Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Chávez Is Losing His Grip

Chávez Is Losing His Grip
The end is near for his revolution.
By Mac Margolis
NEWSWEEK
Published Jan 29, 2010
From the magazine issue dated Feb 8, 2010

In his 11-year rule, Venezuelan strong-man Hugo Chávez has outlasted all manner of angry foes, conspirators, and mounting chaos. Until now. As he loses control of a shrinking economy, his Teflon is wearing thin. Chronic blackouts and water shortages are darkening industries and forcing homes to ration electricity and baths. Inflation is 30 percent a year, the worst rate in Latin America, and despite an official price freeze, economists say it could double this year. Crime is soaring, with the murder rate tripling under Chávez. Discontent is rising, too.

Once hailed as a redeemer by the poor, Chávez has seen his approval ratings plunge below 50 percent. A year ago, two thirds of Venezuelans were upbeat about their country. Now the same number see the country in decline, says pollster Luis Vicente León. That may not be enough to topple Chávez, whose mandate ends in 2012. Like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe or Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, he has twisted the rules of democracy—and controls enough cash, media, guns, and institutional clout to cling to power and crush any perceived threat, no matter how absurd. (Chávez recently banned Sony PlayStations and Barbie dolls as imperialist tools, and denounced Twitter as a vehicle for terrorists.) But the gathering turmoil in this nation of 29 million is like nothing the Bolivarian Republic has ever seen. Chávez's controversial project to build and spread 21st-century socialism may already be over.

The end is unlikely to be pretty. After independent channel RCTV declined to air a presidential speech late last month, Chávez ordered cable operators to drop the popular station's programming. Immediately, protests erupted nationwide, killing two and injuring dozens. Tear gas choked downtown Caracas. Undaunted protestors vowed to keep marching. "Keep this up and you will force me to take radical measures," warned Chávez in a nationwide broadcast.

This was not how the Bolivarian revolution was to play out. When Chávez launched it in 1999, he promised to wrest Venezuela's vast oil wealth from gringos and the rapacious elite to fuel 21st-century socialism, which would turn power over to indigenous people and the forgotten poor. And Venezuela would be just the beginning. With mythic Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar as his patron saint, Chávez set out to export the "Bolivarian alternative"—rejecting neoliberalism and the long shadow of the United States—throughout the hemisphere, and perhaps beyond. For a time, the new bolívarianismo stirred hearts across the Andes and in Central America.
Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua formally signed on to the Chávez pact. Cuba and a few more islands in the Caribbean followed.

Now the ballyhooed Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean has stalled. The first blow was the world economic crisis, which gutted oil prices and depleted the Chávista war chest that proved so useful in showering money on the slums, keeping cronies happy, and buying sympathy abroad. Then Chávez allies began angling to extend their terms in power, as he had. A turning point came in Honduras, where efforts by a Chávez ally, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, to hold an illegal referendum in the hope of extending his mandate ran afoul of the Supreme Court, the Congress, and finally the armed forces, which ousted him at gunpoint. At first the world diplomatic community joined Chávez in decrying what looked like an old-fashioned coup d'état—but most Hondurans wanted no part of Chávismo. Last November they elected a new anti-Chávez president, Porfirio Lobo.

Now a handful of nations, including the U.S. and Costa Rica, have recognized the new government in Honduras, while Zelaya has quietly departed for voluntary exile in the Dominican Republic. Chávez is increasingly isolated in the hemisphere. Even card-carrying lefties like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Peru's Alan García have snubbed Chávez's vision and embraced what Chilean President-elect Sebastián Piñera, a conservative, has called "democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression, alternation of power without caudillismo."

Don't count Chávez out yet. Oil prices are rising, and his opposition is in disarray. But 21st-century socialism has lost its allure. WHOEVER WORKS FOR A REVOLUTION IS PLOWING THE SEA, reads Bolívar's gravestone, reflecting the liberator's despair over his ultimately failed mission. It's a lesson Chávez might keep in mind.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The corruption of democracy in Venezuela‏

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Gustavo Coronel: A possible political scenario for Latin America, 2007-2012

Gustavo Coronel: A possible political scenario for Latin America, 2007-2012

Most of the political scenarios for Latin America are drawn in traditional ways, using mostly politically correct ingredients. Because of this cautious approach some possible futures for the region remain insufficiently discussed. One of them has to do with the region becoming the site of active destabilizing plots against the United States. We all know that anti-American sentiment in Latin America has been growing during the last ten years, although not as strongly as advertised by some interested parties. In fact, Latinobarometro and Pew, two credible polling agencies dealing with the Western Hemisphere have recently shown (1) that, even in Venezuela, the U.S. is viewed favorably by over 55% of the population and that the attacks of President Hugo Chavez against this country are rejected by 75% of the population.

