Chavez sees the writing on the Middle-Eastern wall 

Venezuelan students' 23-day hunger strike has succeeded, for the time being, in putting the brakes on President Hugo Chavez’s push for dictatorship. Chavez has already released seven of the 27 political prisoners whom the students claimed were in prison on trumped-up charges, merely for opposing the president's regime.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich told The Examiner that Venezuela “is not democratic, but not yet a dictatorship." But dictatorship is "where Chavez would like to take it. That’s why this event is so important. It stopped forward movement of government toward dictatorship, at least temporarily, and it highlighted the names of political prisoners."

Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez has gradually and systematically undermined democracy, said Reich. In addition to jailing political opponents without due process, the president has suppressed the media by closing television and radio stations, gerrymandered constituencies in order to rig parliamentary elections, and expropriated at least $22 billion in land and goods from the Venezuelan economy. In 2002, three protestors were killed when Chavez didn’t hesitate to order gunmen to open fire at a rally.

But things are different this time, with peaceful protests against despotic regimes gaining traction in the Middle East. Last year, a man died after a prolonged hunger strike against Chavez. Reich said that more such deaths would be terrible publicity for the regime, especially now, even though hard-line Chavistas would support a more vigorous response to all dissent. "Some Venezuelan leaders would like to respond like in Libya," Reich said, "but they are afraid.”

On Friday, Roy Chaderton, the Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S., accused the students involved in the hunger strikers of collusion with terrorists and/or the CIA -- charges Chavez frequently makes against political enemies. The students have petitioned for the release of political prisoners and an investigation of Chavez's human rights abuses by the Organization of American States. Despite the release of some prisoners, the students have not swayed the Venezuelan regime to permit such an investigation.

Chavez has also agreed to a "roundtable discussion" between his regime and the students. Reich said this gesture may be Chavez’s way of ducking international criticism without making any permanent concessions.

“What these kids did is remarkable,” said Reich, “They are confronting a military-style authoritarian regime. They actually brought that government to the negotiating table.”

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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