With the death of dictator Hugo Chavez, many people are hoping Venezeula will become both more free and less anti-American. Optimists note that Nicholas Maduro, his designated successor, lacks Chavez’s charisma and will have to face voters in snap election under Venezuela's constitution. Chavez won by only about 10 percentage points — his lowest margin yet — in last year’s election.
But Thor Halvorssen, a prominent Venezuelan human-rights advocate, isn’t optimistic. The head of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation, a group devoted to showcasing abuses by governments of all persuasions, Halvorssen says Venezuela is likely to get worse before it gets better.
“Chavez's death is not the end of an era but the start of an incalculable crisis given the mess he created and leaves behind: a nation with no rule of law, with drug kingpins running the army, former guerillas running the government, and a civil society that has been hollowed out by 14 years of non-stop harassment and persecution,” Halvorrsen told me yesterday in an interview from London.
“A presidential election must be held within 30 days if Chavez is gone,” he noted. “The regime is already preparing a false-reform ‘dawn’ that will try to bolster its chances. They will release all political prisoners, they will invite back some exiles, and they will loosen some controls. But in reality it will be all be for show.”
Halvorssen says the opposition to Chavez is still divided. Its candidate in last October’s presidential election, Henrique Capriles, lost to Chavez by ten points in a race that was largely free of fraud. “The machine also won 20 of the 23 governorships and further entrenced its ability to prevent the opposition from having enough resources to challenge the new President Maduro in an election,” Halvorssen says.
He is quick to say he hopes he is wrong. He has good reason to hate and fear the Chavez government: His own mother was shot and wounded by Venezuelan security forces in 2004 while attending a peaceful protest. The gunmen’s actions were broadcast on live television as they shot into the crowd, leaving twelve people wounded and one dead.
“Chavez’s henchmen are desperate to retain power after he’s gone and they have the example of Cuba in how power can be transferred from one leader [Fidel Castro] to another [Raúl Castro] without a revolt,” Halvorssen says. “Freedom will come to my country but I fear it will be less easy and take longer than many people hope.”
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