Still, there is no doubt that there are strong efforts being made by some Latin American political leaders to harass the United States. If these efforts intensify and take root, Latin America could become a geopolitical hot spot in the mid-term.

The starting point of the anti-U.S. Alliance.

Essentially the current threats against U.S. national security originated about nine years ago with the political alliance between Fidel Castro, the Cuban dictator and Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan strongman. This is a symbiotic relationship that has been providing Fidel Castro with money and Hugo Chavez with brains.

The strategy chosen by this alliance is based on two facts and one very partial truth. The two facts are: extreme poverty and extreme inequality in the region. The very partial truth is that these two afflictions are the result of U.S. exploitation of the region’s natural resources aided by the systematic political intervention of this country in the internal affairs of the countries of the hemisphere. To blame our own misfortunes and inadequacies on someone else has been an old and proven method to gain adepts and to stir hate and xenophobia among Latin American societies. This is what Fidel Castro has done for the last forty years and this is what he has recommended to Hugo Chavez , a line of action that the Venezuelan strongman has embraced with enthusiasm.

Hugo Chavez’s strategies.

To do this he has been aided by significant amounts of money derived from oil exports. During the last nine years about $220 billion of oil money have entered the Venezuelan national treasury while national debt has tripled to about $65 billion.

This amount of money has been mostly spent in three areas: (a), social programs of a temporary nature, really handouts, to the Venezuelan poor; (b), the acquisition of weapons; and (c), subsidies, donations and promises to Latin American countries in order to consolidate political alliances and establish political IOU’s. At least $40 billion have gone into the third category, an amount roughly equivalent to 2-3% of Venezuela’s yearly GDP during the last nine years.

As a result of these strategies the Fidel Castro/Hugo Chavez axis has been able to make some progress in its political objectives of eroding the political standing of the United States in the hemisphere and, even, of gaining supporters in the U.S. political scene. By financing the presidential campaigns in several countries they have been able to help Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and Rafael Correa win the presidencies of Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. At the same time they saw their favored candidates Ollanta Humala, in Peru, and Andres Lopez Obrador, in Mexico lose close elections while remaining politically strong, especially Lopez Obrador. In parallel Hugo Chavez’s major injection of money into Argentina has helped President Nestor Kirchner to join the anti-U.S. club, a move for which he did not need strong incentives.

This is all well known although generally perceived with indifference, sympathy, and tolerance or, even, amusement, in hemispheric political circles. Many celebrate secretly the harassment of such a strong power by smaller, weaker countries.

Others are sitting on the political fence, receiving political and material benefits by playing one side against the other. Still others have a weak spot in their ideological hearts for authoritarian regimes and resent the hard sale of democracy being done by the U.S. all over the world. A few even laugh at the colorful antics of President Chavez and have a hard time taking him seriously.

However, political harassment of the United States represents just one aspect in a possible wider plan. Later stages might include actual economic aggression and, even, physical action against the northern “empire”. For the time being the main efforts are directed towards the consolidation of the alliance. To do this:

• Chavez is providing money to members of the Armed Forces of Bolivia and to city mayors, in order to increase political control over these important Bolivian sectors (2);

• Chavez could be funneling money into Argentina to promote the candidacy of Mrs. Cristina Kirchner (3);

• The aid given by Chavez to Nicaragua already amounts to about $500 million and, if he follows through in his promise, will include the financing of a $2 billion refinery;

• The economic ties of Venezuela and Ecuador are increasing via the oil industry, although President Correa’s ideology already includes a significant component of resentment against the United States.

• Chavez is conducting a strategy of alignment with political sectors in the United States that oppose the current government policies. For some of these sectors the desire to erode the current administration has proven greater than their love for democracy. The enemy of their enemy has become their friend (4).
Almost all of these strategic initiatives by the Castro/Chavez alliance show an alternative, unfavorable outcome.

• Bolivia is in the threshold of a major political crisis, due to the reluctance of important sectors of the country to roll over and play dead to Morales’s pretensions to impose the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly model that ended with the Venezuelan democracy becoming an authoritarian regime.

