June 30, 2006
MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
Henrique Capriles, a Caracas mayor, is one of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's worst nightmares. Forget about U.S. battleships in the Caribbean or discontent in the Venezuelan military. Mr. Capriles, whose only weapons in opposition to the national government are his ideas, symbolizes what Mr. Chávez really fears. So much so that the president is now trying to lock him up.
In 2004 Mr. Capriles spent four months in a Venezuelan jail even though no charges were brought against him at the time. Now he has been formally accused of an assault on the Cuban embassy, a charge so absurd that even Kafka wouldn't have tried to spin it in fiction. The case is supposed to go to trial today.
Mr. Capriles's real crime is that he is part of a young political movement that truly challenges Mr. Chávez. The story ought to be of interest to the Organization of American States, which has a democratic charter and is supposed to defend civil rights but so far has only watched from the sidelines as Mr. Chávez has demolished his country's democratic institutions.
Mr. Capriles, who was re-elected mayor of a section of Caracas known as Baruta in 2004 with 80% of the vote, is far from the only Chávez opponent who stands accused of a crime. But the charges against him are among the most far-fetched. Over breakfast in New York some months ago, he told me about the case, which begins on April 12, 2002, the day after 19 people had been killed during a peaceful march against Mr. Chávez and the military had removed the president from office.
An angry crowd had gathered outside the Cuban embassy on rumors that members of the Chávez government were inside. The mob of an estimated 2,000 had damaged cars and cut the water to the embassy. According to Mr. Capriles, there was "a lot of uncertainty."
The Cuban embassy is in the mayor's district and, having once held the post of speaker in the House of Representatives, he says he knew the Cuban ambassador. He had even received Felipe Perez Roque, Cuba's foreign minister, on a visit to Venezuela. He says he went to the embassy at the request of the ambassador to see if he could help reduce tensions.
When he arrived at the embassy he remembers that an employee in civilian clothes was perched on the wall surrounding the compound. The man called down to the mayor to say that the door was barricaded for security reasons but that he would put a ladder out so that Mr. Capriles could come over the wall.
Mr. Capriles claims that Ambassador German Sánchez Otero welcomed him by his first name and thanked him for coming. "We had had a friendly relationship before that day," Mr. Capriles told me. The ambassador, Mr. Capriles says, said he knew the problem outside the embassy was not the mayor's responsibility and that he was trying to contact "President Carmona Estanga," the man who had stepped into Mr. Chávez's shoes.
Mr. Capriles says that while he was in the embassy, the Norwegian ambassador phoned to offer help. The Cuban told the Norwegian that the "mayor of Baruta is here" and "helping us." The Norwegian ambassador has backed up Mr. Capriles's recollection of that conversation.
Mr. Capriles recalls that Mr. Sánchez Otero invited him to stay as long as he liked and the meeting ended cordially. "I went up on the wall to tell the crowd that they could not enter the embassy and that I could not search the embassy because of its sovereignty. I said, 'I'm going home and I hope you will all go home.'"
Six months later a warrant was issued for Mr. Capriles's arrest, without a charge. Fearing that he couldn't get a fair shake, he went into hiding. While he was a fugitive -- an experience he says was the worst in his life -- he saw a television interview in which the prosecutor was asked why there was an arrest warrant out for the mayor. He replied: "This is the case of Cuba." Mr. Capriles eventually turned himself in and spent the first 20 days in jail locked in a room with no windows.
The mayor says that during his incarceration he had a private conversation with the same prosecutor: "I asked him, 'Do you really think I need to be here?' And he told me, 'No, but there is a lot of international pressure.'" Mr. Capriles also claims that the judge who put him in jail later told him point blank: "I'm very sorry. I had an order. It was a political case."
Mr. Capriles argues that videotape evidence shows what happened that day at the embassy and though Cuba has issued its own doctored version of the tape, he is confident that he will be exonerated if all the facts come out. The Norwegian ambassador's testimony will also help. Yet given the sinister nature of this government, justice seems remote. What seems more likely is that Fidel Castro is coaching his Venezuelan protégé in the art of disposing of an opponent. It can be no accident that Mr. Sánchez Otero has been at the Cuban embassy in Caracas for 14 years, having arrived the same year Mr. Chávez launched his failed coup d'état. Mr. Capriles is being made an example. Harassing, intimidating and imprisoning a charismatic opponent of the "Bolivarian revolution" is meant to discourage those who might be tempted to follow his lead.
Mr. Capriles symbolizes a generational shift in Venezuelan politics. As life has deteriorated over the past few years for his countrymen, Mr. Chávez has retained support by persuading the disenfranchised masses that the only alternative to chavismo is reverting to the corruption of the traditional party system that drove the country into poverty. Now along comes Mr. Capriles -- one of the founders of a new party called Justice First, which grew out of a 1992 student movement concerned about the country's judicial system -- to spoil Mr. Chávez's convenient but false dichotomy.
Justice First offers a nonviolent and just vision for the country and has been marketing its ideas for a limited, accountable government and equal opportunity under the law with some success in the lowly slums of the big cities, until now Mr. Chávez's turf. This is the stuff of velvet revolutions that bring down dictators, and Chávez and Castro know it.
When he was in New York I asked Mr. Capriles why he was going back to Venezuela despite the kangaroo court system that now reigns. His answer was matter of fact: The government, he said, would like nothing more than to see him go into exile. Besides, he told me, he is convinced that the truth will prevail and equally sure that given a chance his ideas could make life better for Venezuelans.