CARACAS, Venezuela—A group of foreign writers, academics and politicians was invited here to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Cedice, a Venezuelan think tank that promotes liberal democracy and the market economy, both of which President Hugo Chavez wants to destroy. The government’s thuggish reaction turned the visit into a public showdown that helped expose what Venezuelans are going through these days.

Although there were visitors from three continents, the authorities took aim particularly at those from Latin America. Four of us were detained at the airport, in my case for three hours, and told to refrain from making political comments. We were followed by the secret police—known as DISIP—in cars with no license plates, and a hostile mob was sent to the main venue. Agents masquerading as journalists were instructed to provoke us. The president and his ministers took turns insulting us on TV from dawn to dusk.

Once the official welcoming became an international media embarrassment, Chavez changed tactics and invited us to debate him and a group of “revolutionary intellectuals” none of us had ever heard of. The president did not really intend to debate, but we decided to put the ball back in his court. I suggested that novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, my father and the senior figure in our group, debate Chavez one on one. A few of us would accompany him to witness that basic conditions be met: no government mobs in the room, and live coverage on the government-controlled networks. Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, Colombian writer Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, our hosts Rocio Guijarro and Rafael Alfonzo, and others backed the suggestion. We put it to Chavez; as expected, he backed down.

The Cedice event and the government’s response helped to convey a simple truth about Chavez—that the emperor has no clothes. Venezuelans had been told that we were imperialists bent on destroying the revolution. But Chavez needs no such help; he is doing a fine job of it himself.

Two years after blocking the ability of Radio Caracas Television, the oldest network in the country, to broadcast over open airwaves, the government is going after Globovision, an independent network. Chavez has levelled trumped-up charges against the owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, who also has several Toyota dealerships and has been indicted for “hoarding” vehicles in order to resell them through “usury.” Globovision itself is officially accused of spreading fear for criticizing the authorities’ slow response to an earthquake and disrespecting the president. Chavez has promised to close down the network.

Opposition mayors and governors have been stripped of their powers and are being viciously persecuted. Manuel Rosales, mayor of Maracaibo and a former presidential candidate, has received political asylum in Peru. The mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, who gave our group a welcoming speech, dramatically told us that his country is now “a dictatorship.” Retired Gen. Raul Baduel, a former Chavez loyalist who broke with the president during his first attempt to change the constitution in pursuit of “indefinite re-election,” is now in prison.

The Official Gazette, where government decrees are published, has become an ode to theft. On a daily basis, it announces the takeover of local and foreign businesses—rarely with compensation. The nationalizations, often executed through violence, affect all areas of the economy: telecommunications, electricity, oil fields in the Orinoco Basin and oil field services, steel and cement production, banks, metallurgical firms, the food industry and agricultural land. The victims include Venezuelan, American, Mexican, French, Spanish, Swiss, Japanese and Australian investors.

Only a few foreigners have been spared—notably Brazilian companies, because Chavez is begging Brazil’s government for money. The corrupt mismanagement of the state-owned oil company PDVSA has seen production drop by one-third. Given the commitments made by Chavez on behalf of the Bolivarian revolution when the price of oil was much higher, the government is seriously short of cash. Chavez knows that his political machinery, based on expensive patronage and intimidation, is in jeopardy.

Thanks to Chavez’s overreaction, which gave the Cedice event a wider audience than expected, millions of Venezuelans were able to hear about our different experiences with authoritarian populism. They should take heart in the message that it can be reversed and that they are not alone in trying to prevent a second Cuba in the Western Hemisphere.