• Mrs. Kirchner, even if she won, as it seems to be the case, might decide to go her separate ways. She has already given some indications that Argentina should not become a simple pawn of Castro/ Chavez in the struggle for hemispheric political leadership. Recent events have convinced her that Chavez’s support probably represents a kiss of death for her political future.

• In Ecuador, Correa is already looking at the Bolivian political turmoil with caution, as he does not want to repeat Morales’s errors and realizes that Chavez’s success in Venezuela has been due to his deep pockets rather than his charisma. Correa does not have the money or the charisma of Chavez.

• In the United States the individuals and groups that support Chavez are doing so out of personal material or political interest and have been largely rejected by public opinion.

It seems improbable that the alliance of these countries, almost entirely based on money and resentment against the United States, could last for long.
What if this alliance falters?

The main motors of the anti-U. S alliance, Castro and Chavez, understand that this strategy of progressive political harassment of the United States might not succeed. The defeat of Lopez Obrador in Mexico robbed them of a major ally in this strategy. In power Lopez Obrador would have promoted illegal immigration into the U.S. creating numerous points of social and political conflict along the weak U.S.- Mexican border. As it stands today The United States has several ways to weaken Castro/Chavez strategies. In fact, the imminent death of Fidel Castro has practically eliminated much of the brain component of this axis. Hugo Chavez is in need of an alternative plan.

The alternative is an alliance with fundamentalist groups or countries that share Hugo Chavez’s resentment against the United States. This explains the approximation of Hugo Chavez to Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Both leaders have an anti-U.S. global alliance as one of their main objectives. Their main weapon is oil or, rather, what they can do to the international oil market, in case they decided to suspend exports of this resource. Some 4 million barrels of oil per day would be out of the supply system, causing a major disruption in the world’s economy. They figure that in such a situation they have less to lose than the United States and its industrialized allies.

But oil is not their only weapon. They also have a political weapon to resort to. It has to do with the concerted action of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and FARC, assisted by violent indigenous groups such as those in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador and socially turbulent groups like the illegal immigrants already living in the United States.

By promoting the action of these groups against the United States and its Latin American and European allies these groups can do much harm to global political stability. In this scenario one the main promoters of this action would not be located in the Middle East or in the Far East but in Latin America. This would be the first time in history, as far as we can tell, that a Latin American political leader becomes a major threat to world stability.

In summary.

Political scenarios based on traditional assumptions such as the existence of a dormant and orderly hemisphere and on the existence of international bodies like the Organization of American States, where political controversies and imbalances can be rather easily adjusted, do no longer seem to fit Latin American reality. Violent scenarios with global implications should also be considered. Scenarios are not only attempts at visualizing the future but, also, warning signals that will serve to act now, in order to mold desired outcomes.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Venezuela's Chavez: A Caudillo by Any Other Name

For those of you that aren't familiar with the word "caudillo", the closest explanation is a strong leader that rules for many years with excessive power.

Venezuela's Chavez: A Caudillo by Any Other Name
*By Tracy Dove, Ph.D
Editor, The Russia News Service August 26, 2007


The news coming out of Venezuela these days is entertaining to say the least, and any Woody Allen fan will recognize in Hugo Chavez an anti-hero image reminiscent of Allen's 1970's film parody in Central America, Bananas. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, as it is now officially called, is run by a president who believes in re-distributive socialism and regular reinforcement of the cult of personality. This week, Chavez has announced the decision to move the nation's clocks 30 minutes forward to provide for more sunlight when the Bolivarian proletariat wakes from its dreams of floating island platforms, North Korean parades and lot and lots of oil. So who is this Chavez- wielding the peoples' sundial- and has there ever been anything like him in the past?

Most certainly; Chavez belongs to the genre of South American Caudillos that once ruled the 19th century republics of the continent and most often met with fiery and untimely ends. In Venezuela, we are reminded of the corrupt and ridiculously self-important president Cipriano Castro who ruled the country from 1899 to 1909. Castro was one of the strongmen who gathered the thugs and the disaffected peasantry and trained them into a formidable army which was then marched on Caracas in October of 1899 to overthrow the presidency- which was conveniently vacated for the purpose once Castro's forces defeated government troops.

