“I don’t think he will do something like that.”
I heard that phrase many times beginning 18 years ago, when a hungry and poor Venezuela elected a new president. I was 15 years old in 1999 and my homeland was in the grips of one of its worst economic crisis ever.
I heard my parents and others talk about a man who promised to shake up the establishment and return power and prosperity to the people. He sounded more like a savior than a politician.
His name was Hugo Chavez.
Vowing to return my country to a promised land, he fascinated the masses and collected supporters by the minute — and then won the presidency.
Today, Venezuela, without a doubt, is an example for the world of what not to do, particularly around the issue of a free press.
Early in Chavez’ second term, the ruling Socialist party banned the press from the National Assembly, relegating journalists to cover government sessions by watching them on a television screen.
Chavez’ people shut down the oldest TV channel in the country, arguing its journalists were broadcasting seditious messages and were conspiring to overturn the government.
Just last month, the oldest newspaper in Venezuela, El Impulso, published its last print edition, citing a shortage of paper, which Chavez’ successor won’t allow to be imported.
During the U.S. presidential campaign, I couldn’t help but see similarities between Donald J. Trump and Chavez, who died in 2013 from cancer.
I remembered the speeches, their tone, the audiences he stirred up and Chavez’ disparaging comments about the media.
In The New York Times, University of Kentucky sociology professor Carlos de la Torre asked “will democracy survive Trump’s populism?” The author spelled out the similarities between the Trump and other populist Latin American leaders.
“Democracy is not immune to populist autocrats,” the professor warned. “Populist polarization, attacks on civil rights and the confrontation with the press could lead in the United States, as in Venezuela and Ecuador, to authoritarianism.”
De la Torre went on to note, “Chávez and Mr. (Rafael) Correa did not eradicate democracy with a coup d’état. Rather, they slowly strangled democracy by attacking civil liberties, regulating the public sphere and using the legal system to silence critics.”
Four months ago, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, a television screenwriter and Venezuelan author. In “What Hugo Chávez tells us about Donald Trump,” Tyszka also noted the similarities. He compared a phrase Chavez used in a 2011 speech to statements we’ve heard from Trump bashing Obama.
Watching the argument last summer between Donald Trump and the Univision journalist Jorge Ramos, who insisted that Trump explain his position on immigration, illustrated for me the start of the problem here.
That wasn’t the only episode between the U.S. president and the media. Earlier this month, Trump refused to answer a question from a CNN reporter, accusing the news outlet of broadcasting “fake news.”
As a Venezuelan, I want to warn my American friends about what just might happen here. I don’t want to say “I told you so.” Rather, I want to say, “This is what we need to pay attention to from now on.”