Miraflores Palace/Handout/Reuters
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez talks to a baby during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas Wednesday. A new law passed by Venezuela's legislature allows the Chávez to rule by decree until mid-2012.

Hugo Chávez tightens his grip in Venezuela. Can US do anything about it?

With the US focused on other parts of the world, Latin American neighbor Hugo Chávez has tightened his hold on power. The next Congress may press Obama to act, but what are his options?

While the Obama administration was focused on Iran, Middle East peace, and arms control with Russia in recent weeks, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been busy consolidating his already extensive powers, which now include a mandate to rule by decree.

The deterioration of democratic standards in a neighboring country is likely to emerge as a front-burner issue in Washington in 2011 – in part because voices in a new Congress are promising to prod what they see as a neglectful administration into action.

But it remains unclear what the Obama administration will be able to do about Mr. Chávez’s recent acts even if it decides that Venezuela’s slide from democracy is a priority.

With the Bush administration’s unsuccessful attempts at thwarting the leftist-populist Chávez a fresh memory, and with the Obama administration’s own foray into Latin American political peacemaking – in Honduras – having won few friends, Obama may be left with few options beyond regional diplomacy, some Latin America experts say.

“We can expect a lot more heated rhetoric, much tougher rhetoric about events in Venezuela in the coming weeks, especially once the new House of Representatives comes in,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “But the policy options are limited to the realm of encouraging a tougher stand in the region on what can only be called a power grab.”

In response to a surprisingly strong showing by his opposition in September legislative elections, Chávez has pushed through a raft of laws designed to blunt the impact of the new National Assembly that takes office on Jan. 5. The measures range from further clampdowns on press freedom to tighter rules for political parties.

Rule by decree

But perhaps the most sweeping law allows Chávez to rule by decree – without consultation of the new Congress – until mid-2012.

Passage of the new laws has prompted cries of “coup d’état!” from Chávez’s political opposition and has prompted a cry of alarm from some in Washington. US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) Florida, who becomes chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee next month, is blasting the Organization of American States (OAS) for standing by as Chávez continues to consolidate power and silence his opponents.

“It is shameful that Chávez’s actions to usurp power and impose Castro-style control over the media have been met with barely a whimper from most member-states” of the OAS, an organization she said is “supposed to promote and protect democracy in the Western Hemisphere.”

Representative Ros-Lehtinen, who left the Cuba of Fidel Castro as a child, is one of Congress’s staunchest critics of the hemisphere’s leftist governments.

US relations with Venezuela, which have been on a downward trajectory over most of Chávez’s 12 years in power, fell another notch this month when Chávez officially rejected the Obama administration’s choice for US ambassador to Caracas. Chávez initially indicated his acceptance of veteran diplomat Larry Palmer, but reversed course after Mr. Palmer said in his Senate confirmation hearing that members of Chávez’s government maintain ties to leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. Palmer also affirmed that morale in the Venezuelan military is low – a comment that some regional experts say may have been a bridge too far for Chávez, who rose from within the Venezuelan Army.

US talks of 'consequences'

The State Department said in response that Chávez’s decision would have “consequences” for the bilateral relationship, but so far no word has emerged of just what form those consequences might take. US Rep. Connie Mack (R) Florida has called for Venezuela to be placed on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, but even Ros-Lehtinen has suggested that might be going too far.

Placing Venezuela on the terrorism list – based on the alleged links to the Colombian guerrillas – would entail certain economic sanctions, while Venezuela’s business community has been one of the staunchest elements of Chávez’s opposition. In addition, Venezuela is a major supplier of crude oil to the US.

The Inter-American Dialogue’s Mr. Shifter says there is no question that Chávez has been tightening his grip on the reins of power to the point where it’s difficult to call it anything other than autocratic rule. But at the same time, he says, Chávez can dismiss the accusations of “coup d’état” because he has remained within the confines of the constitution to pursue his “power grab.”

“Experience tells us that this is what Chávez does when he faces a political challenge, he tightens his grip – but he does it while preserving a fig leaf of legitimacy,” says Shifter. “In this case a legitimate national congress aided him in further reducing the semblance of democracy and the rule of law.”

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