Abandoning Venezuela

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The Washington Post reports that large numbers of Venezuelans are fleeing the country ahead of the new authoritarian controls (T)Hugo Chavez is putting in place. As is always the case in situations like this, the ones fleeing will be the best and the brightest, the most highly educated, the most affluent. The brain drain has begun, capital flight has already been underway and will accelerate.

Venezuela is entering a long, dark night.

The line forms every day after dawn at the Spanish Consulate, hundreds of people seeking papers permitting them to abandon Venezuela for new lives in Spain. They say they are filled with despair at President Hugo Chávez's growing power, and they appear not to be alone. At other consulates in this capital, long lines form daily.

Two months after Chávez was reelected to another six-year term by an overwhelming margin, Venezuela is experiencing a fundamental shift in its political and economic climate that could remake the country in a way perhaps not seen in Latin America since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959. On Wednesday, the National Assembly is expected to entrust him with tremendous powers that will allow him to dictate new laws for 18 months to transform the economy, redraw the structure of government and establish a new funding apparatus for Venezuela's huge oil wealth.

Chávez's government announced earlier that it intends to nationalize strategic industries, such as telecommunications and electric utilities, and amend the constitution to end presidential term limits.

The new, more radicalized era is enthralling to the president's supporters. To them, Chávez is keeping the promise he has consistently made over eight years in office — to reorganize Venezuelan society, redistribute its wealth and position the country as an alternative to U.S. capitalist policies.

"This is a moment that could be key in the history of Latin America," said Joanna Cadenas, 36, a teacher in the state-run Bolivarian University. "I never thought you could love a president."

But the moves — which opponents say are marked by intolerance and strident ideology — are prompting some Venezuelans to leave the country and others to prepare for a fight in the last battlegrounds where the opposition has influence. A few are trying, against the tide, to remain apolitical in a country marked by extreme, even outlandish rhetoric.

"What we're seeing happen here is not good," said José Manuel Rodríguez, 42, an accountant seeking travel documents at the Spanish Consulate. "What we see here is the coming of totalitarianism, fewer guarantees, fewer civil rights. I want to have everything ready to leave."

The people who fled here to the US after Castro seized power were some of the best Cuba had to offer, professionals and hard workers. Cuba has never recovered from that blow. Neither will Venezuela. Pity those who cannot (or are too misguided to) flee. Their nightmare is just beginning. As (T)Hugo destroys the country's economy and mismanages the oil infrastructure, poverty will become even more pervasive.

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