Not unlike Chavez today, Castro proceeded to change the constitution to fit his personal vision of what government should be; he threatened the opposition and had its leaders assassinated before having himself re-elected the official head of state in 1904. Properly secure in power, Castro lived a life of luxury by way of executive order and was quick to slap the peasantry into obedience when they frequently rebelled. Besides plundering the state treasury, Castro nurtured bad relations with most states around him and thumbed his nose at the European banks that loaned his country money. Already in 1902 he had defaulted on debts owed to the colonial powers, and these responded by sending warships to blockade the country's ports and occasionally fired on shoreline fortifications to remind Castro what the cost of money was.

Remember, this was 1902 and the heyday of new European imperialism, and the American President didn't appreciate having British, Italian and German warships in the hemisphere that was clearly demarcated as colonial-free by the 1828 Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt didn't quite know what to do with Castro, just as our current Bush administration is baffled about what to do with Chavez. But the situation became dire when intelligence reports suggested that Germany was looking for new colonies in the region, and Roosevelt reluctantly sent American warships to Venezuela to scare off the vultures, thereby legitimizing Castro and inadvertently postponing the payment of his debts to Europe.

But Roosevelt was nobody's fool, and he didn't contract malaria in the jungles of Brazil to let himself be led around by the nose by some illegitimate cowboy sitting in Caracas. In 1904, Roosevelt addressed the US Congress and added a stipulation to the Monroe Doctrine that would allow the US- as part of its policing power of the Western hemisphere- to intervene in the internal affairs of the American states if bad government there led to the imperial takeover of them by any colonial power. This so-called "corollary" to the famous doctrine was one of the spurious arguments employed in arguing for Kennedy's doomed Bay of Pigs operation in 1962.

(Venezuelan) Castro didn't last much beyond the next round of creditors' disillusionment with the financial situation in the Caracas banks; in 1907 he was forced to accept arbitration in regard to the debt, and Venezuela was forced to sign on the dotted line of repayment. Ill with syphilis due to his obvious social recklessness, Castro left for Paris in 1908 to seek treatment for the disease, which opened the door for his best friend- the Vice President Juan Vicente Gomez- to overthrow Castro's rule. The deposed leader spent the rest of his miserable life in Puerto Rico trying to re-overthrow Gomez, who had learned to multiply the excesses of the Castro regime for his own term in office, which lasted until 1935.

The difference today is obvious in Chavez' Venezuela; firstly, el Supremo is widely popular in Venezuela, and he really is spending the oil revenues on the people. Secondly, Chavez looks healthy and might not need to leave for any western hospitals anytime soon. Cuban doctors are certainly caring for Chavez, whose designs on the clocks may seem absurd, but it is right to point out that Afghanistan, India, Iran and Myanmar also have half-hour increments off of Greenwich Mean Time- so the intention of the Ministry of the Popular Power of Science and Technology, as it is called, might be well-credited for allowing Venezuela's 27 million to wake up happier to the sunshine- as dictated by Caudillo Hugo Chavez.

*Tracy Dove, editor of The Russia News Service, is a Professor of History and the Department Chair of International Relations at the University of New York in Prague.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

The rise of the "Boligarchs"

Inconsistency seems to be the norm for the so-called Bolivarian Revolution.

The rise of the "Boligarchs"
Aug 9th 2007 | CARACAS
From The Economist print edition


"PETROLEUM socialism" is how Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, recently dubbed the blend of military populism and neo-Marxist statism to which he is subjecting his country. Its prime objective, he insists, is to improve the lot of the country's poor majority. Mr Chávez proclaims that "being rich is bad". He frequently lashes out at what he calls "the oligarchy". Strange,then, that the streets of Caracas are clogged with big new 4x4s (Hummers are especially favoured), it is hard to get a table at the best restaurants, and art dealers and whisky importers have never had it so good. A new oligarchy seems to be rising in Venezuela on the back of the "Bolivarian Revolution",named for the country's independence hero. "Some of Chávez's speeches are for the gallery," says Alberto Muller Rojas, a retired army general who was until recently the president's chief of staff. "And I'll give you an example: the attack on the bourgeoisie." As evidence, General Muller singles out the banks: "the most extreme expression of the bourgeoisie" but "the most favoured sector" of the economy since Mr. Chávez came to power in 1999.

