Commentary Magazine


Topic: Henrique Capriles

Carter Should Stay Away from Venezuela

Former President Jimmy Carter has a poor reputation on many issues, among them Venezuela, where pro-democracy activists view him as a stalwart ally of the ruling chavista regime. So, with much of the country still convulsed by protests, their reaction to the news that Carter is planning another visit to Venezuela is somewhere on the scale between indifference and contempt. As the Christian Science Monitor notes:

Carter is accepted by the normally anti-American government—(current President Nicolas) Maduro praised him at a news conference Friday. But some members of the opposition harshly criticized the Carter Center for validating a 2004 recall referendum that (the late President Hugo) Chavez won amid complaints that the process leading up to the vote unfairly favored him.

An especially irate response to Carter’s announcement came in the form of an open letter penned by the dissident writer Daniel Duquenal, whose blog has been one of the most incisive guides to the events of recent weeks. Here is how Duquenal signs off:

I can assure you that half of the country has no respect nor credibility for you and the other half thinks you are a mere fool that they can use and discard as needed.

I think that not only you should desist from your trip, but should never mention us again. You have cursed us enough as it is. We will appreciate your future silence since nothing good ever comes from your statements on Venezuela. Worry not, I am sure we will find more worthy mediators.

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Former President Jimmy Carter has a poor reputation on many issues, among them Venezuela, where pro-democracy activists view him as a stalwart ally of the ruling chavista regime. So, with much of the country still convulsed by protests, their reaction to the news that Carter is planning another visit to Venezuela is somewhere on the scale between indifference and contempt. As the Christian Science Monitor notes:

Carter is accepted by the normally anti-American government—(current President Nicolas) Maduro praised him at a news conference Friday. But some members of the opposition harshly criticized the Carter Center for validating a 2004 recall referendum that (the late President Hugo) Chavez won amid complaints that the process leading up to the vote unfairly favored him.

An especially irate response to Carter’s announcement came in the form of an open letter penned by the dissident writer Daniel Duquenal, whose blog has been one of the most incisive guides to the events of recent weeks. Here is how Duquenal signs off:

I can assure you that half of the country has no respect nor credibility for you and the other half thinks you are a mere fool that they can use and discard as needed.

I think that not only you should desist from your trip, but should never mention us again. You have cursed us enough as it is. We will appreciate your future silence since nothing good ever comes from your statements on Venezuela. Worry not, I am sure we will find more worthy mediators.

Since Carter is unlikely to heed Duquenal’s candid advice, it’s worth revisiting his woeful record on Venezuela. As Duquenal notes, Carter has never condemned the notorious “Tascon list”–the illegal publication, by chavista National Assembly member Luis Tascon, of the names of millions of petitioners who signed up in favor of the 2004 referendum, and who faced harassment and discrimination from the regime as a consequence.

Nor has Carter ever revised his frankly bizarre view, expressed to the Miami Herald‘s Andres Oppenheimer following the fraud-stained presidential election of April 2013, that the “voting part” of that ballot was “free and fair.” Said Oppenheimer in response:

Is it fair to call “the voting part” of an election “free and fair,” when the opposition’s claims of irregularities have not been fully investigated? Is it fair to separate the “voting part” of an election from the entire electoral process, when a president has a more than 10-1 advantage in television time? And if the election was clean, why didn’t Venezuela allow credible international election observers?

Then there was the quite disgraceful tribute to Chavez on the occasion of the latter’s death one year ago. “Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen,” droned Carter’s statement. “President Chavez will be remembered … for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad to whom he gave hope and empowerment.”

For the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans currently taking to the streets, Chavez is remembered as the architect of a system that has brought their oil-rich nation to the brink of collapse, with food shortages, hyperinflation, and rampant crime all staples of daily life. It was Chavez who appointed Maduro as his successor, and it was Chavez who empowered the army officers who stand behind Maduro. And yet, the best Carter can manage is the following anemic remark: “It is difficult for elected officials from opposition parties to resolve differences when they feel threatened and persecuted.”

Note the qualification: “they feel,” not “they are.” Note, too, the absence of any mention of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, any concern about the use of the Cuban-inspired colectivos–paramilitary gangs on motorbikes–to repress demonstrators, or any acknowledgement of the refusal of Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, to hold talks with Maduro at the Miraflores Palace on the grounds that the president’s residence “is not the place to talk about peace – it’s the center of operations for abuses of human rights.”

The wooliness, of course, is not confined to Carter. The Obama administration has also engaged in its usual equivocation, despite the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats by Maduro’s regime on the preposterous grounds that the protests have been orchestrated in Washington. Still, surely there is someone in the State Department who understands the imperative of preventing Carter from handing Maduro yet another PR victory? Can State not prevail upon Carter–perhaps more politely than Duquenal did–to stay away from Venezuela?

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Maduro Represses Venezuela Demonstrations

Today’s edition of the Spanish newspaper El País carries a photographic essay with vivid images of the anti-regime demonstrations that convulsed Venezuela yesterday. The opening image shows a bloodied student, 24 year-old Basil Alejandro Da Costa, being pulled into a truck by fellow protestors moments after he was shot by pro-government militiamen known as colectivos. Da Costa died of his wounds later in the afternoon.

Two others also lost their lives in the clashes: Neyder Arellano Sierra, another student, and Juan Montoya, a chavista activist from one of the poorer neighborhoods of Caracas. According to Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, between 70 and 80 people were also arrested, although the organizers of the demonstrations are saying that the figure is likely to be much higher.

The demonstrations were not confined to Caracas alone: protestors took to the streets in Barquisimeto, Valencia, Maracaibo, Puerto Ordaz, and Mérida among other locations. Nor were they spontaneous: opposition activists have been pushing for demonstrations for several weeks now, rallying supporters around the Twitter hashtag #lasalida–Spanish for “the exit,” which is where the protestors hope President Nicolas Maduro’s regime is headed.

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Today’s edition of the Spanish newspaper El País carries a photographic essay with vivid images of the anti-regime demonstrations that convulsed Venezuela yesterday. The opening image shows a bloodied student, 24 year-old Basil Alejandro Da Costa, being pulled into a truck by fellow protestors moments after he was shot by pro-government militiamen known as colectivos. Da Costa died of his wounds later in the afternoon.

Two others also lost their lives in the clashes: Neyder Arellano Sierra, another student, and Juan Montoya, a chavista activist from one of the poorer neighborhoods of Caracas. According to Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, between 70 and 80 people were also arrested, although the organizers of the demonstrations are saying that the figure is likely to be much higher.

The demonstrations were not confined to Caracas alone: protestors took to the streets in Barquisimeto, Valencia, Maracaibo, Puerto Ordaz, and Mérida among other locations. Nor were they spontaneous: opposition activists have been pushing for demonstrations for several weeks now, rallying supporters around the Twitter hashtag #lasalida–Spanish for “the exit,” which is where the protestors hope President Nicolas Maduro’s regime is headed.

There are few signs of that outcome being achieved. While yesterday’s clashes bring to mind similar student-led protests in Egypt, Ukraine, and, in the wake of that country’s fraudulent 2009 presidential election, Iran, there is no clear indication whether the Venezuelan opposition has either the stomach or the capability for a sustained fight.

In part, that’s because they know that Maduro has few qualms about using his considerable resources–the National Guard, the colectivos, and the chavista-controlled judicial system–against the demonstrations. As the opposition newspaper El Universal reported this morning, armored personnel carriers are being deployed in Caracas and other cities to pre-empt further protests. At the same time, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, a faithful chavista, has accused the protestors of trying to foment a coup similar to the one in 2002 that resulted in the temporary removal of Hugo Chavez from office.

