Hugo Chávez has long considered Noam Chomsky one of his best friends in the west. He has basked in the renowned scholar's praise forVenezuela's socialist revolution and echoed his denunciations of US imperialism.
Venezuela's president, who hasrevealed that he has had surgery in Cuba to remove a cancerous tumour, turned one of Chomsky's books into an overnight bestseller after brandishing it during a UN speech. He hosted Chomsky in Caracas with smiles and pomp. Earlier this year Chávez even suggested Washington make Chomsky the US ambassador to Venezuela.
The president may be about to have second thoughts about that, because his favourite intellectual has now turned his guns on Chávez.
Speaking to the Observer last week, Chomsky has accused the socialist leader of amassing too much power and of making an "assault" on Venezuela's democracy.
"Concentration of executive power, unless it's very temporary and for specific circumstances, such as fighting world war two, is an assault on democracy. You can debate whether [Venezuela's] circumstances require it: internal circumstances and the external threat of attack, that's a legitimate debate. But my own judgment in that debate is that it does not."
Chomsky, a linguistics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke on the eve of publishing an open letter (see below) that accuses Venezuela's authorities of "cruelty" in the case of a jailed judge.
The self-described libertarian socialist says the plight of María Lourdes Afiuni is a "glaring exception" in a time of worldwide cries for freedom. He urges Chávez to release her in "a gesture of clemency" for the sake of justice and human rights.
Chomsky reveals he has lobbied Venezuela's government behind the scenes since late last year after being approached by the Carr centre for human rights policy at Harvard University. Afiuni earned Chávez's ire in December 2009 by freeing Eligio Cedeño, a prominent banker facing corruption charges. Cedeño promptly fled the country.
In a televised broadcast the president, who had taken a close interest in the case, called the judge a criminal and demanded she be jailed for 30 years. "That judge has to pay for what she has done."