Their prosperity owes much to an oil windfall: the price of Venezuela's main export has increased almost eightfold since 1999 and the economy has been growing at 10% a year. But government policies, too, have favoured the bankers and other intermediaries: inflation is close to 20% and the official value of the currency is twice its black-market exchange rate. So the savvy investor looks for access to cheap dollars, import opportunities and government contracts, all of which are largely conditional on political obedience. By contrast, manufacturers and farmers face price controls and risk sporadic official harassment. The result has been the rise of what isknown, in obeisance to Bolívar, as the "Boli-bourgeoisie". Thanks to economic growth and social programmes, the government claims that only 30% of Venezuelan families now live in poverty, down from 55% at the peak in 2003. But according to a new report by the central bank, income inequality has widened slightly under Mr Chávez: the Gini coefficient-astatistical measure of inequality-has gone from 0.44 in 2000 to 0.48 in 2005.

Typical of the new "Boligarchy" is Wilmer Ruperti, a shipping broker who was once a merchant seaman. His ascent was helped by a two-month strike against Mr Chávez by workers at Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state oil company. Mr Ruperti chartered ships to help the government break the strike. Another is Arné Chacón, whose brother Jesse is the communications minister. Arné now owns half of Baninvest, a bank. He acquired it with loans for which his main apparent collateral was his official connections.

Mr Chávez claims to be pursuing economic nationalism and "endogenous development". But farmers and manufacturers struggle against cheap imports. Though local dairy products are often missing from the supermarket shelves, Gouda and Emmenthal cheeses nestle beside Irish butter. The frozen chickens at Mercal, a government chain of subsidised grocery shops, are Brazilian. The importers who supply Mercal have grown rich. But Venezuela's ranchers are becoming extinct, threatened by expropriations, land invasions and price controls, as well as by extortion and kidnappings by criminal gangs.

Officials stress that two-thirds of the poor have benefited directly from government social policies. As well as Mercal, these include the "missions", which offer education and health care. Up to 2m people get a small cash stipend. But despite hefty increases in the minimum wage and price controls on basic goods, inflation is eating away at the gains.

For those with connections, however, the rewards are great. The World Bank recently ranked Venezuela as the second-worst country in the Americas for the control of corruption, above only Haiti. Others confirm this perception."We usually ask for 10%," a foreign diplomat reports one government official admitting. "But some get greedy and want 15-20%."

Since his re-election in December, Mr Chávez has frequently suggested capping the salaries of the highest-paid public officials. He also called on those with "excess" wealth to donate part of it to worthy causes. The response has been meagre. If he really tries to make socialism more than a slogan, some of the fiercest resistance may come from the new bourgeoisie his own policies have created.

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Assignment: Venezuela

A balanced view on Venezuela's political situation presented by a local TV station in Miami. Enjoy!

Part I of V:
www.local10.com/video/13858310/index.html?taf=mia

Part II of V:
www.local10.com/video/13859147/index.html?taf=mia

Part III of V:
www.local10.com/video/13858666/index.html?taf=mia

Part IV of V:
www.local10.com/video/13858839/index.html?taf=mia

Part V of V:
www.local10.com/video/13858908/index.html?taf=mia

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Thursday, August 9, 2007

A letter to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez: On the subject of his oil handouts to Fidel Castro.

*Gustavo Coronel:
A letter to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez:
On the subject of his oil handouts to Fidel Castro.


Mr. President:

The purpose of this letter is to let you know that your recent public declaration about Venezuela and Cuba being “one single nation” and about the 93,000 barrels of oil per day you have been delivering to Fidel Castro for about four years constitute acts of treason.

Let me tell you why:

1. Your decision to send Venezuelan oil to Fidel Castro was never properly consulted with the Venezuelan nation. Venezuelans would have rejected this handout due to our immense and unfulfilled needs. The subsidy you are giving Fidel Castro is estimated at some $2.3 billion per year. After the 15 year-life of the agreement you will have given Castro an amount of Venezuelan money that is similar to the current international financial reserves of our country. This is a gift of abnormal proportions, an act of aggression against the Venezuelan people;

2. You claim that “only lackeys of imperialism” object to these handouts. This is typical of your arrogance and the manner you deal with those who oppose your decisions. Recently you have accused the members of the Brazilian Congress and the Cardinal of Honduras, in addition to the Venezuelans who dare to dissent from your actions, of being “lackeys of the empire”. In your eyes, therefore, I will also be a lackey because I have no doubt that you are illegally giving away to Fidel Castro our national property, resources that do not belong to you but to the Venezuelan people. You will have to answer for this when your time comes;

3. The supply of oil to Fidel Castro is being done in terms that are totally adverse to the interests of the Venezuelan people. The low interests, the periods of grace, the payment in services which cannot be properly quantify constitute a fraud against the Venezuelan nation;