The strident tone of Díaz’s remarks was set directly by Maduro himself, who has spent much of the last week warning of a coup. Responding to earlier protests in the run-up to yesterday’s events, Maduro took to state television to declare: “I’ve had enough. You can accuse me of what you want, I am obliged to defend democracy and the peace of the people.” Later in the same speech, he added ominously, “I’m going to look for very strict norms so that anyone involved in these coup-seeking adventures can never participate as a candidate for anything again.” That was a reference to Leopoldo López, the leader of the Voluntad Popular party, who has been barred from running for office on trumped-up charges of corruption. An arrest warrant has now been issued for López, whose current whereabouts are unknown.

The targeting of López is certain to intensify an increasingly fractious debate within the opposition MUD coalition over future strategy. During last December’s municipal elections, the MUD’s declared aim of turning the ballot into a referendum on Maduro’s regime failed to pass muster–although as I wrote at the time, important gains were made, especially in Barinas, the home state of Hugo Chavez, where his brother, Adan, remains governor. Now, with no further elections on the immediate horizon, the MUD is agonizing over whether to endorse additional demonstrations, or whether to hold fire until the next election campaign at the end of 2015.

Henrique Capriles, the longtime leader of the MUD who challenged both Chavez and Maduro for the presidency, has left little doubt regarding his distrust of the protest strategy. While Capriles did join the students in Caracas yesterday, his recent statements have urged caution, reflecting his belief that disillusioned supporters of Maduro can yet be won over to the MUD if they are approached in the right way. On his Facebook page yesterday, Capriles asserted, “NO more violence, it’s obvious that the extremists have an interest in generating it.” Seasoned observers of Venezuelan politics surmise that the barb at “extremists” is directed at both López and the charismatic opposition parliamentarian Maria Corina Machado, another fulsome backer of the demonstrations, as well as toward the chavistas.

Nor can the opposition entirely rule out the prospect of the protests continuing despite the reservations of Capriles. Almost a year after Chavez passed from the scene, Venezuela has been pushed by his successors to the brink of economic catastrophe. The shortage of basic goods has plummeted to a five-year low, while inflation–by the regime’s own admission–has climbed to a whopping 56.3 percent. The knowledge that the currency crisis has actually aided by Maduro by making the price of newsprint prohibitively expensive for opposition news outlets, 12 of which have recently shut down, has bolstered the realization that peaceful resistance has its limits.

However, the response of the authorities to yesterday’s protests underlines the obvious risks of pursuing a path that can easily turn violent. Additionally, the opposition knows only too well that it can expect, at most, qualified rhetorical support from more moderate Latin American leaders as well as the United States, where the Obama administration has unsuccessfully tried to start a dialogue with Maduro.

Meanwhile, the militarization of the Maduro government continues: seven senior military officers currently serve as cabinet ministers, among them the widely-feared Gen. Rodolfo Marco Torres, who runs the Finance Ministry. Should the protests go on, no one should be foolhardy enough to rule out that a military regime like this one will react in the only way it knows how.

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Desperate Measures in Venezuela

The other day, I asked a leading Venezuelan opposition figure what he thought was the main difference between Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan comandante, and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. “If Chavez was Frank Sinatra,” came the reply, “then Maduro is the guy in the karaoke bar singing an out of tune version of My Way.”

The point here is not that Chavez was a preferable alternative to Maduro; as Roger Noriega correctly points out in the New York Post, Chavez’s “divisive, illegitimate regime polarized society and devastated the economy.” It’s that the uncharismatic, foul-tempered Maduro has, during the seven months that he’s been in power, exposed the totalitarian tendencies implicit in the ideology of chavismo, with the result that he’s fast losing support among those segments of Venezuelan society, like the three million Venezuelans now living in extreme poverty, who regarded Chavez as a savior not so long ago.

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The other day, I asked a leading Venezuelan opposition figure what he thought was the main difference between Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan comandante, and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. “If Chavez was Frank Sinatra,” came the reply, “then Maduro is the guy in the karaoke bar singing an out of tune version of My Way.”

The point here is not that Chavez was a preferable alternative to Maduro; as Roger Noriega correctly points out in the New York Post, Chavez’s “divisive, illegitimate regime polarized society and devastated the economy.” It’s that the uncharismatic, foul-tempered Maduro has, during the seven months that he’s been in power, exposed the totalitarian tendencies implicit in the ideology of chavismo, with the result that he’s fast losing support among those segments of Venezuelan society, like the three million Venezuelans now living in extreme poverty, who regarded Chavez as a savior not so long ago.

The crisis facing Maduro’s regime has coincided with a bitter political campaign around the upcoming municipal elections on December 8, which the opposition MUD coalition is billing as a referendum on the country’s future. One recent opinion poll indicates that 48 percent of electors intend to vote for opposition candidates, as against 41 percent for the ruling party, but that is not necessarily a reliable guide to what will happen on the day. Maduro can always do what he did during the April presidential election: deploy chavista thugs to hector voters arriving at the polling stations, or even rig the result in his favor.

Maduro’s behavior over recent weeks suggests that he has chosen the path of intimidation as the key to his political survival. With inflation running at 54 percent, the highest in the Americas, and a constant shortage of basic household goods like cooking oil and sugar, on November 19 Maduro railroaded through a Ley Habilitante, or Enabling Law, which allows him to bypass the National Assembly and rule by decree. Claiming that Venezuela is the victim of an “economic war” waged by the United States and its local allies, Maduro’s new powers will assist him in prosecuting what his vice president, Jorge Arreaza, delightedly calls “class warfare.”

So far at least, the regime’s offensive against those it labels “speculators” and “bourgeois parasites” has manifested in two ways. Firstly, harassment of the opposition: last weekend, just hours before an MUD election rally, military intelligence officers beat up and arrested Alejandro Silva, a senior aide (or “fascist henchman,” in the words of Andres Izarra, one of Maduro’s ministers) to opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Secondly, it has begun targeting the entire business community, from large retail chains to small merchants, with state-enforced price controls.

Mindful of the potential electoral benefits to be gleaned from the approaching Christmas holiday, Maduro has abruptly ended the long-established practice of selling consumer goods at the black market rate for U.S. dollars–currently ten times the official rate. Initially, this resulted in open looting of stores belonging to retailers like the “Daka” electronics chain. In the days that followed, police officers turned up at other stores demanding that their owners immediately reprice their wares. A video being circulated by opposition activists shows a devastated Lebanese immigrant merchant in the eastern city of El Tigre begging for sympathy: “I bought at 60 thousand Bolívares [Venezuela’s currency denomination],” he wails, as he stands helplessly in front of his goods. “I can’t sell at 6 thousand!”

The main result of these measures, which have similarly impacted thousands of other merchants, will be to ruin the retail sector, since owners cannot possibly hope to recover their initial outlay if they are compelled to cut prices so radically. Further, they demonstrate the painful absence of any long-term strategy on Maduro’s part to address Venezuela’s capsizing economy.

Instead, the beneficiaries of Maduro’s policies are principally found among Venezuela’s military elite. As the constitutional lawyer Asdrúbal Aguiar observes in an interview with El Universal, military officers are now running key institutions like the Interior Ministry and a shadowy new intelligence body known as “Cesspa” (Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Motherland). Consequently, as Roger Noriega summarizes the situation:

Virtually every Venezuelan is infuriated by the daily fight for survival. The anti-chavistas are fed up with the harassment by an illegitimate and incompetent one-party state. All sides in the military are busy weighing their options.

