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A decade after Chávez's death, DeSantis pushes a Chavista demise of free speech

Ariana Cubillos (left); Phil Sears
Easily Offended: The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left) in Caracas during his last re-election campaign in 2012; Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right) speaking to the Florida Legislature this week in Tallahassee

COMMENTARY It's apt that Hugo Chávez's death anniversary and the Florida legislature's opening fall the same week. Both evoke assaults on free speech.

In 2006 I sat down with then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in New York a day after he’d called then U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” at the U.N.

I asked the socialist firebrand if he saw the hypocrisy in being free to come here and insult el presidente yanqui, while back in Venezuela his recently enacted anti-defamation laws made it a crime — not grounds for a civil suit, but a criminal offense — to verbally wound him, el comandante venezolano.

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Chávez shot me a shocked look and played the card all authoritarian populists, be they left-wingers like him or right-wingers like former President Donald Trump, inevitably slam on the table: victimization.

“People need to visit Venezuela if they think Chávez is intimidating free expression,” he whined. “My God, ‘devil’ is the least of things the bourgeois there are allowed to call me in the media.”

Chávez — who died of cancer a decade ago this week, 14 years into his rule — used “bourgeois” to insult his foes as sophomorically as Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, uses “woke” to demonize his.

Which is why it’s a more than apt coincidence that Chávez’s memory is in the news now as Florida’s legislature — as much a lapdog for the right-wing DeSantis as Venezuela’s National Assembly was for Chávez — convenes to propose laws that, if enacted, would press their own boot heel on free speech. Especially speech that offends Ron DeSantis.

READ MORE: ¡Eso! Hugo Chávez would have felt at home in Florida, where home rule is under attack

One DeSantis-backed bill makes it easy as key lime pie to sue anyone for defamation — especially journalists and media outlets – by axing limits that have been First Amendment pillars for almost 60 years. Those are rules that rein in the ability of public officials and figures to take critics to court for slander or libel, and which require plaintiffs to prove they were victims of malice — that a newspaper, for example, knowingly and malevolently published falsehoods.

Another measure, and the most astonishing, requires bloggers who write about DeSantis and top state elected officials to register with the state — let me repeat that so it sinks in: register with the state — and report whomever might be paying them to write their blog posts. DeSantis aides say only that he’s reviewing this bill. But it was certainly introduced in the spirit of intolerance towards media criticism and scrutiny that fills just about every DeSantis speech.

The same mocking contempt, that is, that loaded just about every speech Chávez ever delivered.

While I don’t think President-wannabe DeSantis and his GOP juggernaut would or could go to the anti-free speech lengths Chávez did, it’s still worth losing sleep about the lengths they may go to.

Let me be clear: I’m certainly not asserting that DeSantis and the Florida GOP are the dictatorial human rights abusers that Chávez’s “Chavista” revolution was and still is. And I’m more than aware that the Florida bills reflect civil measures and not the criminalization of speech that Chávez and so many other Latin American caudillos have been infamous for.

Still, while I don’t think President-wannabe DeSantis and his GOP juggernaut would or could go to the lengths Chávez did, it’s nonetheless worth losing sleep about the lengths they may go to.

Jump the shark

This week’s anniversary of Chávez’s demise reminds me that early in his reign it seemed less likely he himself would jump the shark when it came to bullying free expression. But as his oil-fueled power ballooned through the 2000s — particularly after he won re-election in 2006 by a 26-point landslide — he started prosecuting journalists and opposition figures for saying or writing anything deemed “offensive and disrespectful” to him and his regime.

Ron DeSantis, Casey DeSantis
Lynne Sladky
Then Republican Florida gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis on the campaign trail in Miami in 2018.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that DeSantis trumpets speech-muzzling proposals like Florida’s anti-defamation bill while also reminding us, over and over, that he won re-election in November by a 19-point landslide.

And it ought to send a chill down the American spine to hear DeSantis and GOP militants push these measures just as presidential re-candidate Trump — who also brays for laws making it easier to sue media — is warning that if he and the party recapture the White House next year, there’ll be an orgy of “retribution” against anyone who questions him and MAGAworld.

You don’t need to jail journalists and critics to rain “retribution” down on them. The menace of economic ruin or physical violence from extremist supporters is more than enough to do the trick.

More than enough to evoke Hugo Chávez’s memory.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.