As a political analyst and democracy activist having worked all over the world, including South America, I have recently written a novel, "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio,” which mirror's life in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. As my novel hits the shelves, and in a clear case of art imitating life, in the run-up to Venezuela’s presidential elections the campaign has again turned violent.
Last Sunday in Barinas (a state in western Venezuela), a group of pro-Chavez and pro-Capriles marchers ran into each other. As the groups milled around, some conversing and some chanting slogans in support of their respective candidates, all of a sudden shots rang out. Ducking for cover, marchers from both sides ran from the confrontation that had all of a sudden turned deadly. In the aftermath of the violence, two opposition marchers lay dead on the streets, with another dying later at a local hospital. Chavez’ interior minister quickly announced the arrest of the attackers; claiming that they were not sympathizers of the government. Given the ideology of those who lay dead, his forceful assertions are risible.
This is not the first time in this campaign or indeed in the fourteen-year tenure of Hugo Chavez that the situation has turned violent. For President Chavez, violence is a means to an end. His speeches are famous for their angry, offensive insults launched against whoever has irked his ire that day. During this campaign, he is fond of saying that if he does not win another term (which would end with him in power for 20 years) there will be violence up to and including civil war. These threats (and acts) of violence are, of course, the last recourse of a spent regime. With levels of unemployment, food shortages, power outages and massive corruption at all-time highs, President Chavez cannot run on his record and his “pretty revolution” has reached its only possible result – so like any ordinary street thug he threatens people.
But like brutalized people the world over, there is a moment when they yell “enough.” Led by a young, exciting governor named Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Venezuelan people have responded. “Violence is the weapon of those who know they are wrong” the governor is fond of saying, to adulating cheers, as he campaigns up and down the narrow streets of Venezuela. “Because they don’t control the street anymore” says Capriles surrogate Leopoldo Lopez, “they resort to an agenda of violence.” This appears to be true.
Capriles and Chavez have many important differences. Chavez is known for his seven hour speeches; Capriles prefers to walk the streets and talk individually to people. Chavez is known for his promises; Capriles as both mayor and governor prefers to deliver. Chavez is hyper-partisan; Capriles is known for his conciliatory attitude. Chavez is a military man who once led an armed coup against the elected president; Capriles has cut his teeth inside Venezuela’s crumbling democratic institutions. Chavez believes in “Socialism of the 21st Century” (a watered down chaotic communism), while Capriles is a social democrat. Chavez – old, tired and sick – has lost three of the last four elections while Capriles – young and energetic – has never lost an election.
There are also some striking similarities. Capriles and Chavez both won their first elections in 1998 – Chavez as president in a top down approach to radical revolution; and Capriles as a congressman before becoming next a mayor then a governor. Capriles and Chavez have both been in jail – Chavez for leading an armed insurrection against the government and Capriles as a political prisoner of the Chavez regime. They are both adored by their partisans. And, according to the final polling (Venezuelan law requires a one week cooling off period for polling before an election) they are entering the election in a dead heat.
In my new novel “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio”, written about Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, I describe a country deeply divided upon political and ideological lines that frequently descends into violence.
“And in the mayhem, groups of revolutionaries—dangerous ones from deep in the barrios—were falling in impunity upon anybody they could find—old, young, boy, girl. The strongest, most capable students had their hands full rescuing the wounded from the battleground, carrying them back to the ambulances that were by now speeding back and forth between the march and the private clinics—the public hospitals had been told to refuse admittance to anybody not in a red shirt.”
While my book is a work of fiction, meant to educate through entertainment, the stakes in real life could not be higher for Venezuela going into this election. The people are being asked to choose not only between two individuals, but two radically different visions of a country. A liberal democracy, or a socialist state; a country where natural rights are vested in popular sovereignty or where the state awards them as part of a package of political patronage; or as Natan Sharanksy has so excellently put it in his book The Case for Democracy, the choice is between a free society or a fear society.
Joel D. Hirst is a political analyst and activist and author of the novel “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio."