“Before we get off the plane, I might ask you to take my laptop and cell phone through the airport for me,” said my traveling companion. “In case I get arrested upon landing.” “Ok,” I answered hesitantly. “No problems.”
The laptop belonged to Diego Arria, a former governor of Caracas, former Venezuelan ambassador to the U.N., former assistant secretary general of the U.N. and current outspoken critic of President Hugo Chávez. When Chávez mocked Arria on national television and then expropriated his farm, Arria tweeted, “I’ll see you in The Hague, Chávez.”
I flew with Arria to our homeland for the parliamentary elections there on September 26, when all the seats in the National Assembly were up for grabs, as they are every five years, in accordance with the new constitution passed under Chávez. At stake was Hugo Chávez’s absolute control of the National Assembly, a consequence of the opposition boycott of the 2005 congressional elections. The opposition claimed that since those elections were rigged, their participation would only help legitimize Chávez. However, the boycott wound up empowering the president by giving him nearly unlimited power to pass any law he likes and to rule by decree. The opposition did not intend to make the same mistake with the September 26 elections, widely considered a test for the 2012 presidential elections.
If they are, Chávez should be worried — his United Socialist Party (PSUV) lost the popular vote. Although last year’s new and unconstitutional electoral law ensured that he would retain a majority of the seats, Chávez has taken a serious blow: The new National Assembly that will be sworn in on January 5th will no longer be his puppet, as it has been the past five years. With Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution now facing its counter-revolution, Venezuelans are celebrating what they’ve come to call “the end of fear.”
Going into the elections, voters had three issues on their minds: The soaring crime rates that give Caracas a murder rate four times that of Baghdad; a crumbling infrastructure that results in regular food and water shortages and electricity outages; and finally the new electoral law that heavily favored the PSUV by giving disproportionate representation to the smaller states that are renowned chavista, or Chavez supporter, strongholds. Proportionally, the tiny and economically insignificant Delta Amacuro (which is chavista) with 106,000 voters, should get 2 reps; it gets 4. By contrast, the opposition stronghold of Miranda, with nearly 1.9 million voters, should get 17 reps but instead gets 12. Even under Chávez’s own revised constitution, the new law is patently unconstitutional, but was still passed by the current National Assembly that is under his near-exclusive control. The law means that even if Chávez were to lose a majority of the popular vote, he could retain a majority of the National Assembly.
Chávez’s opponents charge that none of the elections held while he’s been in power have been truly free and fair. The electoral process is anything but transparent, with the National Electoral Commission (CNE) registering 7 million, mostly chavista, voters to a roster of 11 million in 11 years. Critics claim that many of these newly registered voters are dead or never existed. With paranoia running high, there are even claims that some of them are terrorists from FARC or Hezbollah, given refuge by Chávez. What is clear is that Chávez has flouted campaign laws by using public funds to favor the PSUV, such as by forcing all nine national TV networks and their 159 affiliates to broadcast at least four hours a day of Chávez speeches. On top of all this is Chavez’s intimidation of his opponents, but Arria gave no signs of concern.
Traveling from New York by way of South Florida, Arria was recognized by supporters at La Guardia and Miami airports. “You are a hero and a symbol, my brother,” said one of his fans. “If there’s trouble,” a woman in a pink shirt told him as we boarded the second flight, “my friends and I will surround you. We won’t let you be arrested.” Waiting in line at Caracas’s Simón Bolívar International Airport, someone ahead of me turned excitedly and asked: “Is that Diego Arria? It looks like Diego Arria.” I shrugged my shoulders in feigned ignorance and looked away while I watched him be interrogated by the immigration agent who finally allowed him into the country. Thankfully, he got to hold on to his laptop and phone, but a day later Arria caught a government intelligence officer outside his home.
