Winning Ugly in Venezuela

How Hugo Chávez is painting his opponent as a gay, Zionist Nazi out to destroy the country. 

CARACAS — Hugo Chávez does not filter his words. The Venezuelan strongman made headlines when he called former U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" at the United Nations, and when he claimed former Peruvian President Alan Garcia was a thief, an embarrassment, and a scoundrel. That trait has endeared him to many Venezuelans, who like their president's flamboyant, straight-talking ways. It could also prove to be his downfall in this year's presidential election, scheduled for Oct. 7.

In the two weeks since Chávez's opponent, state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, won the presidential primary on Feb. 12, Chávez, 57, has called him a pig, an American lackey, a bourgeois enemy of the revolution, and a mediocrity. Chávez has also been quick to warn the nation's poor that a Capriles victory would rob them of their gains under his tenure and lead to chaos, instability, and the possibility of coups and civil war.

The president's followers haven't been kinder. Venezuela's state television and radio personalities have insinuated that the unmarried Capriles, 39, is not only gay, but also part of both a Zionist conspiracy and a neo-Nazi sect.

Outlandish accusations and unfounded allegations are a fixture in Venezuela's political scene. What is different this time is Capriles's reaction. He has steadfastly laughed off the allegations made by Chávez and his surrogates, telling El Universal newspaper, "I'm not going to waste any energy on this when there are more important things to tackle." Pledging to run a campaign on issues, not personalities, he has never publically insulted Chávez.

And surprisingly -- unlike the first three presidential elections that Chávez easily won (1998, 2000, and 2006) -- Capriles, the popular governor of Miranda, Venezuela's second-most populous state, might actually win. "Chávez's strategists may have thought it would be good to move quickly in demeaning Capriles in order that the primary election was not used as a springboard for the opposition campaign," says Julia Buxton, a fellow at the University of Bradford in Britain. "But it is a reckless approach that may have the counter impact of presenting the opposition as a bastion of tolerance and liberalism."

Signs of a backlash have already emerged.

The Hinterlaces polling agency, one of the country's largest, showed Chávez at 55 percent, compared with the opposition's 44 percent in the week leading up to the primary. Flash polls taken after the primary showed a rapid narrowing of the gap.

"In the last presidential election, Chávez was untouchable, invulnerable," says Hinterlaces president Oscar Schemel. Not anymore. Since then, crime has soared. Power blackouts have increased in frequency, as have shortages of basic foodstuffs such as cooking oil, coffee, and corn meal. "Many Venezuelans are tired of government promises and its inability to address the country's problems," says Schemel.

The presidential primary -- the first of its kind in Venezuela -- galvanized the opposition, which has been buoyed by the turnout and the rapid closing of ranks among Capriles and his competitors. Prior to the Feb. 12 vote, Venezuela's presidential candidates were chosen by the party elites, often behind closed doors. This year, the country's opposition parties decided to hold a winner-take-all primary to determine their candidate.

In the run up to the primary, Chávez and his ministers repeatedly said the opposition would be lucky to draw more than 1 million voters. Instead, more than 3 million people (out of a total electorate of 18 million) voted for the opposition's presidential, gubernatorial, and mayoral candidates, surprising the government and leaving its followers grappling for an explanation.

The state television station, which had run misleading footage of empty polling precincts throughout the day, delayed announcing the results of the election. And when they did, moderators immediately charged that the turnout was exaggerated and mathematically impossible to achieve.

The higher-than-expected turnout also occurred despite government efforts to dampen participation. In the days before the primary, the government held special markets throughout the country selling hard-to-find products -- cooking oil, powdered milk, chicken -- at subsidized prices to the country's poor. Holders of government jobs were warned not to vote in the primary unless they wanted to lose their positions. The same message was passed to people enrolling in several new government programs for housing, old-age pensioners, and single mothers.

"I wanted to vote in the primary, but when I interviewed for a job at a state school, the principal told me that if I voted there was no way she could hire me," Alicia Reyes, a 39-year-old secretary, told me. "I need the job and decided not to vote. I will have to wait until October to vote against Chávez."

Many Venezuelans also feared that voting in the primary would form the basis for a new blacklist. Their fears aren't exaggerated. In 2003-2004, signers of a petition to recall Chávez found themselves penalized after their names were leaked to a pro-Chávez legislator, Luis Tascon. Tascon published the list, and hundreds, if not thousands, of signers lost their government jobs.

Even worse, Tascon's original list is still used by government agencies to vet potential employees eight years later. "I was told by my boss to hire an assistant," says an employee in the administrative department at the Supreme Court, who asked to remain anonymous. "I had someone in mind and I told my supervisor. She told me to go to her desk and pull out a diskette and see if my friend's name was on it. It was Tascon's list. His name was there. My supervisor told me to forget him, as there was no way we could hire him."

Besides challenging the veracity of the turnout figure, Chávez and his government have also publicly castigated the country's election agency for its handling of the primary. The agency, which is run by Chávez supporters, agreed to an opposition request to forego the use of fingerprint verification devices during the vote.

