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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A trial was scheduled for early December, Machado said, and a judge, not a jury, would decide the case. Asingle mother of three facing a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison, she said she was trying not to think about the possibility of having to go to jail. “Our only hope is to continue to be visible,” she said. “If we lower our heads, if we stop working, if we stop denouncing, we’ll be hit harder. Our best defense to postpone or delay action against us is to work harder.”

Before becoming a political activist, Machado worked in the auto-parts firm where her father was an executive and helped run a foundation for street children. Driven by concern that Chávez was eroding democracy, she helped found Sumate in 2001. “We were half a dozen friends, all engineers, with no experience in politics. If we’d had experience,” she said, laughing, “we probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Their initial plan was to collect signatures to take advantage of a mechanism in Chávez’s new constitution allowing for the recall of public officials. But Sumate has also monitored polling places and has been auditing computerized voter registration lists.

Machado believes that Chávez is the consequence rather than the cause of Venezuela’s troubles. “It’s true that the rich ignored the poor,” she said. “Now people are saying, ‘I finally exist. President Chávez represents my dreams, my hopes.’ He’s an amazingly effective spokesperson. But we’re not in a race for popularity. We’re trying to show democracy is a system that gives you a better standard of living.”

Like so many others I interviewed, Machado seemed hopeful about what she described as a new self-confidence among Venezuelans. She argued that all the political turmoil had made people appreciate the importance of participating in politics themselves, of not relying on political parties to defend their rights. Yet the scene outside the Miraflores Palace a few hours after my visit to Sumate suggested that true empowerment will take some time.

Under a blazing midday sun a scraggly line of petitioners stretched up the block from the palace’s wrought-iron gates. Some said they’d been waiting as long as 15 days, sleeping in relatives’ homes or on the street. All were seeking Chávez’s personal attention. Flood victims wanted new homes; an unemployed police officer wanted her job back; an elderly woman wanted medicine. Bureaucracies had failed them, but as Sulay Suromi, a copper-haired woman with a black parasol who’d taken a bus three hours from her home in Carabobo state, told me, “Chávez is a man who sees people.”

“I’m 100 percent Chávista,” boasted Suromi, who was hoping to get title to a parcel of free land so she could build a tourist posada.

Just then a tall, balding man walked up from the end of the line and angrily declared: “This government doesn’t work! They’re not going to help you!”

Suromi and half a dozen other women shouted him down. “Of course they won’t help you—you’re useless!” yelled one.

“Go back home!” shouted another.

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