Venezuela's Determined Voice of Dissent
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Days after President Hugo Chávez won a referendum to eliminate term limits, Congressman Juan José Molina stood up in the National Assembly and called the victory "a major fraud" made possible by weak institutions and a populace manipulated by an omnipresent government.
As is often the case when Molina takes the podium, his colleagues -- all but a handful devoted to Chávez -- tried to shut him down with a flurry of catcalls. "We will not let ourselves be duped by hired guns," thundered one of them, Carlos Escarra, in the session last week. And so it was, as one after another lawmaker labeled Molina and others in his party liars and traitors to the fatherland.
But Molina and his political party, Podemos, which has seven seats in the Assembly, celebrated the moment as a chance to speak out at a time when that is an increasingly trying proposition. Indeed, in a government in which subservience to Chávez is requisite, it is only in the 167-member National Assembly that the president and his supporters face voices of dissent on his measures and decrees.
"We are seven deputies, representing millions of Venezuelans," said Molina, 53. "From 2007 we have occupied this space -- not to get rid of Chávez, not to throw him out or see him die. Ours is a defense of democracy. And so we criticize."
As Chávez begins his second decade in power -- the referendum he won Feb. 15 means he can run for a third six-year term in 2012 -- the state he runs is a mix of socialism and capitalism, democracy and autocracy. There are elections and an active, if threatened, press. The masses revere Chávez and his generous social programs.
But Venezuela is also a country with indisputable similarities to some of the more unsavory systems of the 20th century. Its leader holds an almost cultlike status among followers, from ordinary Venezuelans to government ministers and lawmakers. Increasingly, many view his every word as gospel, his dictums to be obediently followed. Five state television stations regularly carry his speeches, rallies and frequent trips to the hinterlands.
Over the past decade, Chávez has taken control of the Supreme Court, the lower courts, the state oil company, the armed forces, and all investigative and oversight agencies, including the attorney general's office. The National Assembly is also under Chávez's control, because opposition politicians boycotted elections in 2005 and promptly lost every seat -- a costly blunder those government foes publicly lament.
Podemos is trying to carve out space for itself within often-limiting, even hostile confines. Podemos, which means "We Can," was once a stalwart Chávez supporter but broke with him in 2007 as he pushed to fold pro-Chávez parties into one movement, the United Socialist Party. Five other lawmakers have since separated from the government bloc, joining Podemos congressmen in opposing Chávez.
"They left the oasis of the government to embark on new terrain -- arid, rocky, hard," said Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerrilla and newspaper editor critical of Chávez. "That is the opposition."
Podemos members have been accosted by pro-Chávez activists outside the National Assembly, forcing palace guards to protect them. When Podemos lawmakers raise concerns about policies that Chávez considers sacrosanct, they are ruled out of order or their speeches are drowned out by their foes.
The government's supporters also call Podemos members tools of Venezuela's "oligarchy" and the imperialists in Washington, even though the party is center-left and its members consider themselves revolutionaries committed to progressive causes.
"They do not have a vision of respecting the positions of their adversaries but of asphyxiating the opposition," said Ismael García, 54, a Podemos founder whose history in leftist politics dates to the early 1970s.