The agency also allowed the Coalition for Democratic Unity, which organized the vote, to burn its voter registration books two days after the primary to ensure that participants wouldn't be penalized for voting in the primary. Their destruction occurred in spite of the firmly pro-Chávez Supreme Court's edict ordering the books to be saved. "The government's bumbling response to the primary has hurt them," Schemel says. "Rather than proclaim the primary as a victory for the country's democracy, officials have attacked and ridiculed it, which has moved undecided voters to Capriles."

The question is why Chávez -- a master politician adept at manipulating the opposition -- has been outflanked by his opponents. "Crime, inflation, and shortages are cited as key weaknesses for Chávez going into this election," says Buxton.  "But the most significant impediment that he faces between now and victory in October is his health. And that remains an unknown."

The president had a cancerous tumor removed in July and underwent chemotherapy. Although he claimed to be cancer free after his treatment, he announced Tuesday that a small lesion had been found near his original tumor and that he would undergo additional surgery in Cuba. Chávez denied that his cancer had metastasized but said he would spend several weeks in Cuba, where he would also undergo radiation therapy.

The president has repeatedly refused to give more details about his cancer or his long-term prognosis, amid speculation that the disease could force him to withdraw from the race. Chávez seems to need to appear healthy and macho, and his name-calling struck some as overcompensating. His face remains bloated and swollen, and he sometimes seems less in command than he was before his illness.

That plays into Capriles's hands. An avid sportsman, Capriles radiates health and youth. And in appearance-obsessed Venezuela, that gives him an undeniable advantage, especially if Chávez's health worsens.

But Chávez is far from out. In the days after the primary vote, Chávez gave a number of speeches that by law must be carried by all of the country's radio and television stations. He can draw on the resources of the state to distribute largesse to the country's poor, who remain strongly pro-Chávez and who make up the bulk of voters. He can also pressure the electoral agency to rule against opposition campaign tactics or literature.

Chávez has said he will step down if he loses, but few believe him, and the armed forces have warned they will not accept an opposition victory. Things could get messy. But Chávez's resort to a smear campaign, and Capriles's handling of the attacks, have given the country's opposition hope that the president's Bolivarian Revolution may finally be running its course.


Democracy Lab

In Mexico, An Activist Says Her Farewells

For more than a decade, Norma Andrade has been working to defend Mexico’s women from violence. Now she’s decided to get out.

Eleven years ago, Norma Andrade's teenage daughter was kidnapped and killed in the border city of Juárez, Mexico, near the factory where she worked. Andrade says Lilia Alejandra's body was found in a vacant tract where a Costco and Home Depot have since been built, signposts of the city's industrial boom. Norma Andrade, who herself assembled televisions and computers for 17 years before becoming an elementary school teacher, tried in vain to get police to prosecute her daughter's killers and eventually became a prominent activist against femicide (the killing of women).

She's been roughed up by guards for local officials, received countless threats, and seen her colleagues injured, killed, or chased into asylum to the north. Her truck-driver husband died of cancer. Then, in December, she survived five gunshot wounds. This month she was slashed in the face. In what seems like an ominous verdict for Mexico, this scrappy woman now says she cannot safely return to her hometown. She's even considering leaving her country altogether.

The 51-year-old Andrade met with me in a Mexico City restaurant last week. A small bandage on her right cheek covered the knife wound from 10 days before. Her right hand was packed in a soft velcro cast, which she removed to show the scar from a bullet, and her left arm, partially paralyzed, was wrapped in a black sling. Her grandson, whom she adopted along with his sister after Lilia Alejandra's death, sat at another table with two bodyguards provided by the government of Mexico City, where Andrade is undergoing physical therapy. She's considering an offer of refuge in Spain, or might seek one in the United States. The thought of it suddenly fills her eyes with tears. "To have to leave my city, a whole life, like I'm a criminal, when I am not one...." she says, her voice trailing off. "But in reality, yes, I'm afraid."

The plight of activists like Andrade raises questions about Mexico's nascent democracy, bedeviled as it is by deepening violence. To be sure, not all the news is bad. The last decade has witnessed dramatic growth in Mexico's civil society. Newspapers rip into politicians daily, and there are countless groups watch-dogging transparency and corruption.

But activists say that the last year has been perilous. It's hard to confirm if it's worse than in the country's violent recent past, but a recent report by the National Center for Social Communication (CENCOS), an advocacy group, cited a "deterioration" in conditions and "evident ineffectiveness of institutions to impart justice." Their report counted 69 threats and attacks against activists. That appeared to be up from the 32 the group counted from April to December, 2010, when it started keeping track. The list includes 31 murders, up from just three in the period from April to December in 2010. Some activists simply disappeared. Drug gangs took credit for killing four people they accused of using social networks to inform on their activities. The Committee to Protect Journalists counted three reporters killed for reasons related to their work and four others killed out of unclear motives.

