Philip Sherwell in Caracas, Sunday Telegraph
Novembre 19, 2006
Maria Corina Machado knows all about the dangers of standing up to Venezuela's authoritarian president, Hugo Chavez: the democracy activist faces a cumulative 100 years in prison on charges that include treason and conspiracy.
"It's not easy telling your kids that you are going to court today and might not come home," the mother of three told The Sunday Telegraph last week at the offices of Sumate, an election monitoring watchdog.
Miss Machado placed herself in the line of fire in 2003 when she organised a Sumate petition that collected 3.4 million signatures arguing for a recall referendum election because of allegations of fraud when Mr Chavez won the 2002 vote.
Mr Chavez won the subsequent referendum but was infuriated by the challenge. His supporters accused Sumate ("Join up" in Spanish) of being CIA-funded. The group had received a $31,000 (£16,370) grant to organise non-party political workshops on electoral participation from the National Endowment for Democracy, a wing of the US government that is charged with promoting democratic institutions abroad but which critics claim uses its funds to undermine governments it opposes and promote Washington's regional surrogates.
That financial link was enough for the authorities to accuse Miss Machado and a colleague with conspiracy to topple the government; treason allegations have since been added to her charge sheet. The 38-year-old, who trained as an engineer, laughs off the claims. "There was no party-political slant to the workshops and we have the testimony from the participants to prove it," she said. "They are out to get us and looking for any excuse."
She believes that only international attention — the United States, Canada and European Union all send diplomats to attend her court hearings — has kept her out of prison. She is again compiling evidence of how the government is tilting the electoral playing field. "These elections are not free, not fair and not transparent. Even the national election body is run by his people," she said.
Thanks to regulations requiring coverage of his presidency, Mr Chavez receives 22 minutes of television airtime for every minute for rival Manuel Rosales. Miss Machado says that the legacy of that recall referendum has left many people fearful of opposing the government and scared that the computerised ballot system will not keep their votes secret. In 2004 the authorities printed the names of all the petition signatures. Many of those employed in the public sector were sacked or forced publicly to apologise to keep their jobs and Mr Chavez referred to those in the list as his "enemies".
"The message was that the government was willing and capable to harm people with different views," Miss Machado said. "We live in an atmosphere of political fear."
Mr Chavez also paid Christmas bonuses early this month as he tried to buy popularity. The most blatant manipulation of the Chávistas' domination of all walks of government life is at PVDSA, the state oil company. The energy minister, Rafael Ramírez, was recently captured on video telling PVDSA managers that it was their duty to support the "red revolution".
Eddie Ramírez, a former PVDSA executive sacked live on television by Mr Chavez in the 2004 purge, showed The Sunday Telegraph new evidence of similar abuses – a "confidential" email with the title "Reasons to vote for President Chavez" that was sent to 125 senior PVDSA managers and photographs of PVDSA buildings painted red or bearing Chavez election slogans.
"PVDSA is no longer a commercial business. It's a wing of the revolution," he said. "We no longer live in a democracy."