Venezuela's Hugo Chávez: Nice Weather for Autocrats

Leave it to Hugo Chávez to turn natural calamity into political opportunity. As torrential rains left 130,000 Venezuelans homeless, the president leveraged the elements to his advantage. He won the legislature’s blessing to rule the country by decree for the next 18 months “on humanitarian grounds.” But his plans go way beyond aiding storm victims. Bundled into the package are measures that would allow confiscations of private property, higher taxes, state takeovers of banks and private companies, and cuts to foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations.

There’s method to this show of muscle. Until now, the president—whose allies hold 95 percent of the legislature—has played Parliament like a flute. But with a new, more independent National Assembly being sworn in on Jan. 5, he had to boost his powers while he could. This is the fourth time in 11 years that Chávez has sought extraordinary powers. The first three, he muzzled the independent press, nationalized private firms and banks, and ransacked farms in the name of 21st-century socialism. Now he’s set to throttle human-rights groups (who have been a thorn in his side), require foreign banks to pony up for a social-development fund, and halt public funding of all scientific research that is not “socially relevant” (read: government approved). Score one more for the Bolivarian revolution.