BY CARLOS SABINO
Recently, the main political prisoner of the Chavist regime escaped from the military prison at Ramo Verde, a one-hour drive from Caracas. Carlos Ortega, a Social-Democratic labor leader, and the principal leader of the civic stoppage that the opposition staged in late 2002 to demand Chávez’s resignation, managed to flee the high-security prison, leaving the government perplexed and exposing all the cracks in the control the president is trying to exert on the armed forces.
Accompanied by three army officers who had been detained also for political reasons, Ortega managed to evade five security control points, all tightly guarded, exit through the prison’s main gate, and then walk about 500 meters to the highway, where undoubtedly someone waited to take him to a safe place. The escape was accomplished in the middle of the night and was discovered by a guard at noon the following day, giving the escapees an almost 12-hour head start and enabling them to hide from the persecution that ensued.
The following day, the government declared that large sums of money had been used to bribe the prison guards. Whether or not this is true, the fact is that there was evident internal complicity in the escape; otherwise, no one can explain how Ortega bypassed the vigilance maintained in the country’s most secure prison. For that reason, concern has spread through the regime’s highest leaders, because it’s obvious that their control over the armed forces, who also run the Ramo Verde prison, is not as strict as previously assumed. There are important figures inside the army who are not loyal to President Chávez and await a propitious opportunity to step into the limelight and possibly overthrow him. That could happen on the occasion of the December elections, if certain circumstances come together.
In principle, those elections pose no danger to Hugo Chávez and his ambitions of indefinite reelection. In the eight years he has been in power, he has built an electoral machine that guarantees him victory. He has altered the registration rolls, adding to them about two million phantom voters; voting is conducted through an electronic system that the government has never allowed others to audit, and four of the five members of the National Electoral Council are his unconditional supporters. In addition, Chávez can count on an assured percentage of voters, because they are public employees, contractors hired by the state, or recipients of the money he doles out by the fistful. A complex electoral system and some appropriate electronic devices generate the fear that the government might know the behavior of each and every voter, eliminating voter anonymity, as happened on the occasion of the revocatory referendum two years ago, which Chávez won through fraud.
The government has used the enormous income it has earned from crude-oil exports to create what it calls "missions," social programs that give money to low-income people in exchange for some minimal and little-controlled social action, and a commitment to attend Chavist events and to vote3/4of course3/4for the official candidate. With the support from those hundreds of thousands of activists, and with his speeches and promises, Chávez has managed to consolidate a certain political base that supports his populist and autocratic regime. But things can get complicated for him, from now until December.
Not long ago, the opposition unified around a single candidate, Manuel Rosales, who is expected to garner major support. Chávez’s achievements have been scant, and although the economy grows thanks to the oil-produced revenue distributed by the state, a high rate of inflation is punishing the meager salaries of Venezuelan workers. In a free election, Chávez would have to fight for every vote to remain in power, and it is doubtful that he would emerge victorious. With the fraud he has prepared, and with the high rate of abstention that increases people’s mistrust in the current electoral system, it is likely that everything will turn out easier for him. But if Rosales’ candidacy gains strength and the opposition holds steady, Chávez will probably need all of his control over the state to remain in power. There might be moments of confusion and chaos, violence, and unforeseen scenarios.
It is at this point that the importance of the military staff becomes most important. If they decide to support him, as they have until now, Chávez will see a great many of his problems solved. But if some high-ranking officers are working against the regime because they desire change, as Carlos Ortega’s escape leads us to believe, it is probable that Chávez will face a truly dangerous situation.
Because of this, Ortega’s flight has set off all kinds of alarms and has created a new situation where it is no longer possible to assure that the military officers will back the Bolivarian caudillo at all times. However, it will take several weeks before we can more fully ascertain the extent of the regime’s problem.
Carlos Sabino is an adjunct fellow with The Independent Institute, a fellow of the Francisco Marroquín Foundation in Guatemala, a director at CEDICE, a public policy institute in Venezuela, and the author of many books on development. This column was republished with permission from The Independent Institute.