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Three wanderers against Chávez: a final attempt for Venezuela

By Andreas Ross*

30 May 2006 | Politics; Politics; p. 3 | ENGENHAHN, May. The Venezuela that the three wanderers like to recall is a land of opportunity. “A world of opportunity beckoned to anyone who was willing to work hard”, says Patricia Wegenast. She was born in Colombia in 1959 and arrived in Venezuela when she was 16 years old. Her mother fled from the conservatism of the Colombian upper class and built a new life for herself as a secretary in the neighbouring country. In 1988, Patricia Wegenast arrived in Mainz as a student. She now lives with her German husband and three children in Engenhahn in the Taunus region.

“No other place offered as many opportunities as Venezuela", confirms Mohamad Merhi, who was born in Lebanon in 1952, studied geology and only arrived in the South American country in 1976 after spending time in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, several European countries, and the Netherlands Antilles. Once in Venezuela, he made his fortune in various industries as an entrepreneur and businessman. In the federal state of Bolívar, he owns claims in four diamond mines.

Even Aleksander Boyd, who was born in Caracas in 1969 and who is the only native Venezuelan in the group, waxes lyrical about the eighties and nineties in his native country, even though life was not easy for him there: At 16, he was orphaned and then made his living as a mineworker, packer, salesman, mechanic, and tourist guide. But in 2000, he emigrated and started his new life in London as a bellhop at a hotel. Today, Boyd imports food from South America.

It was not wanderlust that brought the trio together and motivated them to walk from Wiesbaden to Brussels in ten days. It is their fight against President Hugo Chávez, and simultaneously a fight against their feeling of impotence, the impression that there is not much they can do to counter the populist and his “Bolivarian revolution”. “It is an unequal fight”, sighs Merhi: “When Chávez arrived in power in 1998, he was able to sell a barrel of crude oil for nine dollars. Now he gets 55 dollars for it. What can we offer to counter that?”

In December, Chávez wants to be elected for another six years, but like the opposition, the three do not believe in a fair contest. In Brussels, they want to request members of the European parliament and officials of the EU Commission to send election observers to Venezuela. But will a protest march with three participants impress the politicians? “We hope so”, says Aleksandr Boyd. “There was nothing more we could do”, adds Patricia Wegenast. Financially, most Venezuelans in Germany are not in a position to participate, she says. Some donated a bit of money – subject to the condition that their names remain secret. And four of the five EU MPs who had promised to receive the delegation did not want their names to be mentioned either, says Ms Wegenast.

The economist has foregone visits home for the past two years because her children were insulted on the street for being "oligarchs" during their last visit to Venezuela, probably because of their light skin colour. In Germany she manages an Internet blog in which she writes furiously against Chávez. These pinpricks were sufficient to provoke the Venezuelan consul general in Frankfurt to publish a letter several pages long in which he described Patricia Wegenast as an unpatriotic liar and “sinister figure”.

Aleksander Boyd is having an even greater impact with his English-language website, on which he collects information and rumours about the Venezuelan government and its human rights abuses. He sources most of his information "from friends and acquaintances”, says Boyd. The page is read by many in Venezuela – Boyd would therefore not dare to travel to his homeland. He recently felt the might of the enemy in London, where Chávez was received two weeks ago by the left-wing mayor, Ken Livingstone. The conservative leader of the opposition, Bob Neill, wanted to receive Boyd and other opponents of Chávez on this day, but Livingstone personally prohibited them from entering the town hall. Two days later, the mayor publicly titled the civil rights activist as a “supporter of terrorism against the Venezuelan democracy”. “Because I operate an Internet site”, says Boyd and - just like his enemy Chávez likes to do - pulls a little blue booklet out of his trouser pocket: the constitution of Venezuela. Boyd reads Article 350 aloud, which obliges Venezuelans to deny recognition to any regime that violates democratic values and human rights. “I am just doing my duty”, says the activist.

None of the three was politically active before the Chávez era, and even today they would hardly be able to agree on a party. Patricia Wegenast finds it hard to accept Boyd's admission that he welcomed the electoral victory of Chávez as well as his previous attempt at carrying out a coup d'etat: “Anything that starts with armed force can never be right”, she interjects as Boyd describes how he applauded Chávez – “because I hoped that he would at least fulfill ten percent of his promises”. Merhi admits that he did not shed any tears over the end of the Fourth Republic when Chávez won because corruption cost him a lot of money as a businessman. But he says he recognised Chávez as being “antisocial” right from the start. Nevertheless, he agrees that Chávez was right to increase revenues from the oil business because Venezuela benefited too little from its own wealth previously.

For Patricia Wegenast, it was talking to her family members in Venezuela that made her fight against Chávez. Boyd was outraged in 2002 by a visit of the Venezuelan to Oxford, where the erstwhile coup-plotter was supposed to talk about human rights. He subsequently launched his Internet site. However, the most bitter motive for political engagement is given by Mohamad Merhi. On 11 April 2002, he, together with his 18-year-old son and millions of other Venezuelans, demonstrated against Chávez in Caracas. During the march, his son was killed by a shot to the head. Merhi showes a colour photograph from his new book, titled “The Bullets of April”. “These are the murderers of my son”, he says. The photo shows men in T-shirts and baseball caps brandishing revolvers.

“That day, a new chapter began in my life”, says Merhi. He withdrew from managing his mines and accepts that his corrupt administrators are transferring only a fraction of the revenues to him. He opened an office in Caracas, founded the victims’ association Vive, made his telephone number known and has been fighting for justice in courts at home and abroad ever since. “The day before I left for Germany”, Merhi says, "I again received one of those typical telephone calls from a woman I have never met. Chávez’s ‘Bolivarian circles’ had beaten her brother to death just because he had been critical of the government. I hear this kind of thing constantly.”

The opposition in Venezuela does whatever it can, say the three, and they react angrily when the conversation turns to its “boycott” of the parliamentary elections in December 2005. Elections which are not elections cannot be boycotted, they say. The EU, on which they pinned all their hopes and energy on Monday as they crossed the border near Aachen, did not find any significant failings on the part of the electoral commission, but rather criticised the confrontational political climate as a whole, to which the opposition was also said to have contributed. High-ranking officials in Brussels still doubt, however, that the Venezuelan government will invite European election monitors again. But this is a precondition for their deployment. “For me, this is the last attempt to avoid Venezuela turning into a totalitarian dictatorship like Cuba", says Mohamad Merhi. “I have little hope.”

*This article was originally published in the printed edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 30th Mai 2006. Translated by John E.

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