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Hugo Chavez may be bombastic, but he's no dictator

On Jan. 10, the left-wing leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was sworn in to another six-year term as president. During his inaugural speech, Chavez once again earned the ire of the U.S. business community by repeating his call for "socialism or death" and announcing his government's plan to nationalize companies partly owned by U.S. corporations.

As could be predicted, conservative media outlets like The Buffalo News were quick to condemn Chavez for his putative attempts to "crush democracy" in Venezuela.

The News and other critics should not, however, be so quick to levy allegations of Cuban-style dictatorship at the Venezuelan president. As someone who spent the better part of 2006 working there, I can say unequivocally that freedom and democracy are thriving.

Elections are a case in point. Since 1998, Venezuela has had eight national elections including a referendum on a new constitution and a presidential recall. Last December, Chavez won re-election with close to 63 percent of the vote amidst 75 percent turnout.

Yet critics cite a possible amendment to the country's constitution to permit a third presidential term as a derailment of democracy. What is unclear, though, is how refusing to mimic the U.S. model of term limits automatically threatens a nation's democracy.

It is obvious to anyone watching closely that Chavez is not a dictator. He is, however, bombastic and his recent announcement that the government plans to nationalize private companies must be understood within this context. Despite the bluster, history and common sense show there will be no expropriation of private companies in Venezuela without fair remuneration.

For those who fear Chavez's rhetoric indicates a hostility to private enterprise, I recommend a slow drive down any Caracas thoroughfare. Screaming billboards advertising everything from Smirnoff Ice to private banks will set free enterprise hearts at ease.

Proponents of the authoritarian thesis also point to the government's refusal to renew the license of a Caracas-based TV station because of its critical stance toward the president. This proposition, quite honestly, is laughable.

The vast majority of media outlets in Venezuela deride the president and his administration daily. The reality is that the station in question was implicated in the planning and execution of a coup attempt against the government in April 2002 that left 19 innocent civilians dead.

Many people do not agree with the policies of the Venezuelan government because they understand them to be economically unsound. Such positions are worthy of debate. But to raise allegations of authoritarianism based on bias and paranoia is simply incorrect.

Edward Ellis of Blasdell is the Summer Reality Tour coordinator for the NGO Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.-org) in Merida, Venezuela. He is also an independent researcher and professor of English at the University of the Andes in Merida.

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