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19/08/2006 | Venezuela's Walesa?

Latin America: Donald Rumsfeld once observed that Venezuelans had a way of fixing political problems on their own, with no need of U.S. intervention. The dramatic prison break of a union boss may be the first sign.



Carlos Ortega's escape Sunday from a Venezuelan maximum security military prison must have sent a shiver through the tyrannical leftist regime of President Hugo Chavez.

The tough union boss had crossed Chavez before and was serving a 16-year sentence for leading a vast oil-worker strike in 2002-03.

Like Lech Walesa of Poland, Ortega called for independent union leadership at Venezuela's state oil company against Chavez's efforts to politicize it. Ortega wanted more than just independence, though. After Chavez tried to void a union election, Ortega aimed to force Chavez completely from power.

During the two-month strike, Venezuelan oil output stopped, world oil prices spiked and the U.S. learned to get along without Venezuelan crude with a little help from added Saudi output.

Chavez fought back with ferocity against Ortega's striking CTV union, securing oil shipments from Brazil to break the strike. Then he fired 18,000 striking oil engineers, managers and workers. He confiscated their voluntary pension plans, put them on a no-work blacklist and vindictively read their names off on his TV show.

But Chavez reserved his worst wrath for Ortega. The CTV union boss was captured after about a year on the lam. Then he was sentenced to a long prison term — inside Venezuela's highest security military prison, where Chavez hoped he'd be forgotten.

Although Ortega is not a fresh face on the political scene, and probably not comparable to a classic democracy leader like Vaclav Havel, he's significant because he's different from Chavez's other foes. His bold prison escape was unexpected, and illegal.

This contrasts to Chavez's other enemies who try hard to navigate Chavez's politicized legal system. Ortega showed Chavez what opposition might come if he continues on his anti-democratic course.

Ortega's prison break scares Chavez for four reasons:

First, the union boss doesn't frighten easily and is willing to confront Chavez on the street. His last prison letter before his escape called for protests based on the declining democracy in Venezuela. He said the right had to be used before it was taken away.

Second, Ortega's a proven leader, something not always seen in the rest of Chavez's fractious political opposition. Ortega won the leadership of his union by a vote of 50%-19%. He led an oil strike. His supporters have carried out a vigil on his behalf since his 2005 imprisonment and can pull together large crowds even without the media spotlight.

The prison break should draw more supporters because it was spectacular. It could easily capture the imaginations of Venezuelans who are otherwise powerless against the government, and the criminals it ignores.

Third, with the parlous state of Venezuela's democracy — politicized election board, suspect voter rolls, lack of secret ballot and blacklisting of opponents — Ortega just might be able to lead an armed struggle against Chavez's growing dictatorship, especially given Chavez's vows to "consolidate socialism," as in Cuba.

Fourth, regardless of how Ortega made his break — it may well have been by paying off soldier guards on the inside — Chavez now knows that he can't trust his military, another blow from Ortega.

Of course, Ortega may turn up dead or do something unpredictable. But Chavez knows there's a formidable enemy out there who doesn't play by his rules anymore. He can't torment Ortega as he has other foes like Maria Corina Machado, whose Sumate organization tries hard through legal and media channels to ensure fair elections.

Ortega may be a much tougher enemy. He doesn't fight Chavez on his own terms. He's a bare-knuckle brawler, and not pretty on TV.

But he's emerging because Chavez has done so much to destroy democracy. He's the resistance, and against Chavez's bombastic propaganda machine, stacked courts and incompetent government, a force to be reckoned with.

Investor's Business Daily (Estados Unidos)


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