Friday, July 09, 2004

Signing On To Challenge Hugo Chavez

Originally published in the Washington Post

By Nora Boustany
Friday, July 9, 2004; Page A15

Hers is a heroic fight. Maria Corina Machado smiles bravely but admits she is terrified. They are after her, she explained; the machinery of the state.

Machado is vice president of Sumate, a Venezuelan civic organization that has helped organize the drive for a recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez. She recently found out that she was under investigation for conspiracy and treason because Sumate accepted $53,400 from the National Endowment for Democracy, which receives funding from the U.S. Congress. Chavez has accused Machado, Alejandro Plaz, the president of Sumate, and two other members of the group of treason.

For the uninitiated, democracy is never simple. But the group's slow, systematic collection of signatures has empowered Venezuelans to hold a referendum next month that could force Chavez to step down.

Chavez, a former army lieutenant colonel who led a coup attempt against the government in 1992, was elected in 1998 on a vow to lift up the country's impoverished majority. Many Venezuelans have rejected his populist programs and rhetoric, and critics say his rule is headed toward authoritarianism.

Machado, 36, was invited to the United States by the Council of the Americas to address members in New York and Washington. She said she also plans to meet with U.S.-based human rights organizations and with officials from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

This week, on a recent bright, sunny day at a coffee shop in Bethesda, she explained how a movement was born.

In 2001, during a hurried conversation in the lobby of a hotel in Caracas, Machado and Plaz fretted about the course that was being shaped for Venezuela as they watched from the sideline.

"Something clicked," Machado said about the encounter with Plaz, a former regional director of an American firm. "I had this unsettling feeling that I could not stay at home and watch the country get polarized and collapse. . . . We had to keep the electoral process but change the course, to give Venezuelans the chance to count ourselves, to dissipate tensions before they built up. It was a choice of ballots over bullets."

Sumate, originally composed of professionals, now has 30,000 volunteers nationwide from all walks of life.

When Chavez came to office, he overhauled the constitution. Machado said: "We realized he established tools giving citizens the power to recall officials in midterm by referendum. If 10 percent of all registered voters signed a petition to have a referendum -- 1.2 million signatures out of 12 million by Aug. 19, 2003 -- it was enough to have a recall of any elected official."

There have been several attempts to collect signatures since 2002. A drive completed last November, with international observers -- the Organization of American States, the Carter Center and the United Nations Development Program -- six months after those organizations brokered an agreement between the government and the opposition that the constitution must be upheld.

"Now we have a referendum," she said. Machado, the eldest of four daughters born to a steel entrepreneur and an accomplished psychologist, had a good education. She graduated as an engineer at the top of her class, later earned a master's degree in finance and worked in the auto-parts industry in Valencia before moving to Caracas in 1993.

Politics had never interested her, and she had been indifferent to the economic and social ills plaguing less fortunate families. But one day, she joined her mother on a tour of a center that housed homeless orphans and abandoned youngsters brought in from the streets. The complex was like a prison, she said, and the children often ran away, scaling walls and leaping into a stream leading out, seeking to return to street life. Machado, who was pregnant with her second child, became physically ill from the stench.

The visit transformed her life.

She quit her job and began lobbying to have the management of the facility privatized, ultimately devoting eight years to its betterment.

She then ran an Internet-based services firm for three years before joining Sumate.

"This is God's work," Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, said of Sumate's drive. He was once Venezuela's minister of finance.

Chavez remains charismatic, in control and calling the shots at each twist and turn of the saga. A week before he finally agreed to the referendum, he signed a law packing the Supreme Court with 12 extra justices and giving his coalition's majority in the legislature authority to nullify the terms of sitting justices.

"Yet another example that democracy is not just about voting -- this is a delusion," Naim said. "It is also about checks and balances, independent arbiters and referees supervising the electoral process. It is not just one man, one vote, one time."

Newspapers have run pictures of Machado with headlines calling her the country's Enemy No. 1. Her children cannot understand her predicament. She has learned to steel herself against Blackberry messages urging her to run away and telephone calls pleading with her to hide.

She is trapped between formidable foes and a sea of sympathizers. "It is scary . . . all public powers of the state are stacked against you, but at the same time, people stop to tell you they are relying on you," she said. "I feel greater responsibility and I'm terrified."