By Jackson Diehl
Hugo Chávez, who is up for re-election as Venezuelan president this year, kicked off his new campaign with an old tactic: criminal trials of his leading opponents. For years Latin America's would-be socialist revolutionary has been nursing along prosecutions of politicians, human rights activists, labor leaders, journalists and election monitors. Some have ended in prison sentences, but many have not: Instead, Chávez toys with his targets, holding the threat of jail over their heads while avoiding the embarrassment it would create for his apologists in Washington and Europe.
Now, with a vote on his tenure coming up, the president's prosecutors are back. First up in court was the election-monitoring group Súmate, which has meticulously documented Chávez's manipulation of the electoral system. The caudillo ordered up the trial of its top leaders on treason charges during his weekly television show two years ago; María Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz have been in and out of court every few months since. Their case reappeared early this year, and by mid-February they were preparing for a judge to rule on their imprisonment. Then European Union ambassadors advised Chávez's Foreign Ministry that they planned to attend and monitor the court session. The case was abruptly dismissed and sent to another court, where it is once again pending.
Next comes Henrique Capriles Radonski, a popular opposition mayor in Caracas and the leader of the only political party to nominate a candidate against Chávez. Like Súmate's leaders, Capriles was first charged in 2004; like them he has seen the case against him discredited and thrown out by appeals courts, only to reappear as Chávez tightened his control over the judiciary. His trial is now due to begin by early May.
But unlike Súmate's Machado, Capriles isn't well known outside Venezuela. He hasn't been received by President Bush. He has already spent three months in jail, in 2004. And he thinks the Cuban ambassador -- delegate of Chávez's closest ally -- is demanding that he be sentenced to prison.
So Capriles, a slim, handsome and fast-talking pol, was in Washington late last month to drum up interest in his case. In the perverted logic of Chávez's court system, what now matters is not evidence or law but international exposure. ``I want to get every NGO and human rights group to send someone to my trial,'' Capriles told me. ``I want journalists; I want television. I want to fill every seat in the courtroom. That's my only guarantee of justice.''
The case against Capriles dates to an incident that occurred four years ago this week, when Chávez was briefly ousted by a military coup. A hostile crowd besieged the Cuban ambassador's residence, which lies in Capriles's middle-class municipality, Baruta. Called to the scene by a European ambassador, the mayor was invited in by Cuban Ambassador German Sánchez Otero. He delivered a speech urging the crowd to disperse. Sánchez thanked him.
All of this was captured on a television journalist's videotape. But two years later Capriles was charged with trespassing, intimidation and ``violating international principles,'' among other crimes. The case was dismissed in October 2004, but it reappeared last May. So far it has been before 22 judges, many of whom have begged off rather than take orders from the president. Capriles says Sánchez, who is still Fidel Castro's man in Caracas, is particularly eager for his conviction because it would cover the envoy's embarrassment of having appealed to an opposition leader for rescue.
But Chávez has his own reasons for singling out this mayor. Only 33, Capriles is one of the brightest stars in a new generation of Venezuelan politicians untainted by the discredited political establishment Chávez replaced. He is popular, having won 80 percent of the vote in his district of a half-million in his last campaign. Unlike much of the rest of the opposition, he and his First Justice party are unambiguously committed to democracy. Capriles opposed the boycott of last year's parliamentary elections and is pressing hard for a united opposition campaign against Chávez in December's election.
Contrary to his own propaganda, Chávez has reason to worry. He has never enjoyed overwhelming support in Venezuela; his ratings have mostly fluctuated a few points above and below 50 percent. A tidal wave of corruption revelations, infrastructure failures and sensational crimes has dominated attention in Caracas in recent weeks. Chávez is rooting for the opposition boycott Capriles opposes; he recently said that if it occurs he will propose abolishing the constitutional limit on his tenure.
"Chávez wants the world to think his only opposition is Bush,'' Capriles says. "But that's not true. There are lots of people in Venezuela who think differently from Chávez. Their votes should be cast and they should be counted, so the world can see them.''
No wonder the independent organization dedicated to a fair vote count got the first court date this year. And no wonder this energetic democrat was next.
JACKSON DIEHL is a deputy editorial page editor for the Washington Post.
Feathers: As Wayne would say: Excelent... Now, seriously, Diehl just made an excelent point into showing the nature of the chavista regime in Venezuela. Anyone who dare to dissent, will, someway or another, suffer from it from any type of power abuse from the government. Is that a free democratic envirronment? No, it's not. It's fascism. Not everybody is that stupid on Venezuela or profit directly from the cash cow of the corrupt government there, so yes, there is a big majority of Venezuelans who don't agree with this government and not everybody voted like sheeps for Chavez. Doesn't have anything to do to feed the poor and insulting Bush, Cindy Sheehan, it has everything to do with abusing the institutions of the country against their citizens, the abuse of power of their civil servants, the love affair that Hugo Chavez has with Fidel Castro, to the point that Fidel has influence power among our military, the way the is spending like crazy into other projects while Venezuela is in so much need of infrastructure. Well said Jackson Diehl.