Atlas Shrugs In Venezuela

As Hugo Chavez continues his apparent quest to become the heir apparent to Fidel Castro, Venezuelans who desire freedom and prosperity are starting to vote with their feet:

CARACAS, Venezuela — The line forms every day after dawn at the Spanish Consulate, hundreds of people seeking papers permitting them to abandon Venezuela for new lives in Spain. They say they are filled with despair at President Hugo Chávez’s growing power, and they appear not to be alone. At other consulates in this capital, long lines form daily.

Two months after Chávez was reelected to another six-year term by an overwhelming margin, Venezuela is experiencing a fundamental shift in its political and economic climate that could remake the country in a way perhaps not seen in Latin America since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959. On Wednesday, the National Assembly is expected to entrust him with tremendous powers that will allow him to dictate new laws for 18 months to transform the economy, redraw the structure of government and establish a new funding apparatus for Venezuela’s huge oil wealth.

Chávez’s government announced earlier that it intends to nationalize strategic industries, such as telecommunications and electric utilities, and amend the constitution to end presidential term limits.

The new, more radicalized era is enthralling to the president’s supporters. To them, Chávez is keeping the promise he has consistently made over eight years in office — to reorganize Venezuelan society, redistribute its wealth and position the country as an alternative to U.S. capitalist policies.

“This is a moment that could be key in the history of Latin America,” said Joanna Cadenas, 36, a teacher in the state-run Bolivarian University. “I never thought you could love a president.”

But the moves — which opponents say are marked by intolerance and strident ideology — are prompting some Venezuelans to leave the country and others to prepare for a fight in the last battlegrounds where the opposition has influence. A few are trying, against the tide, to remain apolitical in a country marked by extreme, even outlandish rhetoric.

“What we’re seeing happen here is not good,” said José Manuel Rodríguez, 42, an accountant seeking travel documents at the Spanish Consulate. “What we see here is the coming of totalitarianism, fewer guarantees, fewer civil rights. I want to have everything ready to leave.”

Given the rhetoric coming from Chavez lately, the desire of these people to emigrate is entirely understandable:

Even some of Chávez’s allies have raised eyebrows over some of his plans. The president has formed a coalition, the United Socialist Party, to unite the numerous parties in the National Assembly — all of them pro-government. But the leaders of bigger, well-established parties such as the Communist Party and Podemos are balking, at least for now.

In a recent meeting for leaders of Podemos, one delegate, Pedro Peraza, said that although support was strong for folding into the president’s party, Podemos needed to be cautious. “Things cannot be that way, that it’s all about what the president says and that we just follow along,” Peraza said. “That would be like communism.”

Despite concern voiced by several Podemos members, the president of the party, Ismael García, said that the dissolution of his party was only a matter of time. Asked if folding Podemos and other parties wouldn’t give Chávez too much power, García cited the widespread support the president enjoys.

“We’re not turning over anything to anybody,” he said. “The president has won this through his prestige, his worth as a leader, his courage.”

Sounds like surrender to me. And that’s what’s distressing about all of this. Even as Fidel Castro, Latin America’s worst dictator, lies dying, another is preparing to take his place and enslave yet another nation.

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