Challenging Chavez's grip on Venezuela

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, July 12, 2010

During one of his interminable appearances on national television, Hugo Chávez demanded to know last month why Guillermo Zuloaga, the majority owner of Venezuela's last opposition television station, was not in jail. "How is it possible that he can accuse me of such things and walk free?" the strongman demanded.

The answer is fairly simple: Zuloaga's statements about Chávez were hardly criminal, and years of government investigations had turned up nothing else prosecutors could plausibly use against him. But that, of course, was not the response of Chavez's henchmen. Within days of the broadcast, an investigation against the businessman that had been abandoned was reopened; charges were filed. On June 11, a judge ordered Zuloaga arrested and confined to one of the country's high-security prisons.

By then, the 67-year-old owner of Globovision, an all-news channel that is now the only alternative in Venezuela to government propaganda, was no longer in the country. Like Globovision's minority owner, another businessman whose bank was taken over by the government three days after the arrest warrant, Zuloaga sought refuge in the United States. Last week he and his son, whose arrest was also ordered, were in Washington, where they were considering making a request for asylum.

"It never crossed my mind that I would be forced to live someplace besides Venezuela," Zuloaga told me in an interview. "But I can't be of much help to anyone if I am in a high-security prison. And I think it's public knowledge that all of the institutions of justice in Venezuela are controlled by the president."

Zuloaga's own cases offers vivid proof of that. Judges who have dared to rule in his favor have been summarily fired; charges have been blatantly concocted to serve Chávez's whim. The case that forced him into exile concerns not the criticism the caudillo complained of but a claim that the broadcaster, who also owns a car dealership, was guilty of "hoarding" his inventory -- a charge so ludicrous that Chávez's own attorney general had dropped it, before scrambling to revive it after the televised diktat.

The attack on Globovision betrays Chávez's desperation. Alone in Latin America, Venezuela's economy continues to plunge sharply downward; inflation is at 30 percent; violent crime is soaring. Zuloaga's journalists have devoted much of their attention in recent weeks to a scandal concerning the spoilage of tens of thousands of tons of food imported by the regime -- at a time when shortages of basic goods are widespread.

Worst of all for Chávez, an election -- for the National Assembly -- is scheduled for Sept. 26. Five years ago a foolish opposition boycott turned the congress into a rubber stamp for Chávez. This year, having hammered together a unity list, the anti-Chávez forces think they could win a majority of the seats. That's certainly what polls show. The outstanding question is what the government will do -- beyond a district gerrymander that has already been imposed -- to skew or steal the election.

Silencing Globovision appears to be the beginning of Chávez's answer. "Legally there is no way the government can close Globovision," Zuloaga said. "But that doesn't mean there won't be an arbitrary decision. Chávez has been trying in any way he can to control the screens of Globovision. They want to inspire fear more than they want to win votes, because they know they have run out of money to buy votes with."

The crackdown is not without risk. Globovision, seen in more than 2 million Venezuelan homes, is popular. The government's shutdown of another opposition broadcaster, RCTV, in 2007 provoked nationwide demonstrations and gave birth to an opposition student movement. Already, the arrest order against Zuloaga has caused considerable international condemnation, including from the U.N. rapporteur on free expression and the State Department, which called it "the latest example of the government of Venezuela's continuing assault on the freedom of the press."

Zuloaga says Globovision will go on, "as if we are going to be on the air forever." He, meanwhile, will hope that Chávez cannot do the same. "I really believe what is happening in Venezuela is unsustainable," he said. "I don't think people can accept that the quality of life continues to do down the drain. How can that keep on happening?"

© 2010 The Washington Post Company