Any act of repression, street brawl, electoral fraud or corruption scandal could unleash all the fury built up over the regime’s 15 years. Tragically, the sight of military units squaring off in the streets of Caracas is not a distant memory.

Noriega concludes from all this that the U.S. “must act urgently to prevent a Syria scenario on our doorstep.” Another equally depressing comparison can be drawn with Zimbabwe, whose dictator, Robert Mugabe, embarked on a similar price-controls crusade in 2007. Either way, the prospect of a bloody denouement cannot be ruled out.

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Venezuela’s Ministry of Happiness

“Orwellian” is an oft-misused term, mainly because those who employ it forget that it properly applies to closed societies, rather than open ones. For that same reason, “Orwellian” is the most appropriate adjective to describe Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s announcement that he has created a new “Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness,” a body that could quite easily feature in one of 1984 narrator Winston Smith’s surreptitious diary entries.

The ministry’s creation rather underlines the fact that, after enduring fourteen years of chavismo, Venezuela is a supremely unhappy society. Despite sitting atop the world’s largest reserves of oil, the country that could have been Latin America’s powerhouse is instead a basket case. Oil revenues are either squandered, for example through the annual provision of around $12 billion of heavily-subsidized oil to communist Cuba, or used to settle foreign debts, as in the case of China, which has lent $42.5 billion to Venezuela over the last six years, and which now receives close to 600,000 barrels of oil per day as repayment. Ironically, only the much-maligned United States, which receives about 800,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil per day, pays for its imports in cash.

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“Orwellian” is an oft-misused term, mainly because those who employ it forget that it properly applies to closed societies, rather than open ones. For that same reason, “Orwellian” is the most appropriate adjective to describe Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s announcement that he has created a new “Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness,” a body that could quite easily feature in one of 1984 narrator Winston Smith’s surreptitious diary entries.

The ministry’s creation rather underlines the fact that, after enduring fourteen years of chavismo, Venezuela is a supremely unhappy society. Despite sitting atop the world’s largest reserves of oil, the country that could have been Latin America’s powerhouse is instead a basket case. Oil revenues are either squandered, for example through the annual provision of around $12 billion of heavily-subsidized oil to communist Cuba, or used to settle foreign debts, as in the case of China, which has lent $42.5 billion to Venezuela over the last six years, and which now receives close to 600,000 barrels of oil per day as repayment. Ironically, only the much-maligned United States, which receives about 800,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil per day, pays for its imports in cash.

The rot eating away at Venezuela’s oil sector–run, for the last decade, by regime loyalists after the professional bureaucrats who administered the national oil company, PDVSA, were ruthlessly purged by the late Hugo Chavez–has spread to the rest of the country in dramatic fashion. Back in September, a power outage plunged 70 percent of the country, including the capital, Caracas, into darkness. Industry analysts blamed poor management practices for the interruption of the electricity supply, while the regime pointed its finger at the CIA and at the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, Henrique Capriles. Exactly the same response is offered when it comes to explaining the other woes, like shortages of basic foodstuffs and household items like toilet paper, that are plaguing the country.

The Happiness Ministry is, therefore, Maduro’s way of acknowledging that support for the Chavez model of revolution is being eroded among precisely those whom it is meant to benefit. Chavez’s program of creating “social missions” among the poorest demographics was, from the beginning, funded by a combination of external debt and misuse of oil revenues. In exchange, it guaranteed him the political loyalties and votes that Maduro is now desperate to shore up, which is why the new ministry will be in charge of coordinating the 33 missions, which cover a range of areas from improving literacy to building cheap public housing.

The opposition has countered that Maduro’s strategy is all about politics, since there is little, if any, economic logic here. Accusing anyone who stands up to him of “sabotage” conveniently masks the obvious point that these social missions cannot be indefinitely sustained. And that is why, after the September power outage, the regime’s immediate response was to deploy agents of the SEBIN secret police “across the nation to protect the population.”

With the December 8 municipal elections on the horizon, Maduro is anxious to deny the opposition the opportunity of turning the vote into a national referendum on his rule. Mindful of the widespread allegations of fraud that marked Maduro’s victory in the April presidential election, the opposition parliamentarian Maria Corina Machado–who was brutally assaulted in the National Assembly after she accused Maduro of rigging the vote–has warned that “suspending the vote or scheming up an outright fraud should not be excluded from the options of the National Electoral Council (CNE).”

Intimidating voters is another tactic which the regime has used to its advantage in the recent past. Just before he announced the creation of the Happiness Ministry, Maduro declared that the elections on December 8 would be trumped by something much more important: “a day of loyalty and love for Hugo Chavez,” as he put it, as well as a reminder that the “only enemies of the country are the ‘evil trilogy’”–Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez, and Maria Corina Machado–“who have been commissioned to sabotage electricity, food and unleash an economic war.” Anyone arriving at the voting stations on December 8 can expect to be greeted by red-shirted chavistas brandishing pictures of Chavez, exactly as happened during the April vote, when these same operatives were filmed ushering voters into the polling booths to “assist” them with their electronic ballots.

If anyone remains unconvinced that Maduro is using Chavez’s legacy to set up a full-fledged dictatorship, look no further than his proposed Enabling Law, ostensibly designed to fight corruption and economic decline. As the dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal points out, when the chavistas came to power, one dollar was exchanged for 50 Bolivars: fourteen years later, it’s 50,000 Bolivars and rising. In analyzing how the passage of the law would enable Maduro to exercise complete control over the economy, Duquenal asks, “does anyone still think we are not in a dictatorship?” Actually, it’s impossible to think anything else.

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Venezuela’s Supreme Court Dismisses Electoral Fraud Charges

The war of nerves between Venezuela’s ruling chavistas and its battered adversaries intensified this week, following the decision of the country’s Supreme Court, the TSJ, to summarily dismiss opposition charges of electoral fraud during last April’s presidential election.

The charges, filed by Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, were based on thousands of reports of electoral irregularities submitted by independent observers on election day. Capriles, who was defeated by Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, by a little over 200,000 votes, insists that he was the true victor. Maduro’s triumph, Capriles says, was handed to him by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, a nominally autonomous body that has been fatally compromised by fourteen years of chavista rule.

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The war of nerves between Venezuela’s ruling chavistas and its battered adversaries intensified this week, following the decision of the country’s Supreme Court, the TSJ, to summarily dismiss opposition charges of electoral fraud during last April’s presidential election.

The charges, filed by Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, were based on thousands of reports of electoral irregularities submitted by independent observers on election day. Capriles, who was defeated by Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, by a little over 200,000 votes, insists that he was the true victor. Maduro’s triumph, Capriles says, was handed to him by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, a nominally autonomous body that has been fatally compromised by fourteen years of chavista rule.

Daniel Duquenal, a dissident blogger who monitors the macabre twists and turns of Venezuelan politics, believes that the TSJ decision is a stark sign of Maduro’s determination to dispense with the niceties of the electoral process. Notice has been served to the opposition, Duquenal wrote this week, that “the days of ‘dissent’ are over, and that we are moving toward a more classical form of dictatorship.”

In that light, one might ask why Capriles bothered to go to the TSJ in the first place. The court lost any semblance of independence as long ago as 2004, when Chavez packed the court with his supporters after pushing through a law expanding the number of justices from 20 to 32. The notion that the TSJ might rule against Maduro on something as critical as a presidential election is, quite frankly, beyond fanciful.

