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A Young Defender of Democracy Faces Chávez's Wrath

By Mary Anastasia O'Grady | The Wall Street Journal

June 10, 2005; Page A9 | Thirty-seven-year-old Maria Corina Machado doesn't seem to have planned on a career in public life. After studying engineering at Catholic University in Caracas she earned a post-graduate degree in finance from the Venezuelan business school IESA and went off to work for an auto parts manufacturer in the Venezuelan city of Valencia.

Today, facing charges of conspiracy against her government, she has become an international celebrity for her efforts to defend Venezuelan democracy.

Ms. Machado is one of the leaders of Súmate, a nongovernmental organization resisting efforts by President Hugo Chávez's to turn Venezuela into a dictatorship. Because of its vocal objections to the many steps Chávez has taken to consolidate his power, Súmate has become an "enemy of the people," in the traditional language of tyranny. The conspiracy charge stems from the $31,000 that Súmate took for non-partisan educational work from the U.S.'s National Endowment for Democracy, which promotes free and fair elections abroad.

Ms. Machado could go to jail for up to 16 years. Yet, after the past two weeks, in which she met personally with President Bush in Washington and attended the general assembly of the Organization of American States in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., persecuting her would carry a high price, turning the millions of dollars Chávez has spent on polishing his image abroad into a waste of money. Her case has been internationalized by Mr. Bush himself as a means of showing Venezuelans and the region that he is watching Chávez's misbehavior.

Chávez has known all along that as long as what happens in Venezuela stays in Venezuela, he has the resources to control it. Foot soldiers of his "Bolivarian revolution" spread and enforce his populist propaganda. A gag law keeps media criticism in check.

Managing his international reputation is equally important to him, but far more difficult. Any assessment from his Western Hemisphere neighbors that he has destroyed democracy in Venezuela and has become a potential aggressor would strip him of international legitimacy.

Chávez paints himself as the second coming of Fidel Castro, who few serious politicians would regard as a Latin democrat. To counter criticism, he has tried to demonize Ms. Machado, who has made it her business to expose the Chávez power grab for what it is, and has now won international attention.

Chávez's battle cry is class warfare, even as his policies make poor Venezuelans even poorer. But Ms. Machado hardly fits the image of an uncaring elitist. In 1992 she left her job in Valencia and, together with her mother, established a foundation to care for Caracas street children. Using private donations, her Fundación Atenea took over management of a state detention center housing both orphaned and delinquent children between the ages of eight and 12. The foundation hired trained personnel to work with the 140 children to improve their circumstances within the institution and whenever possible, either return them to their families or move them to more promising living conditions.

Ms. Machado told me by telephone from Florida on Tuesday that because of her role in Súmate, she severed her connections with the foundation so that it would not be politicized. But, even so, the Chávez government recently broke its arrangement with Fundación Atenea and took back the management of the shelter.

Súmate is adamant that it is not concerned with who governs but rather that those in power respect the rule of law. The Venezuelan democracy, Súmate points out, was set up with a separation of powers, an independent judiciary, civil rights and provisions for clean elections. "It is not enough to have elections," Ms. Machado says. "They must be free, fair and transparent. Once elected, you have to behave democratically."

Súmate's charges that Venezuela is losing its democracy have ample supporting evidence. It is a matter of record that the Chávez-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) had custody of the electronic voting machines in last year's recall referendum and refused to allow an independent audit of the paper ballots. It is also a fact that the president has packed the highest court by adding 12 new seats to what was formerly a 20-seat bench.

Perhaps most alarming, Ms. Machado reminded me Tuesday, is the fact that the 3.5 million Venezuelans who signed petitions in favor of holding a recall vote are now on government lists. Those lists, she said, have been used to fire workers and to discriminate in the disbursement of government benefits.

Since August, Ms. Machado says she has been traveling the country talking to Venezuelans. Even in remote areas she says she has been astounded to hear from so many individuals who claim to have experienced intimidation at the hands of chavistas because they dare to differ.

To try to maintain his popularity, Chávez spends government revenues, which come mainly from state-owned oil, on free-wheeling social programs. But it's hard to tell from opinion polls just how popular he is, given the threats critics face. Venezuelans worry that he is systematically destroying institutional checks and balances so if and when his support collapses, his removal will be impossible.

The next critical date for the democracy will be Aug. 7, when the country will hold municipal elections. Ms. Machado contends that the process will become the template for the vote for national assembly representatives in December and the presidential elections in 2006.

Ms. Machado plays down her role in mobilizing the democratic movement. Instead, she passes credit to her Súmate colleagues, especially founder Alejandro Plaz also charged with conspiracy by Chávez, and others, like Oscar Valles who spoke for Súmate at the OAS meeting. Mostly, she emphasizes, "This is the hard work of thousands of Venezuelans who want to live in a democracy."

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