldest commercial television station, RCTV.
In the past week, he has purged his cabinet of ministers deemed insufficiently radical, bringing in a new group of loyalists that includes his brother, Adan. He has begun to merge the more than 20 parties in his governing coalition into a single force under his control. And, under a controversial new law, he is set to take control of nongovernmental organizations that could oppose his government.
"I don't think there is a lot of ambiguity about what Chávez is doing," says Michael Shifter, an analyst at Interamerican Dialogue in Washington, DC. "He wants to hold on to power for as long as possible, and even though he just won a resounding reelection, he doesn't want to take any chances of dissent building."
The Venezuelan president's decision to close RCTV, which has been broadcasting since 1953, has been met with strong criticism from the Organization of American States (OAS), the Catholic Church, and from press freedom campaigners like Reporters Without Borders. José Miguel Insulza, OAS secretary general, said the move smacked of "censorship against freedom of speech and a warning to other media, encouraging them to limit their operations so as not to face the same fate."
But Chávez, who referred to Mr. Insulza as an "idiot," says he will defy any international criticism.
Chávez is also moving to take control of civic groups, some of which have been critical of his government. Under a proposed law now in Congress, NGOs will have to reregister with the government, even if they have been operating legally for years. Foreign funding will have to pass through the government, and NGOs would have to open their files to anyone that requests it. Human rights campaigners say it would effectively end their work.
"If approved, it will [effectively] outlaw all nongovernmental organizations" working in Venezuela, says Liliana Ortega of the Venezuelan human rights group, Cofavic. "There will only be groups approved by the government."
Amnesty International has called on Chávez to revoke the bill, with a spokesperson saying it would "restrict the legitimate work of human rights defenders in Venezuela." But Chávez shows no signs of retreating.
Chávez is also gearing up to change the constitution to allow his indefinite re-election – and has vowed to remain in power until 2021.
Mr. Shifter believes Chávez's effort to change the constitution could meet with substantial opposition within his own coalition. That could be a reason why Chávez is moving to take control of both supporters and critical NGOs.
"He would be in better shape to assure his power if there are no independent, critical civic organizations that could offer a channel for dissent and challenge to the regime," says Shifter.
Chávez's defenders deny his latest moves constitute an autocratic power-play. They say the measures are needed to defend the achievements of the "Bolivarian Revolution" from its enemies, such as those who launched a failed coup against Chávez in 2002.
The bill to regulate NGOs, for example, was introduced after Súmate, a voter education group involved in the 2004 recall drive against Chávez, was found to have received more than $30,000 from the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy. They similarly accuse RCTV and other private broadcasters of having supported the failed 2002 coup and subsequent oil strike against the government.
"They became spokesmen for the opposition and allied themselves with the coup-plotters of 2002," says Martín Pacheco, media coordinator for the Chávez reelection campaign.
With political passions on the rise, Chávez's opponents say they are bracing themselves for a renewed crackdown. Some of the 3.5 million Venezuelans on a political blacklist compiled by his government two years ago say they have noticed a recent upswing in harassment by government officials.
Rocío San Miguel, a lawyer in Caracas, appeared on the blacklist in early 2004 after signing a petition to recall the president. She was fired from her job at Venezuela's border agency a few weeks after the blacklist was posted on the Internet. Last month, her husband, a colonel in the Air Force, was barred from entering his air base.
"Not only have they ended my career, now they are ending his," says Ms. San Miguel, adding that she is now more fearful than ever. "The day after the election, my daughter asked me, 'Is something going to happen to you now that Chávez has won?' "
Opponents say the list is used to screen applicants for jobs, social benefits, identity cards, scholarships, and credit from state banks. Government aides deny this. "It's absurd to think there is political discrimination here," says Mr. Pacheco.
One woman, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, says she was fired from her government job just before the Dec. 3 election, along with several others.
"That list is used all the time," she says. "People are very scared."
CARACAS, VENEZUELA – As Venezuela embarked on another six years under Hugo Chávez, the president announced plans to nationalize power and telecommunications companies. He also said he wanted a constitutional amendment to strip the Central Bank of its autonomy and would soon ask the National Assembly, solidly controlled by his allies, to approve "a set of revolutionary laws" by presidential decree.
"We're heading toward socialism, and nothing and no one can prevent it," he said in a televised address after swearing in his new cabinet on Monday.
Chávez also said lucrative oil projects in the Orinoco River basin involving foreign oil companies should be under national ownership. Critics say he is following in the footsteps of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
– Associated Press