The last presidential elections in Venezuela might have been free and fair, but it's increasingly unlikely that its next one will be. President Hugo Chavez has apparently taken his victory as a mandate to impose an authoritarian socialism on his nation that looks frighteningly like the model created by his idol, Cuba's Fidel Castro.
After his reelection, he announced plans to merge his coalition of allied parties — effectively creating a one-party state — and to pursue a constitutional amendment ending presidential term limits, meaning he could run indefinitely.
If his drive to consolidate power over the media, the telecommunications industry and other sectors succeeds, by the time his term expires it may no longer be possible to hold a free election in Venezuela.
Chavez seems intent on destroying Venezuela's civil society. He already controls all three branches of government, with all 167 seats of Congress held by lawmakers allied to Chavez and with the Supreme Court stacked with loyalists.
Now Chavez is setting his sights on a critical barrier to totalitarianism: the independent media. A country without an independent media, judiciary or legislature is by nobody's definition a democracy.
Venezuela's people may just have succeeded in voting themselves out of power.
Last week, he shut down Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), an independent television station. The closing so far has provoked several days of street demonstrations. Dozens of protesters have been hauled off to jail.
Many of them have little enthusiasm for RCTV itself. But they feared that Chavez meant to close any and all of Venezuela's remaining independent media.
RCTV has been highly critical of his regime. His justification was a law passed in 2004 that allows for non-renewal of a broadcast license if its holder is guilty of such things as promoting disruption of public order or endangering national security. RCTV's crime, apparently, was to celebrate the botched coup attempt against Chavez in 2002.
Though RCTV is just one of many opposition media outlets, Chavez has sent a chilling message to the rest that he can shut them down at any time.
Already, he has revised Venezuela's criminal code to impose penalties of up to 40 months in prison for expressing "disrespect" for the President or the government.
Any criticism of Chavez or his henchmen can now be interpreted as disrupting public order, and Venezuela also has passed harsh libel laws aimed at curbing "disrespect" of government officials.
Venezuela--once a seemingly secure democracy--is reverting to one-man rule of the most corrupt and primitive Latin American type.
What are the dangers to the US?
Chavez has aligned Venezuela with Iran and China, aided the Marxist insurgents against neighboring Colombia's elected government and attempted to destabilize fledgling democracies in Central America.
Will Venezuela open itself as a haven for extremists and insurgents? Will Chavez, having consolidated his power at home, now seek to export his so-called revolution? More seriously--will other ambitious politicians be inspired by Chavez's example to try to undermine democracy elsewhere in Latin America?
The answer to that last question will depend on how rapidly Chavez leads Venezuela to economic ruin. If oil prices stay high--and if Chavez manages his affairs henceforward with the same shrewdness he has managed them till now--he may be able to do a very great deal of damage indeed.