A democratic test for Venezuela

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, December 20, 2010

A new Venezuelan congress is due to take office in January in which opposition representation will rise from virtually zero to nearly 40 percent. A presidential election is scheduled in two years, and with the country suffering from one of the worst economic crises and highest murder rates in the world, the chances that Hugo Chavez would win a free and fair vote are not looking good.

So it is no surprise to anyone in Venezuela that its self-styled "Bolivarian" caudillo has set out to finish installing his "21st-century socialism" before he runs out of time. Last week the lame-duck, rubber-stamp National Assembly granted Chavez the power to rule by decree for the next 18 months. It also prepared new laws that could force the closure of the last television network sympathetic to the opposition, and subject the Internet and even mobile messages to a ban on any speech that would "foment anxiety" or "ignore the authorities." Internet traffic would be routed through a central node controlled by the state, as in China, Iran and Cuba.

Leopoldo Lopez, who may be Chavez's most formidable political challenger, acknowledges that for observers outside Venezuela, this raises an obvious question: "Given all this, is it possible that in 2012 a change in government can happen by democratic means?"

His answer is just as forthright: "Not only is the answer 'yes,' but today we are in the best circumstances in the last 12 years to carry out this change."

The declaration by this charismatic, 39-year-old former Caracas district mayor is brassy for a couple of reasons. First, Chavez - who controls the courts, the electoral council and all of the broadcast media save that last network - won't hesitate to tilt the election heavily in his favor. In the more recent election, for congress in September, his party received less than half of the national vote but still wound up with 99 of 165 seats because of pre-election gerrymandering.

Second, Lopez himself has already been a victim of the regime's manipulations. Heavily favored to win a gubernatorial election in Caracas two years ago, he was banned from the ballot - along with hundreds of other opposition candidates - by government fiat. This was a violation of the Venezuelan constitution and the Inter-American Democratic charter, which say that citizens cannot be stripped of political rights unless they are convicted of a crime. But Lopez remained off the ballot - and has been prohibited from running for office until after the next presidential election.

He is nevertheless upbeat. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a body that Venezuela is bound by its constitution to respect, is due to hear his case early next year; it is likely to rule the political ban illegal. More important, Lopez says, the elements of a force capable of unseating Chavez are converging. First is a national majority willing to vote against him, as shown by the last election. Second is the coalescence of a consensus among the opposition about how an alternative presidential candidate and platform can be chosen.

"There is broad agreement that we will decide through a national primary in which every Venezuelan has the right to vote," Lopez told me during a visit to Washington last week. "You will see four to five million people participating in a primary process, and they will choose a presidential candidate."

That is a formula that could favor Lopez, a telegenic graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard's Kennedy School who embraces the center-left agenda that has proven a winning formula in much of Latin America. He has formed a grass-roots movement, called Popular Will, that has some 50,000 members. He talks of fighting poverty and preserving some of Chavez's programs in health and education, while restoring civic and political freedoms, and steering the economy off its disastrous course toward the ruin of Cuba and North Korea.

Success as he describes it will simply be a matter of hard work by the anti-Chavez forces. "For too long the opposition has been in the position of passively criticizing," he said. "Now we have to spend 90 percent of our efforts on organizing this new majority - in student movements, in unions, in business associations and in neighborhoods."

The opposition will, however, need help. Venezuela's 2012 election will be crucial for its future and that of the region. But it will not be free and fair unless there is concerted international pressure on Chavez to lift the bans on candidates, allow independent media and admit international observers.

I asked Lopez if he thought the Obama administration was focused on a democratic transition in Venezuela. "I don't see a clear policy," he answered. "On issues like human rights and the loss of ground for democracy, I don't see much." That will have to change if Lopez's optimism is to prevail.

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