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Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan Election

8:00 AM, Oct 14, 2010 • By VANESSA NEUMANN
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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. 

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