After Chávez confiscated his property, Arria started Rescatando a Venezuela (Rescuing Venezuela), a group of Venezuelans who are trying to get their case heard in The Hague. Arria was a former witness against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and knows what it will take to get Chavez charged with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. Arria’s Exhibit A is incitement to violence. Chávez rants almost daily on TV about obliterating the bourgeoisie. The result is that parts of the Venezuelan underclass look at sections of Caracas and the countryside as “enemy territory.” The violence has led to more than 120,000 killed over the last 11 years, numbers tantamount to civil war in a country of 25 million. “I always compare [Chávez] to the Rwandan Milles Colines case,” Arria told me. “The Milles Colines people would broadcast to incite the Hutus to kill the Tutsis. We are the Tutsis here.”
On Election Day, I sat on a shady stoop in La Castellana, in eastern Caracas, as voters emerged from the polling place with their right pinkies dipped in the purple ink that indicated they had voted, the same mark that U.S. authorities used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within arm’s reach of the young soldier guarding the entry, I noticed his shiny boots didn’t look as if they had seen much mud or rural military action.
“Are you based in Caracas?” I asked.
“Yes, Fuerte Tiuna,” he said, referring to the famous military fort where Chávez was held prisoner during an ill-advised forty-eight-hour coup against him during Easter 2002.
“Have you voted already?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I don’t really care about any of them. I don’t have any views. I’ve never voted.”
“You should,” I answered. “You’ve vowed to risk your life for your country; you should care who commands you, who controls your life. You’ve certainly earned the privilege.”
He shrugged his shoulders. He had never thought about it but seemed flattered I had.
“Do you have brothers and sisters?” I asked him.
“Two brothers,” he answered. “Seventeen and fifteen. I’m twenty. It’s important to have brothers. Simón Bolívar had brothers,” he said, tapping into the mythic stature of the liberator that Chávez has exploited to feed his eponymous Bolivarian Revolution.
“They must look up to you,” I said. “Do you want them to be soldiers, too?”
“Not really. I want them to have a better life.”
Back home that evening in Caracas, we gathered around a large television to await the results on Globovisión, the twenty-four-hour news channel most critical of Chávez. However, in contrast to the U.S., politicians and broadcasters are not allowed to conduct exit polls or predict outcomes, but must await the CNE’s official announcement. That was expected to come around 9 p.m., but it wasn’t until 2 a.m. that the official results were announced, in a very glum and muted tone. Diego Arria had been right: The people had spoken and a majority of them wanted Chávez’s PSUV party out of the National Assembly.
Parties opposed to Chávez, won 51.88 percent of the vote. But because of the electoral law, this majority translated into only 40.61 percent of the National Assembly seats, or 67 to the PSUV’s 98 seats. Nonetheless, the result puts new obstacles before Chávez. Without controlling two thirds of the National Assembly, the PSUV cannot modify the constitution as it has in the past. Even worse from Chávez’s perspective is that the election left him one seat shy of the three-fifths supermajority needed to renew the “enabling law,” or “Ley Habilitante,” that gives the president the right to rule by decree, a power Chávez will retain until the new legislature is sworn in January 5.
One week after the election, Pablo Pérez Álvarez, the governor of Zulia, the state encompassing Lake Maracaibo, where most of Venezuela’s oilrigs are located, said that the election of 12 candidates from the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) was a victory against “official favoritism.” Chavez and the PSUV “gave away money, washers, dryers; they wanted to buy people with handouts, but we won the people’s trust with our campaign and our propositions,” he told a reporter from El Universal. Nevertheless, Álvarez explained, the opposition would go to the National Assembly to work with its rivals, not fight with them, and would debate all issues “with tolerance, respect and dialogue.”
Indeed, the PSUV now has no choice but to work together with their rivals, just like in a real democracy. Without a controlling two-thirds, Chávez and his allies can no longer appoint Supreme Court judges, the attorney general, the public defender, the comptroller general, or CNE members without reaching consensus with their governing partners.
One of the key opposition triumphs was Maria Corina Machado’s landslide victory in Altamira, a neighborhood that is an opposition stronghold in the district of Chacao. Machado won more votes than any other candidate in the country: 235,259, or 85.28 percent of her district. When I arrived at her campaign headquarters— a typical family home refitted with conference rooms and a set for television interviews—for a post-election interview, she greeted me warmly.
