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Venezuela: A Young Mayor Dares To Defy the Chavistas

By Mary Anastasia O'Grady | The Wall Street Journal

July 29, 2005 | The name Henri Charriero was recently discovered on the voting rolls in the Caracas municipality of Chacao. What a find! The supposed escape of Charriero (formerly Charriere) from French Devil's Island prison to Venezuela was liberally fictionalized in the 1973 Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman movie "Papillon." But it's unlikely that Papillon is eligible to vote in Caracas today. He has been dead for more than 30 years.

The discovery of a long-dead ex-convict on the voter list underscores the doubts among democracy advocates that Venezuela's Aug. 7 municipal council elections will be honest. "Why is there such a big fear of undertaking an audit of the electoral register," asked Alejandro Plaz, the head of Súmate, Venezuela's largest nongovernmental election watchdog organization. Because it would expose fraud, is the implied answer.

Defenders of President Hugo Chávez, however, also use the Papillon find to make a point: This government didn't invent corruption or bureaucratic inefficiency. Both have been around for decades. The pro-Chavez crowd -- which includes not a few U.S. politicians and bureaucrats -- argues that today's abuses merely even the score for the underclass.

That's a bad alibi. In 1998 the Venezuelan electoral system worked well enough to allow voters to turn out corrupt career politicians and bring in the maverick Chávez. Now Chávez is not only governing badly but he is also closing the door on all electoral challenges to his power.

Despite the Chávez machinations, there is still enough of a sliver of democracy left to allow dissidents to challenge Chávez's ambitions to become the Venezuelan Fidel Castro. These newcomers know they have little chance of gaining power as long as Chávez can rig electronic voting as he did in the 2004 plebiscite that sought to remove him from office. Yet they may be able to build an effective opposition if they show they have something to offer.

Venezuela's pre-Chávez political elite was indeed high-handed and corrupt. The tragedy for Venezuelans is that Chávez is even worse. Corruption, fiscal profligacy and confiscation of private property are all on the rise. The state-owned oil company is now heavily politicized and is being run into the ground. The country is increasingly militarized.

The discredited traditional political parties cannot lead a credible opposition. Indeed, it could be argued that the democratic movement's failure to hold back Chávez's authoritarian grab is in some part connected to the fact that no alternative has yet caught the population's imagination. But a new generation of politicians who seem to have learned from the Chávez rise to power is emerging.

One can be found in the very same Chacao municipality where Papillon turned up. A 34-year-old mayor named Leopoldo López from a young party called Justice First is gaining notice. Class warriors may easily dismiss Mr. López because of his privileged background and the elite neighborhood he governs. But he is producing results. "I believe ideas matter," Mr. López told me in an interview in New York last week, "and we demonstrate that our politics are backed up by ideas."

Mr. López's governance style runs contrary to Venezuela's traditional populism. Instead, he has adopted Reaganite pro-growth fiscal policies, Giuliani crime fighting principles and a healthy dose of Dubya-like compassionate conservatism.

With a residential population of about 150,000 and another 400,000 commuters, Chacao is an important Caracas business district. Mr. López says that by simplifying the tax code and lowering taxes on 80% of businesses, the municipality achieved an average 8.4% annual real increase in tax revenues over the past three years. When belt tightening was in order in 2003, he reduced the salaries of the 150 highest paid employees in his government and cut lower-priority programs.

The InterAmerican Development Bank reported in 2003 that Caracas had the third-highest murder rate in the Americas. But between 2000 and 2004, Mr. López claims his government has reduced the murder rate by 37% and overall crime by 56%. "We organized our police force into precincts. We started to keep and post statistics weekly. We made use of technology, we created incentives for the police officers and we instituted weekly 6 a.m. meetings which I attend." His government has also devised a uniquely modern plan to try to get the homeless off the streets and employed.

One interesting result: He says a number of mayors -- across the political spectrum -- have approached him asking for advice in crime fighting. Another sign of success: The Chávez government now wants to dissolve all local police forces.

Mr. López believes that a good number of lower-income Venezuelans reject chavismo, but have not been offered clear alternatives. To that end Justice First is canvassing poor neighborhoods, a dangerous political environment where armed Chávez enforcers roam. But offering ideas to the poor is what too many Chávez challengers neglect. Referring to his party's campaign efforts, Mr. López says, "We want to cease being just the opposition and become a real alternative."

Of course if Chávez converts the country fully to a police state there eventually will be no chance at all for Mr. López or Justice First. The outlook is worsening. Súmate maintains that Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) will set a precedent in next week's elections for congressional elections in December and the presidential vote in 2006. The voting registry has been found to list not only the dead Papillon but two very much alive and notorious guerrilla leaders from neighboring Colombia. Without an audit of the rolls called for by law, an audit of the software and hardware in the voting machines, guarantees for the secrecy of the vote, an audit of paper ballots against machine tallies and qualified (meaning not Jimmy Carter) international observers, its hard to see how the process can even qualify as an election.

"The decrease in transparency is huge. If we accept this, how are we going to reject the same conditions in the future," says Súmate's Maria Corina Machado.

What is left is for Venezuelans to stand up and resist. Maybe that's where the likes of Mr. López will come in. When Venezuelans begin mobilizing in favor of something and not only against chavismo, the odds of retrieving democracy will go up.

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