At first, it seemed like just another of Chavez's folkloric eccentricities. On Sunday, he valiantly faced down the latest imperialist threat from the USA: Halloween. Calling it a "game of terror", Chavez denounced the gringo tradition of dressing kids up like ghosts and witches to extort candy from neighbors.
The Associated Press wrote it up, and the story got picked up by newspapers around the world. I guess editors in South Africa, Pakistan, and Vietnam ran with it because it's the kind of delightfully absurd little "color piece" that can usefully plug a hole in the inside pages of the international section. A bit of magical realism...no more...right?
No, not right. Within hours of the speech, Internal Security Police (DISIP) agents were arresting a group of Primero Justicia activists for putting up anti-government posters with Halloween themes. Three of the activists had to spend the night in jail, while the other four were cited to later court dates to face charges of "inciting hatred."
[You can see some pictures of the entirely benign posters here.]
The message is not hard to grasp: Chavez's eccentric little outbursts are not cute. They long ago stopped being funny. With every state institution under his thumb and public officials competing to suck up to him, they have real consequences. Of course, the foreign papers that jumped on the Wacky-Chavez story notably failed to jump on the Authoritarian-Chavez story. "That zany Chavez guy!" their readers will think...having no clue that, in Venezuela these days, the guy's outbursts, however silly, will land you in jail.