Venezuela Steers a New Course

As oil profits fund a socialist revolution, President Hugo Chávez picks a fight with his country’s biggest customer the United States

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The laws are a “Damocles sword—we’re permanently threatened,” said Teodoro Petkoff. Aformer leftist guerrilla, he escaped from a high-security prison in the 1960s by faking a gastric ulcer; in the mid-1990s, he served as President Caldera’s minister of economic planning. Now a vigorous 73-year-old, he needles the government with his afternoon newspaper, TalCual (How It Is).

While no journalist has yet gone to jail, half a dozen have been accused of libel or other crimes under the new rules, Petkoff said, and others seem to be censoring themselves. He, too, has felt the heat—“Just yesterday, the attorney general called me a CIA tool,” he said, “which is ridiculous, since I am more against Bush than Chávez is”—yet he appears to have escaped serious persecution because of what he calls his “evenhandedness”: he criticized both the 2002 coup and the general strike, although he clearly is no fan of Chávez’s.

“I knew Chávez before he was president, and I never liked his authoritarianism, his undemocratic style,” Petkoff told me. But most offensive to him is what he says is a squandering of Venezuela’s oil wealth. “Obviously, one of the ways you have to spend it is in social programs to alleviate the poverty of the immense majority of the population,” he said. “But of course you have to spend it in an organized, audited way.”

As the presidential campaign takes shape, few Venezuelans expect opposition to Chávez to unite behind a strong candidate. Petkoff allowed that he was considering running himself, but suggested that would happen only if Chávez’s appeal begins to fade. “I’m not a kamikaze,” he said.

Lina Ron, a stocky, bleached-blonde firebrand, leads one of the so-called Bolívarian Circles, or militant citizens groups, sure to be supporting Chávez in the coming election. I met her at the leafy Plaza Bolívar, during a ceremony honoring the 438th anniversary of the founding of Caracas. Wearing a camouflage jacket, cap and khaki scarf, and surrounded by similarly outfitted women, she ascended a stage and threw her arms around a grinning minister of defense, Orlando Maniglia. Dozens of people then encircled her and followed as she moved through the plaza, trying to catch her attention, get her autograph, or beseech her for favors.

Ron made her way through streets crowded with kiosks selling T-shirts, buttons and keychains adorned with the faces of Che Guevara and Chávez, toward what she calls “the Bunker,” a warren of offices in a small plaza redolent of urine and garbage. “For the people, everything! For us, nothing!” she shouted to her admirers before slipping away.

Ron is a radio broadcaster and founder of the Venezuelan People’s Unity Party, which she says is made up of “radicals, hard-liners and men and women of violence.” In the chaos after the 2002 coup attempt, she led a mob that attacked an opposition march; dozens of people were hurt by gunfire, rocks and tear gas. Chávez has hailed her as “a female soldier who deserves the respect of all Venezuelans” but also once called her “uncontrollable.” While she holds no government title, ministries “channel resources through her,” said a woman who was taking calls for her at the Bunker.

Of late, Ron has focused her attention, and ire, on María Corina Machado, an industrial engineer who is vice president of the election monitoring group Sumate (Join Up), which supported the recall petition against Chávez in 2004. Machado and three other Sumate officials have been ordered to stand trial for treason for accepting $31,000 from the U.S. Congress-controlled National Endowment for Democracy to run voter education workshops before the referendum.

Machado, 37, says she is not seeking office, but the government evidently sees her potential appeal as a kind of Latin Lech Walesa in high-heeled sandals. Chávez has called her and the other defendants “traitors.” Ron has called her a “coup-plotter, fascist and terrorist.” When she met President Bush at the White House in May, it hardly eased the tension.

“The environment is totally scary,” Machado told me in flawless English. Sumate’s offices were crowded with computers and volunteers, and on Machado’s desk two cellphones and a Blackberry rang intermittently. She had posted a printed quotation ascribed to Winston Churchill: “Never give up! Never give up! Never, ever, give up!”

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