GUATEMALA — To a visitor who arrives in Venezuela—particularly if he or she is curious about the Bolivarian Revolution presumably ongoing there—the contrasts and surprises found from the moment he enters the country could not be greater. Caracas is crowded with cars, the supermarkets are never empty, and a climate of intense economic activity is perceived clearly on the city streets. Meanwhile, however, President Chávez insists that the country marches toward twenty-first century socialism; a constitutional reform has been called for which promises to make Venezuela’s Constitution resemble Cuba’s; and the threats to private property at all stages and in all forms are constant. What kind of revolution is this, conducted in a climate of apparent freedom, while measures are threatened which, without exaggeration, can only be described as totalitarian?

To understand these contrasts we must consider some important factors, well known by all, whose repercussions are sometimes overlooked. First, in Venezuela, an oil-producing country, the state receives an unimaginably large amount of fiscal revenues from oil sales. Without the need for tax pressures, and totally out of control, the government can count on tens of billions of dollars to fill its coffers and, to a great extent, can dispose of this revenue at its complete discretion. No institution exists that can keep part of that income from going directly into the pockets of high-ranking functionaries in the Chávez regime. Elsewhere, the government has instituted social-aid programs (the so-called “missions”) to distribute modest sums of money to millions of people. In addition, there is enough money to buy huge amounts of arms (even submarines and aircraft), grant profitable contracts to government suppliers over whom there is no type of control, and promote the Chávez revolution overseas, consolidating the support of allied organizations and governments throughout the region.

In addition, President Chávez holds the sum total of political power. He absolutely controls all the state institutions, which bow obediently to his command, including the whole of Congress and the judiciary, as well as the organization in charge of supervising elections, the National Electoral Council. For its part, the economy is completely under government control; currency exchange controls are rigid; there are official prices—absurdly low—for a huge range of products; and almost all service companies, such as telephone, water, and electricity, have been taken over by the state. This explains why, amid a buoyant economy, it is almost impossible to procure eggs or milk, beans or rice, chicken or beef. There is an abundance, however, of top-make automobiles, and luxury homes are built for the regime’s hierarchs or the favored “entrepreneurs.,” But poverty continues to reign, and people are forced to line up in long queues or visit countless stores to find the basic products for their daily fare.

How much longer can such a controversial regime remain standing in a country where the privileges of the ruling minority are so evident? The answer usually given is that, as long as the price of oil remains high, Chávez will continue to enjoy the support of those people on the dole. Also, that by controlling the electoral system he can put through as many constitutional reforms as he wishes, even the reform that will grant him a lifetime presidency and personal and direct control over all the branches of government. However, once the project is fully realized and the truly socialist laws that have been drafted are enacted, what will be the reaction of the broad sector that opposes Chavism but, for now, cannot find the means to express itself and fight Chavist measures? What will happen when the state takes over the schools and the private clinics, when restrictions are imposed on the free movement of people, and urban homes are expropriated in massive numbers?

The forecast is truly pessimistic. People will not be able to do much to oppose a regime that controls all the levers of power and will have to accept the fact that the socialist adventure launched some time ago will directly affect their way of life, the education of their children, and their basic freedoms. Venezuela is moving directly toward a system where most freedoms will be suppressed and there will be no chance of making peaceful changes in the ruling system. When the time comes, and people feel afflicted by inflation, the lack of supplies, and new restrictions on personal freedom, the government will have in its hands all the tools it needs to repress the likely protests of the people and will impose its will by force. Democratic nations should learn from Venezuela’s sad fate and firmly oppose the socialist wave that is sweeping our region, a movement that many analysts, leaders, and observers still underestimate.