February 20, 2003

The price of dissent

What do you call a political leader jailed for his political views? A political prisoner, right?

Just wanted to settle that up front – President Chávez’s endlessly repeated claim that there are no political prisoners in this country is now dead. Last night, the government “arrested” Carlos Fernández, one of the most visible opposition leaders, in a secret police operation that looked more like a kidnapping – a dozen heavily armed men suddenly jumped on him and commandeered his car, as he was leaving a restaurant. There was no district attorney present (as required by Venezuelan law), these guys showed no arrest warrant, they are keeping him incommunicado and they won’t even confirm his whereabouts. So where, exactly, is the borderline between an arrest and a state-sponsored kidnapping?

Carlos Fernández is far from my favorite opposition leader – he’s crass, often radical without a purpose, he’s a terrible public speaker and he played a major role in leading the opposition up the garden path known as the General Strike – a fantastically dumb adventure that did nothing but consolidate Chávez in power. Yet seeing him arrested in this way seems to back up everything he always said about the government: that they haven’t the slightest clue what democracy is all about, that they’ll stop at nothing to consolidate themselves in power, and that they treat the constitution the way your cat treats his litter box.

Watch for the foreign lefties to start justifying his arrest on the grounds that, christ, he’s the leader of the business association, he must be some sort of evil blood-sucking plutocrat, and it’s ok if they go to jail, right? Don’t laugh, it’s the precise corollary to Naomi Klein’s argument on the press in The Guardian the other day.

But beyond that, Fernández is a genuine self-made man, a postwar immigrant from Spain who was penniless on arrival, built up a trucking firm from a single truck into a fairly large company, and rose through the ranks to preside the major business federation here, Fedecamaras. It’s the Venezuelan dream, the dream of tolerance and social mobility Chávez can’t stand because it lays bare the bankruptcy of his vision of Venezuela as an ossified, near-colonial society.

For decades, Venezuela had been well past the political cultural of responding to dissent with jail. Under Chávez, we seem to be regressing.