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Venezuela: Chavez's image shifts from oddity to abuser

By ANDRES OPPENHEIMER

Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez made a major tactical mistake last week, which may prove more damaging to him than having recently called President Bush an ''illegitimate president:'' he allowed himself to be seen by the world as a violator of human rights.

Until now, Chávez -- the former army coup plotter who was elected in 1998 and has ruled with an increasingly strong hand -- was seen by most countries and some U.S. officials as an eccentric but rather harmless demagogue. Watch what he does, not what he says, foreign diplomats said, quoting a recent U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.

It isn't a secret to foreign diplomats that Chávez is running a militarized government -- with 57 armed forces officers in top government jobs -- and bends the law at will. But while he maintained the formalities of democratic rule, it was easy for people to look the other way.

But that may have changed last week when Chávez's National Guard engaged in torture, beatings and possibly several killings in clashes with tens of thousands of oppositionists who were protesting the government's refusal to recognize a key portion of the 3.4 million signatures on petitions to recall him.

Amnesty International condemned ''excessive use of force'' in the government's crackdown. At least nine people were killed and more than 50 were injured by Chávez's security forces in the clashes, according to Human Rights Watch.

Chávez has long gotten away with dubious interpretations of the laws, but it's harder for him to hide pictures of blood-drenched oppositionists, or testimonies such as were detailed in The Herald's report of cellist Carlos Izcaray's 20-hour beatings, mock executions and torture with electric-shock sticks.

AMBASSADOR RESIGNS

In a highly unusual move, Venezuela's ambassador to the United Nations, Milos Alcalay, resigned from his job Thursday, saying he could no longer represent a government that violates human rights. Chávez's bloody crackdown on opposition demonstrators ''closely resembles'' the methods of Latin America's right-wing military dictatorships of the l970s, Alcalay said.

Chávez's transformation in the eyes of many outsiders from a loud-talking nuisance into an abuser of human rights will make him a tougher figure to tolerate in Washington, Latin America and Europe, and an easier one for the Bush administration to criticize.

''He is now behaving in the manner of the traditional Latin American military dictators,'' White House special ambassador to Latin America Otto Reich said in an interview Friday. ``Neighboring countries cannot remain silent in the face of this wave of brutality unleashed on the Venezuelan people.''

Despite the tough talk, the United States isn't likely to do anything that could create more turmoil in Venezuela and push up oil prices. Bush probably knows that he would not stand a chance to win the November election if oil prices reach $2 a gallon. And many Latin American and Caribbean countries rely on subsidized Venezuelan oil.

But the human-rights factor may push the Venezuelan crisis to a new dimension and trigger international pressure for a return to democratic rule.

We have seen it happen before, in Peru. In 2000, it was an OAS Human Rights Commission dossier and an OAS observer mission report that triggered an OAS foreign ministers conference in Windsor, Canada, to demand a return to democracy in Peru.

Peru's former president, Alberto Fujimori, was pressured into taking several steps toward free elections. He eventually resigned.

Well-placed sources tell me that the OAS Human Rights Commission is due to release its report on Venezuelan human rights conditions later this month, and last week's events can't but make the report tougher.

That may set off a gradual process of world pressure on Chávez to undo his constitutional coup and allow the recall vote.

Granted, there is not much the world can do if Chávez drops the democratic veil and becomes a full-fledged dictator.

HOLLOW SOUND

But, with blood on Venezuelan streets, his efforts to lash out against ''U.S. imperialism'' to divert international attention from his domestic political troubles will sound increasingly hollow.

The human rights factor will put the spotlight right at home.



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