Venezuela's Test Case

Thursday, June 29, 2006

IS HUGO CHAVEZ a legitimate democratic politician -- even if one hostile to the United States -- or a despot-in-the-making who slowly is imposing on Venezuela the totalitarian principles of his closest ally, Fidel Castro? With a presidential election due in a few months that could extend Mr. Chavez's tenure for another six years, the answer to this question is hotly debated in and outside his oil-rich country -- which is why a trial underway in Caracas is worth watching. It features an allegedly aggrieved Cuban ambassador, a charismatic opponent of Mr. Chavez and a tangled record of justice that looks a lot like the calculated suppression of dissent familiar in Havana.

The defendant is Henrique Capriles Radonski, the 33-year-old mayor of the Baruta district of Caracas, a founder of the first opposition party to nominate a challenger to Mr. Chavez this year and one of the most promising young Venezuelan politicians. In April 2002, Mr. Capriles was called to the Cuban Embassy, which had been besieged by a hostile crowd during a short-lived coup against Mr. Chavez. Invited into the embassy by the ambassador, Mr. Capriles talked with him briefly, then emerged to call on the crowd to disperse. Meanwhile, a European diplomat phoned the embassy to offer help. The Cuban envoy, German Sanchez Otero, assured him that he and Mr. Capriles were conversing and that "there's no conflict, absolutely no conflict."

All of this was captured on videotapes that are in the hands of the Venezuelan government and readily available on the Internet. Nevertheless, two years after the incident Mr. Capriles was charged by Mr. Chavez's chief prosecutor for allegedly leading an assault on the embassy. He spent four months in jail before the charges were thrown out by an appeals court. The case seemed to be over -- but then a few months later, the charges were revived. Mr. Capriles's trial is now underway, before the 24th judge to hear the case.

Instead of working with centrist candidate Julio Borges to defeat Mr. Chavez in the upcoming election, Mr. Capriles is fighting to avoid a prison sentence. "Being Venezuelan," he said in an opening statement to the court last week, "can't be . . . a condition in which the state destroys those who don't think the same way as the government in power. I don't share in any way the course our country is following. President Chavez knows that."

"In this trial an essential question for the future of Venezuela will be answered: Is our justice system independent of Cuban pressure? Are our judges free from official pressure?" Mr. Capriles said. "If I am convicted, it will be possible to convict any citizen who doesn't agree with the regime." It will also be a lot easier for Mr. Chavez to win what is supposed to be a free and fair vote.

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