Totalitarian government begins with baby steps

Editorial

Nothing else has turned a majority of Venezuelans against dictator-in-making Hugo Chavez; maybe his Easter Week booze ban will do the trick.

Chavez recently won re-election, despite a string of policy shifts that are moving the country in the direction of a Cuban-style dictatorship, with Chavez reprising the role of Fidel Castro.

He’s nationalized industries, squelched a free press, consolidated personal power and set himself up as president for life. But his recent decision to ban the sale of booze during Easter Week, and to slap a tariff on scotch whiskey, is stirring more opposition than the earlier outrages did.

Chavez justified the booze ban in the name of public safety; he says it will help curtail alcohol-fueled violence and traffic accidents. One of his deputies proclaimed that Venezuelans “don’t have to have alcohol to have a good time.” But the edict has not been well received by bar owners, liquor distributors, brewers and average Venezuelans who like to party.

The country’s top brewer, Cerverceria Polar, has had to cancel events on Margarita Island, a tourist mecca. Residents of Caracas are skirting the ban by speaking in code — ordering a “kilo of beans” from the local grocer if they really want a six-pack. And a number of festivals and concerts have been canceled, adding to the economic hardships the ban is inflicting.

Chavez may not have to think twice about harming the profitability of nationally owned oil companies, whose revenues are the only thing standing between him and economic calamity. But when you begin sacrificing the profit margins of small- and medium-sized businesses in the name of socialism, and telling people how to celebrate their holidays, you’re courting a backlash.

Or are you? Totalitarianism sometimes sweeps into being all at once, but more often approaches incrementally, with baby steps. By the time people realize it’s arrived, reversing course becomes extremely difficult.

Whether the booze ban will increase opposition to Chavez is uncertain. He’s already been allowed to consolidate enough power to intimidate opponents and squelch dissent. But it provides a glimpse inside the authoritarian mindset that may be instructive for Americans, as we witness incremental assaults on our own personal liberties and “lifestyle choices” by self-styled protectors of “public health and safety.” Chavez has just taken this sort of thinking to its logical conclusion, because no one in Venezuela can stop him.

That can never happen here, some will say — this is the United States of America. But that’s undoubtedly what many Venezuelans were saying, not so long ago.