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Should Americans fear Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez? 

My fellow Americans and American fellows:

Mark your calendars. Our national family has an important birthday coming up. On Oct. 7, the War On Terror™ turns 8 years old.

Eight. Wow. I know. I know. They sure do grow up fast. Before you know it, this war will old enough to enlist in itself!

I’ve got an idea. With the recession and all, maybe we can all pitch in for a gift. If every American contributes just $0.00000057, we can get a new Nintendo DS. It’s what every 8-year-old wants! Amazon.com has a deal that includes a protective case, car charger, and the New Super Mario Brothers (featuring a “Mario vs. Luigi” two-player mode). PayPal me your share when you have a sec. I’ll take care of the gift-wrapping.

It’s always nice to give, but this birthday needn’t just be about giving. Living with an energetic 8-year-old can be exhausting. You deserve to feel special, too. So I’ve decided to do something this week I hope will help you relax.

I usually fill this column with things I think you should worry about — things I think other news outlets unjustly ignore. This week, I’m gonna do the opposite. I’m gonna write about something the rest of the press harps on — something I think you can pretty much ignore.

That something/someone is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez has been a magnet for criticism from American political commentators almost since taking office in 1999. He is regularly referred to as a dictator and a Communist, and is depicted as a threat to the United States. When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office by his country’s military, American supporters of the coup repeatedly noted Zelaya’s good relations with Chavez — as if Zelaya’s mere association with Chavez was proof he deserved to be overthrown.

The Drudge Report, the web site whose sensational headlines double as a smudged picture-window into the mind of angry, anguished American right-wingers, closely followed Chavez’s recent trip abroad. Drudge’s “coverage” culminated with the Sept. 11 headline “Reds: Chavez draws closer to Moscow.” The headline linked to a story about Russia agreeing to sell 100 military tanks to Venezuela for $500 million. Five days later, Drudge reported a Chavez speech announcing that he wants Venezuela to generate electricity from nuclear power. The Drudge headline linking the the story? “Chavez aims to tap ‘nuclear energy.’”

Gettit? Nuclear energy is placed between sarcastic quotation marks because evil Communist dictators who threaten the U.S. aren’t actually interested in electricity for their nations. They’re really after weapons.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of Chavez. Despite his oft-professed emphasis on helping Venezuela’s poor, I don’t believe he has improved the condition of his country's down-and-out. Inflation is at 30 percent, meaning the average price of goods and services is soaring ahead of wages.

Despite 10 years in power, Venezuela’s economy is still completely tied to the always-unstable market price of crude oil. Of Venezuela’s $93 billion in exports last year, $89 billion was oil. Chavez has made no serious effort to diversify Venezuela’s economy. When the price of oil plummets, like it did last year, social programs for the poor touted by Chavez go unfunded.

And then there’s Chavez’s authoritarianism. Though democratically elected, he’s prone to very undemocratic attacks on his political opponents. Chavez is trying to strip Venezuelan trade unions of all their power and replace them with committees controlled by his political party.

In August, he took 34 private radio stations off the air, claiming they didn’t have proper paperwork, and threatened another 656 with the same penalty. Chavez’s administration has also proposed jail time for reporters whose news stories jeopardize the “mental health” of the country.

And if his democratic bona fides weren’t sketchy enough, his recent world tour saw Chavez praising the regimes in dictatorial Libya, Iran, Syria, Turkmenistan and Belarus. He’s no friend of the weak and oppressed.

But should we fear him?

Hell, no. He’s not a threat. He barely rises to the level of a pest. Half of Venezuela’s exports come to us, meaning Venezuela’s health depends entirely on our health. He can’t threaten us without threatening himself. He’s all bluster.

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