Caracas Fracas

It's hard to enumerate all the ways in which Pat Robertson has helped Hugo Chávez by urging his assassination this week. The Venezuelan president's claims that Washington has marked him for murder suddenly have some credibility. His supporters at home got some red meat, while American liberals could be forgiven for thinking there must be something to like about a man so hated by the crackpot right.

No one has been harmed more by the Robertson fatwa than Chávez's own domestic opponents in the Venezuelan congress and media, the people the Bush administration had been counting on to get their act together and begin to act like a real, democratic opposition. They looked defensive and ashen-faced all week. Chávez has survived a botched coup, a 62-day general strike, and a recall referendum, all since 2002. He's a master at turning the missteps of his enemies to his advantage, but never have any of his domestic adversaries done him a favor quite like Robertson's.

And anyone watching CNN Español got to see Chávez's machete-sharp political instincts in action. He and Fidel Castro were standing next to each other in Havana when, through a reporter's question, they both apparently heard about the threat for the first time. Castro stammered, demanded more information, and seemed to go a bit pale, while Chávez calmly replied that he had never heard of Robertson and was unperturbed by such threats. If that little exchange shows the past and future of the Latin American left, Robertson (and the Bush administration that so assiduously courts him) should be worried indeed. Like him or not, Chávez is a force in ascendancy in Latin America, and this experience shows why.

Four days later, he still refused to be provoked. "As the great Don Quixote said, ´Let the dogs bark. It's because we are moving forward,'" said Chávez, back in Caracas, in a speech on Friday. "If something happens to my physical person, you will know who to blame: George W. Bush."

American foreign policy has always walked naked in Latin America, but Robertson's threats, with their references to the Monroe Doctrine and how assassination is cheaper than war, went beyond the grotesque They elevated the image of yanqui imperialist to caricature, and the White House's tepid distancing from them ironically seemed to make them more believable. Venezuelans, understandably less willing than Americans to dismiss Robertson as a ranter, indicated they'll demand extra security for Chávez when he goes to New York for the U.N. General Assembly this fall and announced “temporary” restrictions on the number of foreign missionaries allowed to work in Venezuela.

Yet the biggest benefit for Chávez is that once again, no one will hear about the erosion of civil liberties generally and freedom of the press in particular under his rule. Chávez and his compliant congress and judiciary have quietly strengthened laws barring "disrespectful" or "offensive" references to public officials or institutions. First was the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, enacted in December; in March, the legislature enacted reforms to the country's penal code that consolidated the exemption from public criticism of a special class of people: high government officials.

The language of the March law has a totalitarian ring: "He who offends in speech or in writing, or in any way disrespects the President of the Republic or causes another to do so, shall be punished by six to thirty months jail." Legislators, judges, and cabinet ministers all have similar protections, with similar punishments.

To be prosecuted under the new codes, it makes no difference whether the offending article is true or not, and news organizations that violate them are subject to crippling fines and, after two fines, closure. The new laws run sharply against the grain of press liberalization across Latin America. Some seem designed to encourage journalists to censor themselves, others to get TV stations out of the news business altogether.

For a time, officials played down the measures by pointing out that they were never enforced. No longer. Last month, the Chávez government's chief prosecutor announced a "criminal investigation" into the Caracas newspaper El Universal because it published an unsigned editorial accusing the country's justice system of being subservient to Chávez. Few doubt that it is, and even if El Universal dodges a fine, the message to Venezuelan media is that even mild criticism of the government is punishable -- at the government's arbitrary discretion.

"The government has shown that it is going to control information by means of the Social Responsibility law on television, and in the print media by means of threats like that pending against El Universal," said Héctor Faúndez, a law professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and a specialist in media law.

Already, he said, news and opinion programs have been softening their content or simply going off the air. "The fines are high enough to force a news organization out of business. So if you don't want to close down, you're going to make sure you don't air anything against the government."

Congressional elections are coming in December, and presidential elections follow a year later, at which time Chávez will be seeking re-election. It will be difficult, say critics of the new codes, to have substantive debate on his policies with these media restrictions in place. The kind of criticism that Tony Blair faced daily in his recent re-election campaign -- being called a liar, for example -- would now be illegal in Venezuela, Faúndez said. A televised debate among Chávez and his election opponents would seem to be out of the question, because any station that broadcast it would be subject to fines or closure if an opposition candidate disrespected Chávez.

Making matters worse, the president's recent statements don't suggest much interest in contributing to a climate of pluralism. He ridicules his potential rivals as "frijolitos" (little beans) or accuses them of being dupes for the Americans, while members of his party gloated over low turnout (30 percent) in municipal elections this month as a sign of how the opposition wasn't even bothering to oppose Chávez. They've got a point: He remains one of Latin America's more popular leaders, with approval ratings near 70 percent, and more than any other has benefited from a whole new generation of anti-Americanism in the region.

Venezuela still has a lively political climate and press. But outside the country not many people beyond human-rights groups (such as Human Rights Watch, whose director said the new press laws "flouted international human-rights principles") seem to have noticed the gradual gutting of media freedoms and the increasing concentration of power in Chávez's hands. Officials frequently point out that, unlike in the United States with Judith Miller, not a single Venezuelan journalist is in jail. Completely true, and completely irrelevant. Latin American autocrats have always found ways to curb the press without jailing reporters, as the editors of El Universal are finding. Venezuelans will be feeling the effects of these creeping restrictions long after Robertson's comments have blown over.

Roger Atwood is a Knight International Press Fellow in Venezuela and the author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World.