VANCOUVER—The line was 30 deep before 6 a.m. at the Venezuelan consulate in downtown Vancouver, the only location in western Canada for ex-pats to vote in their presidential election Sunday. By noon more than 600 Venezuelans had stood in the short hallway, marked the labyrinthine bingo-card-like ballot and dipped a pinky tip in a well of blue ink on a wooden stool.
The world will remember Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s speech on Thursday evening as the moment when he announced that he’s being treated for cancer. For Venezuelans, though, the speech was almost as notable for another reason: Perhaps for the first time in 12 years of increasingly personalist rule, we heard the president reading, actually reading, from a prepared text.
As the revolt that started this past winter in Tunisia spread to Egypt, Libya, and beyond, dissidents the world over were looking to the Middle East for inspiration. In China, online activists inspired by the Arab Spring called for a “jasmine revolution.” In Singapore, one of the quietest countries in the world, opposition members called for an “orchid evolution” in the run-up to this month’s national elections. Perhaps as a result, those watching from the West have been positively triumphalist in their predictions.
It was not easy for me to watch the drama of Tahrir Square; and I cannot imagine that it was easy for any of my fellow Venezuelan exiles to watch, either. To the millions of us who marched our hearts out in the anti-Chávez protests of 2002 and 2003, the sight of those huge, hopeful crowds in Egypt set off an instant shock of recognition. In late 2002, a steady build-up of massive marches—usually numbering in the hundreds of thousands—brought Caracas to a standstill for days on end.
Sunday's parliamentary election in Venezuela saw Chávez's governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela slump to a landslide.
Many South American politicians have laid claim to the spirit of Simón Bolívar, but very few have actually communed with it. At meetings, Hugo Chávez is said to leave an empty chair for the continent’s nineteenth-century liberator. When Chávez ordered the exhumation of Bolívar’s corpse from its grave in the National Pantheon last month, he took to Twitter and exclaimed, “Rise up, Simón, as it’s not time to die.” This latest escapade returns us to the eternal question: Is Hugo Chávez just a buffoon or something more dangerous? Certainly, the evidence for his buffoonery is strong.
In August 2009, Hugo Chávez drew fire from international watchdog groups for his decision to shut down 34 opposition-minded radio stations and two local TV stations over supposed "administrative infractions." Reporters Without Borders issued a tough communiqué “vigorously condemning the massive closure,” while the Committee to Protect Journalists called the government’s official justification for the move a “pretext to silence independent and critical voices.” And Amnesty International pronounced itself “extremely concerned at the deterioration in freedom of expression in Venezuela.” Similar