Machado is the progeny of a long line of Venezuelan industrialists (her father and my grandfather were close friends and business associates), whose most notable business is Sivensa, a steel and auto-parts manufacturer. Politics is a career path typically disdained by the Venezuelan upper-class, and this privileged mother of three came to it slowly, when in 1992 she started to manage a community project, a center for underprivileged and abused children, funded by her family’s corporation. In eight years, she converted what she calls “a prison for children” into a reintegration project with a school, providing delinquent or at-risk children with the emotional and educational support to become productive members of their communities. “There’s one child who didn’t know how to read and write and now plays violin in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,” Machado said.
In 2002 Machado became concerned about social and political tensions and realized that in the newly-passed constitution there was a clause that allowed for popular consultation, so along with Alejandro Plaz she co-founded Súmate, “Join Up,” an election-monitoring NGO. In its first year Súmate went from 5 friends to 50,000 volunteers, and Machado’s growing reputation eventually won her an invitation to the Bush White House. After a semester as a Yale World Fellow in 2009 she became convinced that she needed to go back to her country and strengthen governmental institutions and launch herself as a candidate for the National Assembly.
Like Arria, Machado sees the rising crime rate, the collapse of rule of law, the ad hoc nationalizations, the crumbling infrastructure and economy, and the relentless intimidation, as all part of an overarching model designed to infantilize the Venezuelan people into a paternalistic system that keeps Chávez in power.
“I feel that President Chávez seeks to create a society that is entirely dependent on the state,” Machado told me. “From day one, he has undermined every single institution that could function as a counterweight to that power,” including political parties, labor unions, the armed forces, the judicial system, the legislative system, and the media. “There’s a big difference between being able to say something and being able to say it without being afraid,” said Machado. RCTV (the country’s oldest television network and the one with the largest audience) was closed twice and thirty-two other broadcasters were closed last year. “There is now a high dose of self-censorship, so he doesn’t have to censor people anymore, they censor themselves.”
Machado says that Chávez’s expropriations of land, broadcast on his weekly TV show, Aló, Presidente, are hypocritical. “The Venezuelan government is the country’s main landowner. The Venezuelan state has millions of hectares, yet they have decided to take land away from the private sector —and not because they’re not paid. They’re simply appropriated.” Chávez has taken away more than 3.5 million hectares, even small farms of 50 hectares, not just ‘oligarchic’ latifundios. “Of those fewer than 100,000 hectares are productive. This is not contradictory; it is completely consistent as a model: They want to eliminate everything that can generate autonomy, critical thinking, that allows people to demand. These models want dependent societies. That’s why when people say ‘Chávez loves the poor,’ I say, ‘Yes, he needs them poor. He wants them dependent.’”
“When Chávez arrived in 1998,” Machado continued, “he represented inclusion, security, and punishment for the guilty – in other words, an end to corruption. But by any standard, this has become one of the most corrupt countries in the world. And people see it. In the poorer areas, people see the neighbors they play dominoes with now driving a huge SUV. This is a country where if you are not on the government’s side, you don’t exist. This applies even in the communal councils: they don’t give you the money if you are not unconditionally pro-Chávez. Also, from the point of view of security, we have become the most violent country in Latin America and one of the most violent in the world. So people feel betrayed. The President had a deeply attractive rhetoric and a very deep emotional connection. But after 11 years of government and $900 billion, people are saying ‘You’re the past. I don’t trust you anymore. Don’t lie to me anymore.’”
As a result of the elections, Venezuela is undergoing a profound change, and perhaps hope as well. “I’m very optimistic about the future of our country,” says Machado. “The problems of Venezuela will be resolved by Venezuelans. We know what our problems are and we have the talent, capacity and will fix them.”
“There is an emerging leader class, people like myself who grew up with a mistrust and disdain for politicians and today I have a deep admiration and respect for politicians. At the end of this transitional stage, we will be a better society and better people. We want a society where pluralism, integrity, responsibility, justice and liberty, solidarity prevail. Those are the values that define us as Venezuelans and that we are committed to building.”
Ojalá, as we say in Venezuela. May it be so.
Vanessa Neumann is an associate of the University Seminar on Latin America at Columbia University and editor-at-large of Diplomat magazine.