Juárez, a city of 1.3 million people across the narrow Rio Grande river from El Paso, Texas, has been the crucible of Mexico's lawlessness. A year ago, Human Rights Watch documented incidents of violence against activists in Chihuahua state, of which Juárez is a part. The organization singled out attacks on members of the grassroots organization Andrade co-founded (known as "May Our Daughters Return Home"). The report noted that arsonists set fire to the house belonging to Andrade's surviving daughter, who works with her group. This all comes as Mexico's military-led offensive against drug cartels enters its sixth year, ratcheting up the violence in a country already soaked in blood. One side effect: a growing number of complaints against the security forces themselves for killings, disappearances, and unjustified detentions.

Juárez became infamous in the late 1990s for the killing of women. Hundreds of young woman, many of them workers in the maquiladora factories that assemble goods for U.S. markets, started turning up dead. Numbers vary, but Andrade's group cites some 1,326 femicides since the early 1990s, though acknowledging that some of the more recent victims may have been simply caught up in the wave of gang violence. Women make up a fraction of the overall murders in Mexico, with perhaps 10 or 15 times as many men killed. But activists and academics say there are specific reasons why women so often become targets, including less official interest in prosecuting women's murderers.

Multiple theories swirl over the Juárez killings. Andrade said details of her daughter Lilia's murder, who was 17 at the time, resemble more than 180 others studied that showed signs of sexual abuse and torture. People speculate about a "snuff" film industry, human trafficking, and ritualistic gang initiations. In Andrade's case, she found out that someone had seen Lilia, disheveled and semi-nude, trying to escape from men in a car days after her kidnapping. Police were called but didn't arrive for two hours. Andrade believes she knows who killed her daughter and, though she won't identify them publicly, says she gave the information to the authorities years ago.

Andrade is careful not to speculate about why officials were so lax in their response. "Whoever is stealing our children, we don't know," she says carefully. "But the government permits it." She doubts whether it is all due to simple ignorance by police. She notes that U.S. experts have been training Mexican security forces for years. And the police often do make arrests in domestic violence cases in which the murderer is related to the victim. But Karla Micheel Salas, lawyer for Andrade's group, says that the few arrests in other cases, particularly when the victim is abducted by strangers, frequently appear to be shams or frame-ups. President Felipe Calderón maintains that his government is now taking unprecedented steps to vet and train new police, as well as regularly purging corrupt ones. But strong ties still exist between police and criminal gangs.

Deborah Weissman, a University of North Carolina law professor who has studied the murders of women in Juárez, says you can't just look at police methods. She stresses the economic and social upheaval that has torn away at the social fabric in Juárez over the past two decades. Long a getaway for U.S. honeymooners and tourists, Juárez became a factory center for products exported to the U.S., characterized by low wages and crowded living and working conditions. The population grew by some 50 percent in the 1990s alone. Andrade notes that most of the factory workers are women, a status that gives them money and power but has also deeply unsettled many of the community's tradition-bound men. Without a reliable safety net, it also meant that children were often left alone, prompting many of them to become foot soldiers in the drug-related mayhem that now overshadows the assaults on women. Andrade points out that most of the girls missing from Juárez since 2008 have never been found, leading her to believe they're being trafficked.

Mexico's democratic transition can't be ignored either. It was a positive development in 2000 when the hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party lost power for the first time in 71 years. But analysts say it may have also contributed to the explosion of crime by shaking up and dispersing the existing power structure. Andrade, for her part, sees democracy as a "smokescreen" that the powerful use to cover their old corrupt practices.

Andrade was walking to her car with her 12-old granddaughter on Dec. 2 when a man approached on foot, brandishing a pistol. She offered her purse and keys to the assailant, but he immediately opened fire from close range, hitting her in the hand, the chest, and the shoulder (three times), before fleeing without a word. Two weeks later state officials paid for her to fly to Mexico City for her own safety. On Feb. 3, a man approached from behind with a knife as she was about to enter her temporary home. As she tried to fight him off, he slashed her face and neck before fleeing. It was then that the city started providing her with guards. Both attackers are still at large. She says she doesn't know who's behind the attacks, wondering whether it could be related to her groups work on a human trafficking case last year. Amnesty International has called for her protection.

Andrade's worries now are practical. Over the years she's gotten degrees in teaching and law, but her poor English reduces her chances of finding a job in the United States. She wants to make sure she gets the social security due her for years of work in Mexico. And she wonders how her grandchildren would adjust to a move.

As for "May Our Daughters Return Home," Andrade firmly believes that her organization can carry on without her. It has, after all, continued its workshops to educate and support bereaved families even when other leaders were run out of town. And she's determined to stay involved from afar. But it's clearly a bad omen for her country when someone like Andrade feels that she has no choice but to flee. If activists are the canaries in the coal mine of Mexico's young democracy, the oxygen seems to be thinning.

Larry Kaplow