That, however, was precisely the point which Capriles wanted to make. None of the opposition’s allegations received a respectful hearing, even when the evidence of fraud–images of red-shirted chavistas shepherding voters into polling booths, records of votes cast by individuals long deceased, and so forth–was embarrassingly transparent. The fact that the court ended its deliberations by fining Capriles $1,500 for “offensive and disrespectful allegations” merely underlined the reality that the Venezuelan judiciary has been comprehensively conquered by the chavistas.

By exposing this institutionalized bias in all its glory, Capriles is betting that disillusioned Venezuelans will flock to the opposition’s ranks. Once critical mass is achieved, the theory goes, the chavistas will find it harder and harder to use the country’s judicial institutions as an instrument to defeat the opposition. Not everyone agrees, however: Diego Arria, a former diplomat and prominent opposition figure, is pressing Capriles to recognize that “the doors have been closed by our current institutional arrangements.” Rather than focusing on bodies like the TSJ, Arria argues, the opposition should instead direct its energies on holding a referendum that would allow the formation of a new, genuinely representative, constituent assembly.

There is also a larger problem. It isn’t clear whether the opposition can sustain its strategy of patiently exposing Maduro’s corruption, given the ruling Socialist Party’s dedication to shutting down any challenge to its authority as rapidly as possible. On the same day that the TSJ threw out the opposition’s electoral complaint, military intelligence officers descended on the home of Oscar Lopez, the chief of staff to Capriles in the state of Miranda, where the opposition leader serves as governor. According to Lopez’s lawyer, no reason was given for the raid, which resulted in the confiscation of computers, cell phones, and personal documents. MUD officials believe it was instigated by chavista members of parliament, who are hellbent on proving that the opposition coalition is illegally receiving funds from foreign sources.

This latest wave of repression extends to the media as well. Yesterday, Venezuela’s leading anti-chavista newspaper, El Nacional, was heavily fined for publishing a picture of unattended bodies piled up in a morgue, thereby demonstrating that Maduro has failed to tackle the violent criminality which has turned his country into the murder capital of the world.

The importance of such media outlets cannot be overstated. Without newspapers like El Nacional and El Universal, Venezuelans would have no record of the ruling regime’s daily failings, which this week include a hefty 30 percent decline in the National Bank’s reserves of foreign currency, along with a refusal to cut spending on low-impact, high-visibility social programs, despite soaring inflation. Meanwhile, Maduro can count on the vast state-owned media sector to do exactly as he asks; when the opposition rallied against government corruption last weekend, Maduro ensured that all television channels carried his speech accusing the MUD of being the real agents of corruption in Venezuela.

For some members of the ruling party, such measures aren’t enough. Nicmer Evans, an orthodox chavista university professor, recently criticized the government for encouraging a nostalgic longing for Hugo Chavez, at the expense of the “construction of Bolivarian and pro-Chavez socialism.” The events of this week provide generous insight into what this slogan means.

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Jimmy Carter Gives Seal of Approval to Venezuela Election

When the Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez passed away back in March, one notably unctuous commemorative tribute came from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen,” the statement, carried on the website of the Carter Center, intoned. Carter then praised the “positive legacies” of a man famous for embracing genocidal dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, before ending with a vague plea to Chavez’s successors to forge a “new consensus” in taking the country forward.

Three months and one disputed election later, has Carter revised these views? As the Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer discovered this week when he interviewed Carter, the answer is a resounding no.

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When the Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez passed away back in March, one notably unctuous commemorative tribute came from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen,” the statement, carried on the website of the Carter Center, intoned. Carter then praised the “positive legacies” of a man famous for embracing genocidal dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, before ending with a vague plea to Chavez’s successors to forge a “new consensus” in taking the country forward.

Three months and one disputed election later, has Carter revised these views? As the Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer discovered this week when he interviewed Carter, the answer is a resounding no.

“Would Carter now approve of the results of Venezuela’s April 14 elections, which according to the pro-government National Electoral Council (CNE) were won by Chavez protégé Nicolas Maduro?” Oppenheimer asked. “Would he give some credence to opposition leader Henrique Capriles’ claims that the election had been stolen from him?” Carter’s responses on these matters were an artful fusion of tired platitudes with flagrant untruths.

“Venezuela probably has the most excellent voting system that I have ever known,” Carter began, referring to the electronic voting machines that require voters to select their favored candidate on a touch screen, before collecting a paper receipt which is then deposited in a ballot box. Well, yes, we can all agree that technology is great. But it’s what you do with it that matters.

Then there was this gem: “So far as I know, Maduro did get 1.5 percent more votes than his opponent, [Henrique] Capriles,” Carter told Oppenheimer, “and that has been substantiated by the recount of paper ballots.” And finally, the clincher: “Asked… whether Venezuela’s election process was clean, Carter asserted that ‘the voting part’ of it was ‘free and fair.'”

Actually, it was anything but. On election day, opposition monitors recorded around 6,000 violations, including red-shirted Chavista activists shepherding voters into polling booths, threats both physical and verbal against voters deemed to have opposition loyalties, and, most ludicrously, several polling stations in which Maduro’s vote was astronomically higher than that achieved by Chavez in the previous, October 2012, election, which the ruling United Socialist Party won by a comfortable margin of 11 points.

Contrary to Carter’s claim, there was never a comprehensive matching of the ballot papers to the votes registered electronically. There was, earlier this month, a cursory, partial recount whose sole purpose was to validate the original announcement of a Maduro victory.

Now, it’s possible that Carter didn’t want to rely on data provided by the opposition in asserting claims of electoral fraud (though he apparently is willing to take the evidence provided by the chavistas at face value). But if that’s the case, then the logical conclusion would be to urge Maduro and his cohorts to permit credible and independent observers to monitor the elections, so that reliable field reports are available in the event of a dispute. As Andres Oppenheimer pointed out in the preamble to his interview with Carter, “the Venezuelan government did not allow independent international election observers for the elections. It only allowed electoral tourists from friendly regional groups who arrived shortly before the voting.”

There are those who will say that however outrageous Carter’s views are, they don’t really matter. In fact, they do. Much of the Carter Center’s work involves international election monitoring, since, as the Center itself says, “more governments than ever recognize democratic elections as essential to establishing their legitimate authority.” What’s therefore shocking in the Venezuelan context is that Carter, whose organization didn’t monitor the April election, has now issued Maduro with a clean bill of health.

As a result, the chavistas now have even less incentive to admit observers to monitor the forthcoming municipal elections, currently scheduled for December. Given the likelihood that the opposition will attempt to turn this next contest into a referendum on Maduro’s rule, we can confidently expect a repeat of the violations of this past April. And we can be just as confident that Jimmy Carter will emerge, once the dust has settled, to assure us that the ballot was “fair,” “legitimate,” “free” and all the other words that give succor to those autocrats who decide what the result of an election will be before they hold one.

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U.S. Should Reject Venezuela’s Overtures

Ever since the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez back in March, his successors have been flinging insult after insult at the United States. The volley began at the very moment of Chavez’s death, when his anointed heir Nicolas Maduro, pointing an accusatory finger at the U.S., claimed that Chavez had been “assassinated.” Maduro then accused the U.S. of plotting to kill his opposition rival, Henrique Capriles, in order to engineer a coup. Finally, after weeks of blaming the U.S. for everything from food shortages to the violence that followed the disputed April 14 presidential election, Maduro recycled a barb that Chavez had previously deployed against George W. Bush, when he declared that President Obama was the “grand chief of devils.”