4. Oil, as you should know, is a non-renewable resource. It was formed in nature millions of years ago, when your political regime was not around. Giving oil away, exchanging it for political favors, bartering it for bananas, black beans Cuban bodyguards and pseudo medical staff, constitutes a criminal management of this resource. In the name of all Venezuelans I protest for this detrimental aggression against our nation;

5. You argue that the volumes of oil being given to Fidel Castro are “small”, as compared to the amounts Venezuela has supplied to the U.S. for “one hundred years”, in occasions “a gift”. Let me tell you that Venezuela has never given away its oil as you do today. It always obtained money for its exports. The money coming from oil has often been wasted by governments, but never in greater amounts than today, under your regime. The only Venezuelan president that has given oil at great subsidies to U.S. citizens is you, through a program of “oil for the poor” that already costs us over $100 million and targets U.S. communities that have an average income ten times higher than the average income of millions of Venezuelans. You do it for political propaganda, at the expense of our real national needs.

6. You say that Cuba “is already paying more than it has to” for the oil you send Castro. This is an irresponsible statement on two counts: one, you validate the irregular payments Cuba is making and, two; you open the doors to increased demands from Castro. This is double treason.

Finally you say that today “Cubans and Venezuelans are one and the same nation”. I protest against this servile assertion. We are free citizens, not slaves. We have no wish to belong to a single nation under the bloody paws of a dictator that has recruited you as heir. One thing is to feel solidarity with the peoples of the hemisphere. A different thing is to become oxen driving the wagon of Latin American despotism. All-out resistance from democracy loving Venezuelans will meet your attempts in this direction. .

*Gustavo Coronel is a 28 years oil industry veteran, a member of the first board of directors (1975-1979) of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), author of several books. At the present Coronel is Petroleumworld associate editor and advisor on the opinion and editorial content of the site. All Coronel's articles can be read in his blog www.lasarmasdecoronel.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Chavez warns critical foreigners will be expelled

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez has said that foreigners who publicly criticize him or his government while visiting Venezuela will be expelled from the country.

President Hugo Chavez has ordered officials to monitor statements made by foreigners in Venezuela closely.

Chavez on Sunday ordered officials to monitor closely statements made by international figures during their visits to Venezuela -- and deport any outspoken critics.

"How long are we going to allow a person -- from any country in the world -- to come to our own house to say there's a dictatorship here, that the president is a tyrant, and nobody does anything about it?" Chavez asked during his weekly television and radio program.

The Venezuelan leader's statements came after Manuel Espino, president of Mexico's conservative ruling party, criticized Chavez during a recent pro-democracy forum in Caracas.

Government opponents argue Chavez -- a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro -- is becoming increasingly authoritarian and cracking down on dissent as he steers oil-rich Venezuela toward what he calls "21st-century socialism."

Chavez rejects such allegations, countering that democratic freedoms have been extended since he was first elected in 1998. The former paratroop commander says his government has empowered the poor by giving them increased decision-making authority in politics.

During Sunday's six-hour program, Chavez assured private property owners their rights will be guaranteed under a pending constitutional reform.

Many wealthy Venezuelans fear second homes, yachts or other assets could be seized as Chavez advances his Bolivarian Revolution, a movement named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar. Chavez denies any such plans.

Chavez is expected to present his reform proposal to the National Assembly, which is completely controlled by his allies, in the coming weeks. Few details have emerged from a special executive committee that he appointed to draft a proposal for overhauling the country's charter.

Also Sunday, Chavez announced an initiative to slash the salaries of Venezuela's top public servants. He said no public servant should make more than $7,000 a month. Most Venezuelans make minimum wage -- roughly $250 a month.

Reducing the pay of top officials has become a popular move in Latin America. The presidents of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru and Costa Rica recently cut salaries, including their own, in response to widespread criticism.

In his typically wide-ranging television program, Chavez also said Castro recently warned him to take precautions against possible U.S.-backed assassination attempts.

He said Cuba's 80-year-old "Maximum Leader" gave him a copy of former CIA Director George Tenet's recently published memoir and told him: "'Read it, Chavez, because that is the most perfect killing machine ever invented and I'm a survivor. ... I survived more than 600 [assassination] attempts."'

"The CIA is everywhere," said Chavez, who has repeatedly warned that President Bush could order him killed.

U.S. law has forbidden assassination attempts since the 1970s, and Washington denies the U.S. government has attempted to kill Castro since then

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