Chavez jockeys to retain power


Venezuela: The arrest of a district mayor illustrates how the president is maneuvering to win a recall referendum scheduled for Sunday.

August 11, 2004|By Jonathan E. Kaplan | Jonathan E. Kaplan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CARACAS, Venezuela -- As mayor of Baruta, a wealthy district of Caracas, Henrique Capriles Radonski used to be known as much for his pop star girlfriend as for his administrative competence. When President Hugo Chavez jailed him in April for his alleged role in street protests, Capriles was transformed into a national political figure.

How this 32-year-old mayor of one of Caracas' five municipalities and former speaker of the Venezuelan Congress ended up in jail is emblematic of the extent to which Chavez has used the justice system to retain his hold on power and to prepare for a referendum scheduled for Sunday on whether he should be recalled from office.

Venezuela was once one of South America's most stable democratic countries, but its political framework fell apart in 1989 when the government imposed austerity measures, sparking riots that led to 1,000 deaths. In 1992 Chavez, then an Army paratrooper, led a violent but failed coup, an action for which he was jailed.

When Chavez campaigned for president in 1998, he pledged that the poor would play a key role in his government.

After winning, Chavez consolidated his power by revising the Constitution to lengthen the president's term in office to six years from five, abolish one house of the legislature and alter the membership of Supreme Court. In 2000, he was re-elected with 60 percent of the vote.

But instead of creating a more responsive, open democracy, Chavez created a political system that seems designed to benefit his supporters most and to deny power to his opponents.

"It is a winner-take-all, zero-sum-game political system," says Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group, a Washington-based think tank.

"That's the way it's seen over the last five years; it's in that context that you get whoever is challenging a policy is challenging the system. You're no longer an opponent with different views, you're a traitor trying to reinstall the old corrupt system."

Worship of the strong

In an e-mail from jail, Capriles wrote: "It's incredible what's happened to Venezuela. To change that and other things, that's why I am in politics. ... Venezuelans must stop being a country that worships strong, charismatic politicians."

On April 11, 2002, Chavez's opponents marched to the presidential palace, and the military urged Chavez to resign from office. Three days later, loyal troops reinstated him as president.

Strikes and votes

In December 2002, the opposition parties supported general strikes that plunged the economy deeper into recession. That was followed by an effort to remove Chavez from office through the ballot box. His opponents collected 3.4 million signatures on petitions that, after numerous court challenges, led to the vote set for Sunday, though polls show Chavez gaining support.

Capriles was jailed because of actions in April 2002, the day after it seemed Chavez had been forced from office.

On April 12, 2002, mobs marched the streets and headed to the Cuban Embassy in Baruta. Government officials were thought to be hiding in the Embassy. The crowd threw stones, trashed cars and cut off the Embassy's electricity and water.

Capriles' lawyers say television video shows that Capriles tried to calm the crowd and sought to guarantee the Cuban ambassador's safety.

But supporters of Chavez say the tape shows that Capriles did nothing to prevent the rioting and ordered the Baruta municipal police to do nothing. The video shows Capriles asking the Cuban ambassador if he was hiding Venezuelan government officials.

Message in church

The government first accused Capriles of leading the demonstration but did not formally charge him.

This April, he was in church when he received an e-mail saying that the government had decided to arrest him. He went into hiding for 17 days, until the government listed the charges, including damaging private property, attempting to attack a head of state and abuse of authority.

80 days in custody

He was jailed after a brief court appearance; he has remained in custody more than 80 days but, after appearances before 14 judges, has not yet been declared innocent or guilty on any of the charges.

"Given the delaying tactics, the changes in judges without anyone really proceeding to deal with the case in a serious manner, I think he has become a political prisoner," said Enrique ter Horst, a Venezuelan who is Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In the six years he has held elective office, first as speaker of the former Venezuelan Congress and now as mayor, Capriles has also been in a relationship with Erika de la Vega, the host of Venezuela's version of American Idol.

When Capriles' political party, Justice First, organized a rock concert to benefit political prisoners this month, 30,000 people came to hear Malanga, a popular Venezuelan rock group, and to see de la Vega.

Venezuela's domestic intelligence agency is holding Capriles at a prison known as the Helicoide, rising above a highway overpass. He lives in a barred room with a table, a bed and books. There's a community bathroom and shower, and he is allowed to go outside for 30 to 60 minutes a day.

Family's support

On Sunday, while thousands of Chavez's supporters marched in Caracas, Capriles' mother dropped off at the prison some food and cans of Coke and Red Bull.

Capriles' father, a semi-retired industrialist, seethes with frustration; Capriles' mother has become a one-person public relations operation on her son's behalf.

"Our life changed completely," said Monica Capriles. "Sunday family lunches were a tradition, and now I am running around trying to get my son's story out. ... Sometimes I cry, sometimes I am depressed."

Capriles hopes that Chavez will lose the vote Sunday. "It seems when a regime falls," he said in an e-mail, "political prisoners are always released."

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