Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's full-court press toward socialism, as he begins another six-year term, should be a wake-up call to the rest of the world. The Bush administration should act to protect American businesses, even if it means putting pressure on Venezuelan companies in the United States.
As Chavez was sworn in, he invoked the chilling cry of Fidel Castro's "socialism or death." He also claimed a kind of divine partnership for his rush to erode the South American democracy, declaring: "I swear by Christ -- the greatest socialist in history."
His determination to move his country to the far left, no matter the cost, is certain to drag Venezuela's people into further despair. If the nation prospers, it will be at the cost of civil and individual liberties.
Chavez indicated during the election campaign that he would seek constitutional reforms, including eliminating the presidential term limits that prevent him from running again in 2012. He also called this week for a constitutional amendment to strip the central bank of its autonomy.
The early influence of Simon Bolivar, the South American independence hero who inspired the Venezuelan president's "Bolivarian Revolution" movement, permeates everything Chavez does. The Venezuelan president recently rattled the oil markets by his insistence that he will proceed to nationalize companies. The United States, the biggest buyer of Venezuelan oil, should be concerned as Chavez works to bring under state control four lucrative oil projects now run by foreign companies in the Orinoco River basin.
For American businesses, such as Chevron, that have a presence in Venezuela, that concern is acute. Should Chavez continue along his nationalization line, American companies must be properly compensated, a point the American government must insist upon. There is leverage; Venezuelan crude needs a degree of refining achievable in America but not in other likely global customers.
The Venezuelan president enjoys a level of popularity among poor people in his country, who remain optimistic even about a socialist future. For them, nationalism seems to make sense for the public interest. But Chavez's rule, which he hopes to extend, will only lead to isolation -- a result that will further impoverish the very people who are his staunchest supporters.
Since being elected in 1998, the Venezuelan president has continued to cement his popularity among the poor by using oil profits for state-funded cooperatives and social programs. Damaging trade and business relationships with the source of most of his oil revenues eventually will curtail those programs. In reality, the gifts Chavez appears to bear for the poor simply mask his intention to crush democracy.