Many people look forward to a Venezuela without Hugo Chávez, a prospect that looks more immediate now that the strongman has announced he is scheduled to have emergency cancer surgery in Cuba and has appointed Nicholas Maduro, his vice president, as his designated successor in the event of his death.
But Thor Halvorssen, a prominent Venezuelan human-rights advocate, isn’t optimistic. The head of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation, a group devoted to showcasing abuses by government of all persuasions, Halvorssen says Venezuela is likely to get worse before it gets better in the event Chávez dies soon.
“A presidential election must be held within 30 days if Chávez is gone,” he told me in an interview in New York yesterday. “The regime is already preparing a false-reform ‘dawn’ that will try to bolster its chances. They will release all political prisoners, they will invite back some exiles, and they will loosen some controls. But in reality it will be all be for show.”
Halvorssen says the opposition to Chávez is still divided. Its candidate in last October’s presidential election, Henrique Capriles, lost to Chávez by ten points in a race that was largely free of fraud. Regional elections for the country’s 23 governorships are scheduled for this coming Sunday, and it’s quite possible the Chávez machine will defeat Capriles when he runs for reelection as governor in Miranda province. “The machine could win 20 of the 23 governorships and further entrench its ability to prevent the opposition from having enough resources to challenge the new President Maduro in an election,” Halvorssen says.
He is quick to say he hopes he is wrong. He has good reason to hate and fear the Chávez government: His own mother was shot and wounded by Venezuelan security forces in 2004 while attending a peaceful protest. The gunmen’s actions were broadcast on live television as they shot into the crowd, leaving twelve people wounded and one dead.
“Chávez’s henchmen are desperate to retain power after he’s gone and they have the example of Cuba in how power can be transferred from one leader [Fidel Castro] to another [Raúl Castro] without a revolt,” Halvorssen says. “Freedom will come to my country but I fear it will be less easy and take longer than many people hope.”