Now, however, conciliatory noises are emerging from Caracas. Over the weekend, Maduro’s foreign minister, Elias Jaua, announced that Venezuela wanted to mend diplomatic fences with the United States. “We are going to remain open to normalizing relations with the United States,” Jaua said during a television interview. “The first thing would be to resume diplomatic representation at the highest level.”

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Ever since the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez back in March, his successors have been flinging insult after insult at the United States. The volley began at the very moment of Chavez’s death, when his anointed heir Nicolas Maduro, pointing an accusatory finger at the U.S., claimed that Chavez had been “assassinated.” Maduro then accused the U.S. of plotting to kill his opposition rival, Henrique Capriles, in order to engineer a coup. Finally, after weeks of blaming the U.S. for everything from food shortages to the violence that followed the disputed April 14 presidential election, Maduro recycled a barb that Chavez had previously deployed against George W. Bush, when he declared that President Obama was the “grand chief of devils.”

Now, however, conciliatory noises are emerging from Caracas. Over the weekend, Maduro’s foreign minister, Elias Jaua, announced that Venezuela wanted to mend diplomatic fences with the United States. “We are going to remain open to normalizing relations with the United States,” Jaua said during a television interview. “The first thing would be to resume diplomatic representation at the highest level.”

Should the United States restore its relations with Venezuela, which were severed in 2008 when Chavez expelled the U.S. Ambassador, Patrick Duddy? Here are three good reasons why it shouldn’t do so.

First, Venezuela last month incarcerated an American filmmaker, Timothy Hallet Tracy, on fabricated charges of stoking the violence which accompanied opposition accusations of fraud against Maduro, following his election victory by a margin of less than two points. Tracy’s arrest was personally ordered by Maduro, who insists that he is a spy, while the State Department maintains that he is a private citizen.

It might be argued that a returning American ambassador could secure Tracy’s release. If that is indeed the case, then the U.S. should demand that Tracy be set free as a non-negotiable condition for the resumption of any talks about restoring diplomatic relations. Essentially, this would amount to a test of Venezuela’s honorable intentions–one there is little reason to believe the chavista regime will pass.

Reason number two: sending an ambassador to Caracas would amount to a complete reversal of the American decision not to recognize the results of the April 14 election. There should be no doubt that Maduro would portray such a move as proof that the fraud charges leveled by Capriles and the opposition have no basis in reality. Additionally, a climbdown by the U.S. would silence the only significant objection to the election process voiced within the international community. Most of Latin America has already acquiesced to Maduro’s triumph, including countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile, for whom military rule of the sort that now prevails in Venezuela–Maduro uses the sinister term “political-military command”–is a recent memory. There is nothing to be gained from the U.S. joining in with this chorus of hypocrisy.

Finally: given the degree of control the Cuban regime exercises over Maduro, one might reasonably wonder whether diplomatic relations are really being restored with Havana, and not Caracas. Venezuelans have spent much of today glued to their TV screens after the opposition released an audio recording of a conversation between Mario Silva, a prominent television anchor and incorrigible chavista, and Aramis Palacios, a senior official of the G2, Cuba’s secret police. As far as the opposition is concerned, the exchange between the two men amounts to satisfactory confirmation that Cuba is the real power behind Maduro’s throne.

The conversation, which largely consists of Silva confiding in Palacios his fears about the current situation, is certainly revealing. Silva uses some rather pungent language in describing his feelings towards Maduro’s principal rival, the National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, whose corrupt business practices, he says, are partly responsible for the successive devaluations of the Bolivar, Venezuela’s currency. Silva also voices his approval of the view expressed to him by Fidel Castro that Chavez was wasting his time with such “bourgeois” trifles as elections. “Elections here as they stand right now, they can blow us and can bring our revolution down,” the breathless Silva tells the sympathetic Palacios, inadvertently  

bolstering the opposition’s long-held belief that the chavistas will hold elections only if they are sure they can win them.

The Silva-Palacios recording builds on evidence of Cuban meddling that was recently unveiled by a former confidante of Chavez, Maj. Gen. Antonio Rivero, who defected to the opposition in 2010. According to Rivero, more than 200,000 Cubans arrived in Venezuela following Chavez’s assumption of power in 1999. Among the projects they launched was the “Strategic Cooperation Team,” which involved a wholesale revision of Venezuela’s military doctrine under the watchful eye of a Cuban commander. As Rivero’s own experience demonstrates, those Venezuelan officers who rejected their Cuban overseers quickly found themselves purged from the ranks of the military.

Meanwhile, Mario Silva’s own response to the broadcast of his conversation with a Cuban agent offers an instructive glimpse of what the U.S. can expect should it elect to deal with Maduro. Rather than comment on the substance of the exchange, Silva whined that he was the victim of a set-up. And who was responsible? Why, that bottomless pit of conspiracy and intrigue otherwise known as… “El sionismo.”

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Venezuela Answers Fraud Charges with Threats

One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela’s rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro’s vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.

In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be “irreversible.”

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One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela’s rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro’s vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.

In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be “irreversible.”

Capriles repeatedly pointed out on his Twitter feed that no evidence was produced to support these or similar claims. He also called off a rally outside the CNE’s headquarters in Caracas, citing his concern that government supporters would “infiltrate” the crowd and stir up violence that the opposition would then be held responsible for. In the end, Capriles settled for a partial recount of the vote that the CNE has already said will not change the election’s outcome.

Capriles’s decision to opt for prudence won him no favors with the regime. As Iris Varela made clear today, Capriles is being held personally responsible for the post-election violence. “We are preparing a cell for you (Capriles) where you will pay for your crimes,” Varela growled ominously during a press conference.

Whether Varela’s threat against Capriles will be implemented remains unclear. Its underlying purpose, though, is to intimidate the opposition into silence; and what better way to do so than by dangling the prospect of a prison sentence? As Julie Turkewitz reported in the Atlantic in February, Venezuelan prisons are known to be the worst in Latin America, plagued by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, and frequently run by brutal gang leaders. No opposition supporter entering one of these penitentiaries could reasonably hope to come out alive, let alone unharmed.

Another worrying signal for the opposition is the appointment of Miguel Rodriguez Torres as interior minister. Rodriguez Torres was most recently the head of SEBIN, the much-feared, Cuban-trained political police. Like Maduro, Rodriguez Torres is an orthodox chavista who brooks no dissent. His goal now will be to crack down not just on the current round of protests, but on the protests that Maduro’s government is likely to face in the coming months as the economy continues to crumble.

Herein lies Capriles’ main achievement: he has made a compelling case that any elections held under the auspices of the chavistas will be inherently unfair, and he has prepared the ground for a reinvigorated opposition that was thrown into despair last December, when the chavistas triumped in state elections. 

At the same time, Capriles is wary of giving Maduro any opportunity to portray the opposition as American stooges, which may well explain why he hasn’t called for international support. Since the election, Maduro has consistently accused the U.S. of “financing” the “violent acts” of the opposition. His foreign minister, Elias Jaua, has also warned that any sanctions that might be imposed by Washington on Caracas would be met in kind–but given that Venezuela desperately needs the revenue it receives from its export of 900,000 barrels of oil per day to the U.S., it’s hard to take Jaua’s comments seriously on this point.

As for the future of U.S. policy toward Venezuela, that remains an open question. President Obama’s decision to call for a “constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government” following the death of Chavez disappointed many in the country’s opposition circles, particularly as Maduro’s assumption of the post of acting president was of questionable constitutional legitimacy. Yet in the aftermath of the election, the U.S. has been the only foreign government of any note to have withheld recognition of Maduro’s government because of the more than 3,000 instances of electoral fraud documented by the opposition–among them the 564 polling stations where chavista activists were witnessed entering polling booths to “assist” voters, thus impacting around 1.5 million votes out of a total of 15 million­­­.

