The Latest From Venezuela

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 4, 2010

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Making monkeys out of all of the people who once claimed that he wasn’t a dictator–remember them?–Hugo Chavez is now having his critics jailed:

When Judge María Lourdes Afiuni issued a ruling in December that irked President Hugo Chávez, he did little to contain his outrage. The president, contending on national television that she would have been put before a firing squad in earlier times, sent his secret intelligence police to arrest her.

Then the agents took her to the overcrowded women’s prison in this city of slums near Caracas. They put her in a cell near more than 20 inmates whom Judge Afiuni had sentenced on charges like murder and drug smuggling.

“I’ve received threats from inmates telling me they will burn me alive because they see me as a symbol of the system that put them in prison,” said Judge Afiuni, 46, in her prison cell. “I’m in this hell because I had the temerity to do my job as a judge in a way that didn’t please Chávez.”

Since Judge Afiuni’s imprisonment, a dizzying sequence of other high-profile arrests has taken place, pointing to Mr. Chávez’s recent use of his security and intelligence apparatus to quash challenges to his grip on the country’s political institutions. The arrests come at a time of spreading public ire over an economy hobbled by electricity shortages and soaring inflation.

Sean Penn doubtless approves. And just as doubtless, he is not alone.

And proving that Chavez is as delusional as his admirers are, we have this:

Russia has offered to help Venezuela set up its own space industry, including a satellite launch site, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made his first visit to the South American country on Friday.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced the offer by Russia hours before Putin arrived, saying officials would discuss the possibility of setting up a “satellite launcher and a factory.”

“Russia offers help so that Venezuela can have its own industry for the use of its outer space,” Chavez said Thursday night. He didn’t give details or say how much that might cost.

Fortunately, from time to time, the State Department can be clever:

The U.S. State Department poked fun at Chavez’s suggestion that Venezuela may set up a space industry with Russian help.

“We would note that the government of Venezuela was largely closed this week due to energy shortages,” spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. “To the extent that Venezuela is going to expend resources on behalf of its people, perhaps the focus should be more terrestrial than extraterrestrial.”

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