From the WSJ: A Caracas Mayor pays dearly for opposing Chavez

June 27, 2004

Usually, if Daniel or Caracas Chronicles has an article that I was planning to post, I don’t since I am aware that our readerships overlap strongly. However, I was planning to post this article from the Wall Street Journal on Friday, which was also posted today in Caracas Chronicles. The article is too popwerful to pass up and it has to be part of the record of ths miserable administration:

A Caracas Mayor Pays
Dearly for Opposing Chavez

June 25, 2004; Page A11


Pastoral work has taken me to many prisons over the years. But none has left an impression quite like the one I visited here on June 13.

Residents call it the Helicoide, or the Helix in English, because of its twisting, maze-like structure. It looks like New York‘s Guggenheim Museum but more brittle and fractured. Filled with criminals and political prisoners, and serving as the headquarters of the secret police, it is located in the center of the capital, in the Libertador district of Caracas, an urban jungle with five mayors for its 5 million residents.

One of those mayors, Henrique Capriles, is currently serving time here for “public intimidation,” “abuse of power,” and other such trumped up political accusations following a protest in front of the Cuban Embassy in 2002. He has not been charged with a crime, and has been denied bail. A kept court upheld his detention last month.

Everyone here, however, understands that Mr. Capriles is being jailed for political reasons. He is a well-known opponent of President Hugo Chavez and his regime, which is notorious throughout the region for its dangerous blend of political populism, domestic socialism, and protectionist and nationalist foreign relations. To defend it all Mr. Chavez has militarized the civilian government.

Because I was here to address a conference on globalization, and Mr. Capriles’ case interests me, I was hopeful of visiting him. In a Catholic country where the Church is still held in high esteem, in part for its heroic resistance to the Chavez regime, it may have been my Roman collar that gained me entrance. Deep within the Helicoide, I found a pleasant, intelligent and affable young man who emanates a sense of inner strength.

These days Mr. Capriles sports a beard, which symbolizes his protest of the detention. He is the youngest man ever to be elected to Venezuela‘s Congress, and his political experience, including a stint as speaker of the House, predates the present regime of Castro-wannabe Chavez. Mr. Capriles was active in the formation of a new party, Primero Justicia (Justice First), which is trying to form a new political consensus here. He describes himself as a moderate and jokes that his friends say that he is sometimes too progressive.

Neither Mr. Capriles, who holds two law degrees, nor his lawyers fully understand the detention order against him. The authorities claim that he was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Fidel Castro. The incident at the root of this claim is caught on film. It shows the mayor calming an agitated crowd that had surrounded the Cuban Embassy, located in his district, to protest against Cuba‘s influence in Venezuela. At the time, the Cuban ambassador thanked Mr. Capriles on television for his efforts. Nevertheless, the videotape showing the protest is the main evidence against him.

Sitting in a small visiting room on a ripped car seat that serves as a couch, one of my companions examines the walls and furnishings and Mr. Capriles gives a wide grin and says, yes, there are microphones everywhere. This should come as no surprise in a building built in the 1950s by dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez and now home to the secret police.

Mr. Chavez paints Mr. Capriles as a radical oligarch who “works for the empire.” Such rhetoric is in style these days. Returning from the prison, we listened to Mr. Chavez booming on the radio. Like his idol Castro, he is given to marathon speech making. Attacking the upcoming referendum on his rule, he asserts that the battle is not against the “white oligarchy” of Venezuela. Instead it is against one enemy alone: George W. Bush! Thunderous applause follows.

If Mr. Chavez thought Mr. Capriles would retreat, he was mistaken; the prisoner remains optimistic both for his case and for his country. When I ask what sustains him, Mr. Capriles, whose grandmother was Jewish, fingers the rosary he wears around his neck and says, “You know, I am a third generation immigrant. My grandmother spent 26 months in the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazis. I have only been here 33 days. By comparison, this is nothing.”

The real issue, he says, is judicial power. Without a strong and independent judiciary, there can be no freedom or stable democracy. Indeed, Human Rights Watch recently issued a 24-page report highlighting recent attempts to stack Venezuela‘s Supreme Court in anticipation of a referendum loss by the government.

This is my third visit to Venezuela, the first under Mr. Chavez. The change is notable. The streets are more violent and the entire atmosphere is politically charged — with neighborhoods maintaining their own independent police forces. The government news channel broadcasts Cuban cartoons telling stories about what happens to those who betray the Revolution. As in Nicaragua, the literacy programs organized by Cuban “advisers” are thoroughly politicized.

In my conversations with a wide variety of Venezuelans — priests and porters, blue-collar workers and journalists — it appears that everyone’s focus is on the Aug. 15 recall referendum. There is a general sense that Mr. Chavez will try anything to remain in power, including imposing martial law to prevent the referendum. Another concern is the vulnerability of voting machines to tampering. (The company that has the service contract for them is partly owned by the Chavez government.)

A venerable former government minister, the oldest living member of Venezuela‘s first democratic government, told me that fraud is the main concern. Unless international organizations are watchful, it is likely Mr. Chavez will steal the referendum votes, and there is already talk from Chavistas of banning international observers.

In many ways, the case of Henrique Capriles symbolizes both the sadness and the hope that is Venezuela‘s. The sadness is that the best and brightest people in this nation should find themselves in this situation. The hope is that even people like Henrique Capriles are optimistic for the future of their country.

Father Sirico is president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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