Washington will be mindful that it is already isolated on Venezuela. Maduro’s inauguration last Friday was attended by a slew of foreign leaders, among them Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, Argentine President Christina Kirchner, and Chavez’s close friend (and notorious electoral fraudster) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. In backing Maduro, all these leaders have signed up to the party line that any regime change in Venezuela will be the result of CIA interference. In the meantime, chavismo will step up its conquest of the institutions of a country that was, for much of the post-Second World War period, among the more democratic in Latin America.

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Nicolas Maduro’s “Hand of God” Victory in Venezuela

One of the celebrities given star billing at a Nicolas Maduro election rally last week in Caracas was Diego Maradona, the former Argentine soccer star. Maradona scored perhaps the most notorious goal in the history of the game during the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, when, during a match against England, he tipped the ball into the net with the outside of his fist (an unlawful play). The referee looked the other way and the goal stood. Maradona later ascribed his good fortune to divine intervention: it was the “hand of God,” he said, that was responsible for his goal.

Much the same metaphor can be applied to Maduro’s paper-thin victory in yesterday’s presidential election. When Venezuelans went to the polls last October, the now-deceased Hugo Chavez won by 11 points, a margin comfortable enough to prevent his opponent, Henrique Capriles, from challenging the result. But last night, it was a very different story; according to the official returns, Maduro won 50.66 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent for Capriles. In a normal democracy, a result as close as this one would automatically trigger a recount. Venezuela, however, is not a normal democracy, and its chavista-controlled National Electoral Council, or CNE, has already declared the outcome to be “irreversible,” despite angry demands from the opposition MUD coalition for a proper audit of the votes.

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One of the celebrities given star billing at a Nicolas Maduro election rally last week in Caracas was Diego Maradona, the former Argentine soccer star. Maradona scored perhaps the most notorious goal in the history of the game during the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, when, during a match against England, he tipped the ball into the net with the outside of his fist (an unlawful play). The referee looked the other way and the goal stood. Maradona later ascribed his good fortune to divine intervention: it was the “hand of God,” he said, that was responsible for his goal.

Much the same metaphor can be applied to Maduro’s paper-thin victory in yesterday’s presidential election. When Venezuelans went to the polls last October, the now-deceased Hugo Chavez won by 11 points, a margin comfortable enough to prevent his opponent, Henrique Capriles, from challenging the result. But last night, it was a very different story; according to the official returns, Maduro won 50.66 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent for Capriles. In a normal democracy, a result as close as this one would automatically trigger a recount. Venezuela, however, is not a normal democracy, and its chavista-controlled National Electoral Council, or CNE, has already declared the outcome to be “irreversible,” despite angry demands from the opposition MUD coalition for a proper audit of the votes.

Like his predecessor, Maduro was able to commandeer the vast resources of the state to assist his campaign. Even before the polls opened, the opposition was alleging irregularities. The most egregious example involved Maduro’s decision to carry on campaigning on state television the night before the election by broadcasting his visit, with Diego Maradona at his side, to the tomb of Chavez. Thirty-six hours later, the Capriles camp claims that it has documented more than 3,000 irregularities, from violent intimidation of voters to keeping polling stations open past their official closing time. On these matters and more, the CNE has had nothing to say.

For seasoned observers of Venezuelan politics, the inherent bias of the CNE is nothing new. Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana last week refused an invitation to observe the election, telling Tibisay Lucena, a former Chavez aide who is now president of the CNE, that voters would go to the polls “in a situation where the system of checks and balances that should guarantee fairness for all has long been skewed in favor of those who hold power today in Venezuela. The composition of the CNE is itself a reflection of this reality.” Separately, more than 200 regional dignitaries, including former Mexican President Vicente Fox and former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, issued a statement that anticipated today’s crisis by demanding “electoral transparency” and “equal access to the media and institutional resources.” The only observers on the ground yesterday–including representatives of the Carter Center, much loved by the Venezuelan regime thanks to former President Jimmy Carter’s infamous statement that the country’s electoral system is the “best in the world”–weren’t really observers. Their official designation as acompañantes (accompaniers) determined that their role was merely to rubber-stamp a Maduro victory.

It’s still early days, but a notably absent voice in this controversy has been that of the United States. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Noriega pointed out, the clearest statement thus far from the administration came in the form of congressional testimony from national intelligence chief James Clapper, who predicted a comfortable win for Maduro. “With that sort of superficial analysis, it is no surprise that Washington has no influence over whether a hostile narcostate and best friend of Iran and Hezbollah holds on to power in Venezuela,” Noriega wrote.

In considering how to respond to what may well be a stolen election–according to the official tally, Maduro won by just 235,000 votes–the U.S. should be mindful of the fact that the most vulnerable individual in this scenario is Maduro himself. In the abstract, Maduro had everything going for him. He was the anointed successor of Chavez. He had the pledge of the defense minister, Diego Molero, that the armed forces, in violation of the constitution, would support the continued reign of chavismo. He spent much of the last few weeks insinuating that state employees, among them the 115,000 workers of the state-owned oil company PDVSA, would lose their jobs if they didn’t vote for him. And he has cracked down on the last remnants of the independent media in Venezuela, most obviously the Globovision television station, which had been among the most tenacious critics of the Chavez regime.

Yet Maduro failed to persuade almost one million previously faithful chavista voters that he was a worthy inheritor of Chavez, whose personality cult in death is larger and more pervasive than when he was alive. He also presides over a bitterly divided nation that is on the edge of economic collapse–Venezuela may be a petrostate, but it is also a narcostate, as evidenced by the participation of senior military and political officials (including Molero) in the drug trade, and on the road to becoming a failed state. Indeed, some may legitimately question whether Venezuela is in fact a state in the meaningful sense of the word, given the enormous influence of the Cuban regime over Maduro, who served as foreign minister under Chavez, and the continued provision of billions of dollars of subsidized oil to Havana.

At a recent New York seminar on Venezuela for financial analysts, one panelist concluded that while chavismo had been “massively weakened,” it would be “three years” before the space for an opposition victory opened up. What yesterday’s election proves is that the death knell for chavismo has already been sounded. The question now is whether the regime will agree to negotiate with the opposition or whether it will become a fully-fledged dictatorship, thus risking a repeat of the violence that accompanied the attempted 2002 coup against Chavez. This time around, it is Venezuelan democrats who will be searching for the hand of God.

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Chavez’s Absence Emboldens Opposition

With a little under a month to go before Venezuela’s presidential election on April 14, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, is starting to exhibit the boldness that many wished he’d displayed when he challenged the now deceased Hugo Chavez last October.

Addressing a college rally earlier today, Capriles declared that in the event of his victory, the long-standing Chavista commitment to provide subsidized oil to Cuba would end. “Not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros,” he told the crowd.

It’s hard to overstate the consequences of such a move. Assisting the Cuban Communists to maintain their grip on power was the most cherished foreign policy imperative of the Chavez years; abruptly removing the Cuban oil crutch would deal a death blow to one of the foundations of chavismo. For the Cubans, meanwhile, the prospect of a future without subsidized Venezuelan oil conjures up memories of the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

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With a little under a month to go before Venezuela’s presidential election on April 14, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, is starting to exhibit the boldness that many wished he’d displayed when he challenged the now deceased Hugo Chavez last October.

