In May, the Cato Institute conducted another session of its successful Cato University in Caucagua, Venezuela. This time, however, the government of Hugo Chávez took exception to Cato’s teaching of individual liberty and free-market, limited government principles and sent the National Guard to disrupt the event. Prior to Cato’s arrival in Venezuela, state television and online media told Venezuelans that Cato was coming to set up a training camp for young subversives, a camp at which they would be taught techniques for overthrowing Chávez.
Once the event started, the Chávez government claimed that Cato University, conducted with the help of the Venezuelan based, classical liberal think tank, CEDICE, lacked the proper permits to operate as a university. While Cato was teaching young Venezuelans about the benefits of individual choice in a free society, a state representative of the ministry of higher education arrived, accompanied by reporters from state television and the National Guard, and harassed the conference organizers. Even after being told that Cato University was not, in fact, a university, the Chávez government did not back down. Instead, it changed its tactics, accusing Cato University of engaging in false advertising.
The government then took the step of detaining Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian intellectual and speaker at the event. He was released after three hours by airport authorities, but only on the condition that he not speak about the political situation in Venezuela, a condition he did not adhere to.
Later, Chavistas, not officially sanctioned by the Chávez government, picketed in front of the Caracas hotel in which CEDICE was holding its 25th Anniversary Conference, waving signs denouncing the Cato Institute and accusing it of working with the Central Intelligence Agency and Washington military interests to create subversive dissent among Venezuelans. These protests were carried on state television.
The reaction of the Chávez regime to two gatherings of market-liberal intellectuals demonstrates how tense the situation has become in Venezuela. But it also demonstrates how necessary Cato’s mission of promoting liberty is — and how fearful the ideas of liberty are for those who would wield excessive state power.