WASHINGTONThere is nothing surprising about the arrest warrant in Venezuela for Guillermo Zuloaga, principal shareholder and president of Globovision, the countrys lone independent TV station. What is surprising is that Hugo Chavez has taken this long to make a move that those who follow Globovisions heroic resistance against the autocrat have long expected.
Ever since Chavez took RCTV, Venezuelas oldest station, off the open airwaves in 2007, Globovision knew it was next in line. But despite a dizzying array of judicial charges and acts of intimidation, Zuloagas media outlet maintained its investigative reporting and commentary. Even when the government falsely accused Zuloaga, who also owns two car dealerships, of hoarding vehicles with the purpose of raising their prices, Globovisions president kept up the fight. Meanwhile, other criticsmayors, governors, intellectuals, business peoplewere arrested or forced to flee the country. The latest was Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, former governor of Zulia province, who spent time in jail for saying that his country had become a haven for drug traffickers. But somehow Chavez figured that a definitive move against Zuloaga, whose brief detention last March triggered international protests, was not in his interest.
This has now changed. Zuloaga is a wanted man; the government wants to eliminate the last bastion of freedom in broadcast journalism. There is always something rational about the timing of Chavezs moves against key opponents. What the Zuloaga arrest warrant reveals is the real extent of the countrys crisis three months before legislative elections that will give the opposition a presence in Congress for the first time in years (it abstained from participation in the last legislative elections).
Corruption scandals reached their apex recently when 30,000 tons of rotting imported food were discovered in the warehouses of various government-owned enterprises. Venezuela, a country that suffers from chronic shortages due to price controls, imports 70 percent of its food. It is a cruel irony that, due to official corruption, the government, which routinely accuses private retailers of hoarding food for speculation, should be denying the most basic products to people dependent on a government aid program. It has cost Chavez, whose popularity has dropped to 48 percent.
Another factor weighing on Chavez is the collapse of law and order. According to a recent study of his first decade in power, conducted by 25 Latin American think tanks under the stewardship of Chiles Libertad y Desarrollo, 150,000 people have lost their lives due to crime. The deepening of the authoritarian system has paradoxically entailed a gradual descent into widespread gang activity. Former policemen and soldiers are part of organized crime.
Finally, the economic context, already dismal with a 6 percent drop in output in the first quarter of 2010 and 30 percent inflation, threatens the regime. As happened in 2007, when the government responded to an economic downturn with nationalizations in oil, telecommunications, electricity, banking and steel, Chavez has now decided to intervene in 18 food distribution companies, the private Banco Federal (one of whose directors sits on Globovisions board) and 80 investment banks and brokerage firms. In the last five years, more than 762 private businesses have been expropriated. Every wave of nationalization is justified with the argument that private enterprise is instigating the economic troubles. As a result, the World Economic Forum ranks Venezuela 113th in terms of competitiveness.
No wonder the government is convinced it now needs to obliterate the remnants of free expression. Chavez already controls 72 television stations, 400 radio stations and 18 newspapers, and has inflicted more than 1,000 hours of verbal torture on the people through addresses to the nation that every outlet is obliged to carry. But this is not enough. An independent Globovision, a relatively small outlet that has become a giant in the eyes of millions of Venezuelans, is unacceptable in a state intent on becoming a second Cuba.
A group of foreigners invited to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Cedice, a Venezuelan policy institute, had dinner with Zuloaga last year. We asked him how long he was prepared to fight. As long as it takes, he responded. They will come after me, but that will not stop us. Even if they shut us down, we have arrangements in place to continue broadcasting from overseas. We will never surrender.
A few days ago, when Zuloaga went into hiding, Chavez called him a coward. The dictator knows very well he is up against an enemy far more courageous than he is.