Addressing a college rally earlier today, Capriles declared that in the event of his victory, the long-standing Chavista commitment to provide subsidized oil to Cuba would end. “Not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros,” he told the crowd.

It’s hard to overstate the consequences of such a move. Assisting the Cuban Communists to maintain their grip on power was the most cherished foreign policy imperative of the Chavez years; abruptly removing the Cuban oil crutch would deal a death blow to one of the foundations of chavismo. For the Cubans, meanwhile, the prospect of a future without subsidized Venezuelan oil conjures up memories of the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

From 1991 onwards, Cuba, unable to afford Russian oil at market prices, drastically reduced its oil imports by around 10 million barrels per year. When Chavez came to power in 1999, he staved off Cuba’s growing immiseration by providing the island with preferentially-priced oil that typically saved Fidel Castro between $2 and $4 billion annually. While it’s true that Castro learned from the Soviet experience by not becoming exclusively dependent on Chavez–the value of Cuba’s trade with Venezuela is perhaps half of what it was with the Soviet Union–any regime change in Caracas would certainly accelerate a similar process in Havana.

During his election campaign last year, Capriles complained that the relationship with Cuba was hopelessly one-sided. At one point, he calculated that the oil subsidies were five times more expensive than Cuba’s reciprocal provision of doctors and other healthcare professionals to Venezuela. However, Capriles stopped short of bluntly announcing–as he did today–that Chavez’s ideologically-loaded largesse toward Cuba would continue no more.

In other recent duels with the regime, Capriles has shown a previously unglimpsed mettle. In 2012, Chavez’s supporters seized upon both Capriles’ unmarried status and his Jewish origins to denounce him, variously, as a Zionist and a homosexual. Confronted with the latter assault, Capriles preferred to leave such blockheaded homophobia unchallenged, drawing attention instead to the string of glamorous women he’d dated in the past. But when, last week, Chavez’s appointed successor Nicolas Maduro tried the same tack, Capriles responded by denouncing “the homophobic declarations made by Nicolas,” which smacked, he added, of “fascism.”

Indeed, the tone with which Capriles addresses Maduro is noticeably different from that he adopted with Chavez. For example, Capriles would never have called Chavez “chico”–“boy”–as he did when he reminded Maduro, the current acting president, that the Venezuelan people hadn’t voted for him. Equally, the Capriles of last year was distinctly reticent about drawing attention to the role of the armed forces in backing the Chavistas. This year, he took to Twitter to label Venezuelan Defense Minister Admiral Diego Molero, who violated the country’s ban on military involvement in politics in pledging support for Maduro, as a “disgrace to the armed forces.”   

In adopting this confrontational strategy, Capriles is betting that it’s easier to beat a phantom Chavez than a live one. The longer Maduro presents himself as the embodiment of Chavez’s legacy, the easier it is for Capriles to lampoon him as a mediocre impostor who anxiously hangs on every word uttered by his real political master, Raul Castro. And Maduro does, to be sure, seem very nervous: his latest bout of conspiracy theorizing involves the claim that two former Bush Administration officials, Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, were engaged in a “far right” plot to assassinate none other than Capriles himself (thus inviting us to conclude that this particular ruse would end with an American invasion of Venezuela.) Without the bombastic, earthy Chavez to declaim such nonsense, Maduro looks forlorn, more than anything else.

Capriles isn’t buying the assassination scare, tweeting that should anything happen to him, the responsibility would lie with Maduro. The State Department–which issued a typically disinterested rebuttal to Maduro’s accusations against Noriega and Reich–should carefully note that statement.

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Finally, Photographs of Hugo Chavez

At Chavista demonstrations in Caracas recently, images of Hugo Chavez juxtaposed with icons of Jesus Christ have been a common sight. In part, that’s because Venezuelans are a devoutly Catholic people, and Chavez’s health has been the subject of many prayers. But there is also a sinister messianism around Chavez, which his cohorts, none of whom remotely enjoy the same level of popularity as he does, have eagerly stoked.

Today, then, amounts to a resurrection of sorts. More than two months after disappearing from view, following his return to Havana to seek medical treatment for cancer, the Cuban regime released photos of Chavez lying in his hospital bed, flanked by his two smiling daughters, Rosa and Maria.

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At Chavista demonstrations in Caracas recently, images of Hugo Chavez juxtaposed with icons of Jesus Christ have been a common sight. In part, that’s because Venezuelans are a devoutly Catholic people, and Chavez’s health has been the subject of many prayers. But there is also a sinister messianism around Chavez, which his cohorts, none of whom remotely enjoy the same level of popularity as he does, have eagerly stoked.

Today, then, amounts to a resurrection of sorts. More than two months after disappearing from view, following his return to Havana to seek medical treatment for cancer, the Cuban regime released photos of Chavez lying in his hospital bed, flanked by his two smiling daughters, Rosa and Maria.

There are many words that come to mind upon viewing these photos, but “dignified” isn’t one of them. Chavez is, appropriately, holding a copy of Granma, the daily newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, yet nothing about his expression suggests he is taking in anything on the page. In all the photos, he is lying down—were he physically able to sit upright, you can bet that a photo of him doing so would have been snapped. His face looks bruised and what looks like rouge has been hastily and awkwardly applied to his cheeks. Behind the smile is a man in physical pain and mental bewilderment.

In its report on the photos, Reuters noted:

The photos were shown on Friday by Chavez’s son-in-law, Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, who has been traveling between Havana and Caracas to be at his bedside.

He said that Chavez – whose political identity is built around long-winded speeches, meandering talk shows and casual chatter with supporters – was having trouble talking.

“He doesn’t have his usual voice,” Arreaza told Venezuelan state television. “He has difficulty communicating verbally, but he makes himself understood. He communicates his decisions perfectly. He writes them down.”

Chavez’s reappearance today—which could well be followed by several more weeks of invisibility—comes two days after his vice-president and appointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, arrived in Havana to announce that the Comandante would be undergoing “complex and difficult treatments that must, at some point, end the cycle of his illness.” This sounded more like a cry for help than a sober medical diagnosis. 

It was Maduro who, last month, claimed—in the course of an hysterical verbal assault against opposition leader Henrique Capriles—that Chavez had “held talks” in Havana with two leading of his leading supporters, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Defense Minister Diego Molero. Similarly, Fidel Castro confidently asserted on February 5 that Chavez “is much better,” before promptly revising his assessment one week later.

As indicated in today’s news, Chavez is physically incapable of holding talks with anyone; in the photos with his daughters, the tracheal tube through which he breathes, and which makes speech nearly impossible, has been temporarily removed. As for being “much better,” today’s photos indicate that the road to recovery is certainly a long, and perhaps insurmountable, one.

The only thing we can now conclude with certainty is that governance in Venezuela is being micromanaged by the Cuban regime. For months, the Venezuelan opposition, angered by the constant provision of subsidized oil to the Castro brothers, and resentful of the Cuban military presence in Venezuela, has been saying that their country has become a colony of Cuba. In the days ahead, they will continue to do so. For their part, the Castros are determined to muzzle any talk in Venezuela of a post-Chavez era, because they know that none of his underlings make the grade. However, the release of these photographs merely fuels the realization that precisely such a time is now upon us.  

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Chavez Wins—So Does the Opposition

Had Hugo Chavez won yesterday’s presidential election in Venezuela by a landslide, the opposition would have justifiably accused him of committing massive electoral fraud. Especially over the last two weeks, support for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, swelled to the extent that many local pollsters believed he would pull off a narrow win at the last moment.

