(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on June 15, 2001)
I was only a child then, certainly not old enough to understand all the political ramifications of the historic events that were developing right before my eyes. But I see things happening in Venezuela now that take me back to my childhood in Cuba. And I don't like it.
I have many wonderful memories of my youth. But the ones that are being rekindled in Venezuela are the bad ones.
Every time I read about the antics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, my mind flashes back to the first few years of the Cuban Revolution, when Fidel Castro slowly introduced “revolutionary laws” and “reforms” that established a communist dictatorship.
For years, Chavez has been saying he idolizes Castro and that Venezuela is marching “toward the same sea as the Cuban people.” But that hasn't been enough to convince many Venezuelans that Chavez is taking them on the same ride that made many Cubans believe in Castro, even while he was gradually taking away their freedoms.
Ever since he took office in 1999, Chavez has been moving toward authoritarian control and giving indications that he intends to rule Venezuela a lot longer. After all, Castro has ruled Cuba for 42 years.
But it doesn't matter how many times we Cubans tell our Venezuelan friends that they are making a mistake. They don't want to hear it. They are so tired of corrupt democratic governments that they are willing to take their chances with a leader who emulates the hemisphere's most repressive and longest lasting dictator.
Like sheep walking to the slaughterhouse, in December 1999, Venezuelans even voted in a national referendum for a new constitution that gave Chavez the power to impose authoritarian rule.
Earlier that year, a constitutional assembly controlled by Chavez had declared a legislative emergency and usurped most of the Venezuelan Congress’ functions, including the right to pass laws. That assembly, originally designed only to write the new constitution, gave itself sweeping new powers to fire judges and overhaul the court system, which led the president of the Venezuelan Supreme Court to resign in protest.
When Chavez threatened to assume emergency powers a month ago, many Venezuela observers forecasted an imminent coup d'etat. But Chavez doesn't need to do it all at once. As a democratically elected president, he is taking his time on the road to becoming a dictator, a little bit at a time.
The bad memories from my childhood came back again last weekend, when Chavez ordered the creation of Cuban-style neighborhood groups to “defend the revolution.” He calls them "Bolivarian Circles," – named after Latin America's independence hero Simon Bolivar – but I remember Cuba's “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution” as block-by-block groups of citizens used by the government to identify, spy on, and repress political opponents.
“We are going to defeat the counter-revolution and push forward with the revolution,” Chavez said Saturday as he addressed the Venezuelan Communist Party, in a theater decorated with revolutionary slogans and pictures of Argentine guerrilla icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
As if that wasn't enough for one weekend, Chavez also announced that he will expel from Venezuela any foreigner who criticizes him or his government. He said foreigners could say what they liked outside Venezuela. “But we are not going to accept them doing it anymore right here in our own house,” Chavez said. “I make this warning now so they don't go talking afterwards about Chavez the tyrant and the dictatorship in Venezuela.”
It reminds me of Richard Nixon claiming, “I am not a crook.”
Imagine what we immigrants in this country would say if President Bush suddenly denied us our right to self-expression! Imagine if Bush were to threaten to deport his immigrant critics! It's absurd. And yet even on this sensitive move, many Venezuelans are supporting him.
Although Chavez faces growing public discontent over totalitarianism, unemployment, crime, poverty, and corruption in his oil-rich South American nation, the majority of the Venezuelan people still support him.
Apparently, they want to learn about communist dictatorships the hard way. They want to make their own mistake. They want to feel the hardships of the Cuban people.
Sometimes it's hard for me to understand, especially when Chavez keeps rekindling my bad Cuban memories. But in the end, I do understand: The Venezuelan people are in denial, just like the Cubans once were.