Drop Chavez before it's too late

The growing coziness between the leaders of Venezuela and Iran should send a troubling signal to all Venezuelans - especially the diminishing but still strong segment that clings to President Hugo Chavez.

Do they not understand the disadvantages of a leader who ties himself to a regime in Tehran that is incurring global wrath and sanctions because of its shadowy nuclear work? According to news reports, Iran's research includes questionable plans to narrow the gap between its current uranium-enrichment capabilities and the purity required to make nuclear weapons.

Even absent the nuclear issue, do Venezuelans not have concerns about their leader's dalliance with a government that systematically deprives its people of basic rights? Last year, Iran's leaders orchestrated a fraudulent election and cracked down on the ensuing demonstrations.

What does that suggest about Chavez's own motives? Most people - minus the chavistas who still largely wear blindfolds - know the answer. If one strips away his theatrical performances, populist sloganeering and animated finger-pointing at countries such as the United States, what is left is a not-so-entertaining prospect that Latin America has seen too many times in the past: creeping authoritarianism.

In 2007, Venezuelans barely defeated a ploy by Chavez to "reform" the country's constitution. In truth, he was making a poorly disguised grab for power, one that would have opened the door for him to hold on to the country's presidency for life.

But Chavez was not deterred. After rallying his supporters, he won a constitutional referendum in 2009 that lifted the limit on presidential terms. Not surprisingly, a familiar figure with his own heavy-handed history - Cuba's Fidel Castro - joined the well-wishers. In response, Chavez ominously said, "The victory is also yours, Fidel."

What happens next depends on how Venezuelan voters respond in this fall's parliamentary elections, bearing in mind that the next presidential poll comes in 2012. The most important question is whether Chavez will allow results that chase him from office. At the moment, the answer remains unclear. In an insightful piece titled "The Wrecking of Venezuela," The Economist noted that, thus far, Chavez "has been unable, or unwilling, to disregard or repress opposition to the same degree as Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

As time goes by, though, the allure of even more power could tempt him to imitate his Iranian role model.

In that event, Venezuelans may have to resort to relentless public protests of the magnitude that can unseat rogue governments. And the world may find itself gnashing its teeth as it pours criticism on Chavez and his cohorts. Sound familiar? It should, for similar events are unfolding in Tehran today. Venezuelans should look past Chavez's rhetoric and see their president's connection with Ahmadinejad for what it is: an alignment of nefarious intentions. Further, a leader who incrementally restricts the rights of his people for self-serving purposes - and gets away with it -will eventually have no reason for restraint.

Contact Bersia, the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida, at johncbersia@msn.com.