Instead Chavez garnered 54 percent of the vote, against 46 percent for Capriles. That margin of victory helps Chavez insofar as it staves off charges of electoral manipulation. At the same time, it confirms that Venezuela is seriously divided, with almost half the country rejecting the ideology of Chavismo pushed by the regime, along with the corruption, incompetence, and contempt for democratic rights inherent to this system of government.

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Had Hugo Chavez won yesterday’s presidential election in Venezuela by a landslide, the opposition would have justifiably accused him of committing massive electoral fraud. Especially over the last two weeks, support for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, swelled to the extent that many local pollsters believed he would pull off a narrow win at the last moment.

Instead Chavez garnered 54 percent of the vote, against 46 percent for Capriles. That margin of victory helps Chavez insofar as it staves off charges of electoral manipulation. At the same time, it confirms that Venezuela is seriously divided, with almost half the country rejecting the ideology of Chavismo pushed by the regime, along with the corruption, incompetence, and contempt for democratic rights inherent to this system of government.

The other half, as the Venezuelan dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal observed this morning, feels empowered by the social envy (el resentimiento social) that Chavez has turned into a revolutionary dogma. Says Duquenal,

[They]…hate people like me. Maybe not to the point of killing me, but to the point of trying to screw me any way they can…Now in Venezuela you will have all the trouble in the world to manage employees…to demand that public servants do the job they are appointed to do. Because if you feel that you have rights, then they will see you as a direct impingement on their comfort.

However deflated Capriles may feel today, he has won a victory of sorts. Without question, had he been fighting in his campaign in a conventional democracy, he would have won handsomely. But in Venezuela, elections are stacked against the opposition from the outset. Whereas Capriles was permitted just three minutes of airtime daily, there were no limits on Chavez’s cadenas, his trademark one-man broadcasts that often last for several hours. Nor was Chavez short of tame media outlets hailing him as the leader of socialism in its 21st century mutation.

Chavez was never obliged to debate Capriles on issues of policy. Instead, he chose to demonize his opponent, casually throwing around epithets like “pig,” “Nazi,” and “little bourgeois.” Anti-Semitism too played a central role in Chavez’s messaging. Though Capriles is a committed Catholic, he descends, on his mother’s side, from Polish Jews who arrived in Venezuela after surviving the Holocaust. Chavez, whose principal political mentor was Norberto Ceresole, an Argentinian Holocaust denier, seized on these origins with the gusto of a Julius Streicher. Cartoons lampooning Capriles often showed him wearing a Star of David. Among the many vicious profiles of Capriles in the pro-Chavez media was one by Adal Hernandez, a Chavista radio commentator, which carried the title “The Enemy is Zionism.”

Most of all, Chavez was able to call on the resources of the state to fund his campaign. PVDSA, the state-owned oil company responsible for the petroleum revenues, which make up 95 percent of the country’s foreign export earnings, has been cannibalized by the regime for all manner of pet political projects, from low-impact social programs aimed at capturing the votes of Venezuela’s poorer voters to subsidized oil programs for fellow tyrannies like Cuba and Belarus.

In a context like this one, Capriles’s achievement in winning 46 percent of the vote—Chavez’s previous challenger, Manuel Rosales, won only 37 percent in the 2006 election—is quite remarkable. Hence, while it is true that Chavez is now, as the Economist put it, “six years closer” to his goal of remaining president until 2031, Capriles has emerged as the focal point of a re-energized opposition. “He has become the indisputable leader of the opposition and his face-to-face work is a key asset for the future,” said Luis Vicente Leon, the head of the Datanalisis polling company, whose polls over the last few months showed Capriles steadily gaining on, but never quite surpassing, Chavez

The personal touch that Leon alludes to is what endeared Capriles to so many voters. Denied serious access to the media, his response was to meet the voters in person in more than 300 locations across Venezuela, earning himself nicknames like “Road Runner” and “Marathon Man” in the process. Part of the aim here was to contrast the young, good-looking and energetic Capriles with the ailing, portly, and remote Chavez—and it worked.

In defeat, then, the Venezuelan opposition has never looked stronger. As well as marshaling the support that crystallized around him during the campaign, Capriles can also call on the willingness of Venezuelan democrats to confront the regime, as they did in 2007, when Chavez’s attempt to abolish presidential term limits was defeated, and again in 2009, when Chavez railroaded these same proposals through, bypassing Venezuela’s congress in the process.

And once the Chavista celebrations have died down, Venezuelans will realize that when it comes to the two key questions that faced the country on the eve of the election—the economy and Chavez’s own health—nothing has changed. Thanks to Chavez, Venezuela’s enormous debt burden, currently at $140 billion, will continue to rise. A currency devaluation is likely in the next few months. And in marked contrast to the other members of OPEC, Venezuela has been forced to cut its oil production, since PVDSA is no longer run by professional bureaucrats but by Chavista loyalists who have no idea how to run an efficient oil industry.

As for Chavez’s health, he claims he has been cured from cancer. Given that he never provided details of his illness in the first place, there is no reason to believe that his Cuban doctors have successfully banished the disease. At the moment, therefore, it is reasonable to think that cancer will get rid of Chavez before an election does. In nearly all tyrannies, the death of the leader is followed by bitter struggles among his followers; and when that happens, Capriles will be waiting.

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Cuba Anxiously Eyes Venezuelan Election

Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez’s lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of “undecided” voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting “You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!”

Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday’s election.

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Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez’s lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of “undecided” voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting “You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!”

Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday’s election.

“Many see that things are not going well and have brought forward their decision to desert because they think the defeat of Chávez is imminent,” Yumar Gomez, a doctor who found his way to Miami, told El Universal. “And let me tell you… many don’t want to go back to Cuba.” Delia Garcia, a Cuban nurse, added: “Our leaders tell us that Chávez is not certain for October and say that the rate of desertions is now accelerating. That’s why I’m leaving. If there isn’t going to be any more misión in Venezuela, where will they send us then? To Burundi?”

The revelation that Havana’s communist rulers aren’t betting on a Chavez victory is another welcome boost for the Capriles campaign. After all, Chavez has never looked as vulnerable as he does now. His grandiose public works schemes are coming undone through the incompetence and corruption that inevitably accompanies the stuffing of political appointees into state-owned companies. For example, FONDEN, a Chavez-controlled fund that has spent $100 billion of Venezuelan oil revenue over the last seven years while bypassing the approval of the country’s congress, has come under fire for a range of misdemeanours, from abandoned building projects to the purchase of Russian fighter jets. And after a series of devastating fires and explosions at various oil installations, including one at the Amuay refinery in August in which more than 40 people were killed, it is hard to find a single Venezuelan who retains faith in PDVSA, the national oil company milked as a cash cow by Chavez.

As talk of an opposition victory on Sunday gathers pace, so does speculation that Chavez will consult the playbook of his close friend, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and manipulate the election, perhaps by intimidating voters in areas that lean towards Capriles, or even by stealing it outright. Last week, the Spanish newspaper ABC claimed that Chavez has been readying revolutionary militias, modeled on the feared Basij units in Iran, for mobilization in the event that he is defeated.

Still, as Diego Arria, the former Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN and a leading opposition figure, pointed out in a recent interview with New York’s WABC radio, such action is unlikely to be successful without the backing of the Venezuelan armed forces. And so far, Venezuela’s military commanders, mindful that Chavez may shortly succumb to the cancer eating away at him, have stated that they will respect the choice of the voters.

Is the Chavez era coming to an end? One would be foolhardy to make that exact prediction, but even so, the signs all point to the Comandante emerging from Sunday’s election chastened, and the opposition further empowered.

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