In Venezuela, Locking Up the Vote

Henrique Capriles's case was dismissed and then reappeared last year.
Henrique Capriles's case was dismissed and then reappeared last year. (2004 Photo By Globovision Via Associated Press)
By Jackson Diehl
Monday, April 10, 2006

Hugo Chavez, who is up for reelection 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, Chavez 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 Sumate, which has meticulously documented Chavez'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; Maria 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 Chavez'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 young opposition mayor in Caracas and the leader of the only political party to nominate a candidate against Chavez. Like Sumate'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 Chavez tightened his control over the judiciary. His trial is now due to begin by early May.

But unlike Sumate'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 Chavez'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 Chavez'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 Chavez 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 Sanchez Otero. He delivered a speech urging the crowd to disperse. Sanchez 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 that Sanchez, 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 Chavez 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 Chavez replaced. He is popular, having won 80 percent of the vote in his district of half a 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 Chavez in December's election.

Contrary to his own propaganda, Chavez 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. Chavez 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.

"Chavez wants the world to think his only opposition is Bush," says Capriles. "But that's not true. There are lots of people in Venezuela who think differently from Chavez. 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.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company