Why Hugo Chávez locked up my family


My mother being Venezuelan, I went to Venezuela a lot as a child because my grandmother was there. She’s now moved to Bolivia because it’s too dangerous for a lady on her own to be in an affluent area in Caracas. I have other family members and friends who have been victims of the Chávez regime.


For example, the nephew of my sister’s godmother who was high up in the police force in Caracas. His name is Iván Simonovis. He had been trained all over the world, from Scotland Yard to the CIA. He was well suited to cracking down on the terrible violence racking Caracas and as part of his plan to do so he decided to develop a database of all known criminals which would make catching these men easier. What emerged from this list of criminals is that many of these men were Chávez’s men, running the elite governing circles of Caracas and Venezuelas. On a trip to the United States he was arrested on a trumped-up charge with no evidence, given a show trial after four or five years imprisonment- only after the government had bought witnesses – and given thirty years in prison (a life sentence for a forty year old): he was basically imprisoned for knowing too much. Only now, with the death of Chávez, is his case being given some new life and it’s already been to the OEA (Organisation of American  States)and all sorts of international human rights courts, but there was no way he was going to be released under Chávez.

Chávez did do some good for some of the population, but this does not make him a democrat. Scaring people into voting (or indeed, not voting) is not democracy. In Venezuela they would find out who was not voting for Chávez via the social security number, and beat-up and intimidate them. Attacking the opposition’s family and threatening their supporters is not democracy. Giving the poorer of population things like books and access to health care is great and he certainly did that but, when it was election time, the buses came to take them to vote and the choice was no choice. Coerced votes, no matter how subtle the coercion, is not democracy either. Finally, changing the constitution as Chávez did in 2009, to eradicate presidential term limits, is definitely not democracy. In fact, that treads the line of dictator, very closely.

According to The Economist, Caracas has surpassed San Salvador as the most dangerous city in South America – no mean feat. My grandfather is still there as he has a farm outside Caracas which he is trying to sell, and I was hoping to visit him this summer. But I’ve been advised by him and all my family that it’s too dangerous. He’s an elderly man, and he’s been attacked on his farm and had things stolen, leading to heart problems. Chávez has left the country in such a state that I may not see my grandfather again.

Chávez’s policies which are cited as forces for good are often short term remedies and a lot of his other policies are long-term travesties, such as replacing all the oil workers with the army. With all due respect to the armed forces, few have even the beginnings of the knowledge required to run an oil refinery.

I find that in the West, where true democracy is exercised, people look to the young countries of South America and see that presidents like Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales were elected and think, ‘he’s elected, that’s democracy.’ They see that the 2009 constitution change happened after a referendum, and think ‘yeah, not great that he now has limitless power, but he seems legitimate.’ The truth is it’s hard to realise quite what it’s like in countries like Venezuela without being able to experience it in some way, to understand the pandemic extent of corruption, violence, and deep violation of human rights. So, this is the purpose of my article, to tell you from first-hand knowledge, Chávez was not a democrat and calling him such is simply wrong.


History student with Mandarin on the side. Spent a year in China and a semester in Spain, plan to go back to China again after graduation. Opinion Editor at the Wessex Scene for two years.

Discussion12 Comments

  1. avatar

    I’m afraid that you lose a fair amount of credibility when you write “in the west, where true democracy is exercised”. If your perspective is that lacking in the country you are presently living in then how can we take your perspective on your home country seriously?

    Nonetheless I do have sympathy for your situation, but this article is very one sided and bereft in detail. It’s hard to get a clear perspective on your fathers arrest based on what you’ve written. I don’t doubt for one second that the Chavez regime was corrupt and had many issues but to gloss over its achievements (excepting increase in violent crime, perhaps), especially when compared to past Venezuelan governments is elusive at best.

    • avatar

      Is it that controversial to claim that democracy is practiced in the West? An over generalisation perhaps but nothing more sinister than that… I’m not saying that the democratic process is perfect but to use Orwell’s line, half a loaf of bread isn’t the same as no bread at all. Chavez’s achievements are extremely limited when looked at in comparison with what was achieved in Brazil during the same decade. You have also made a large error in citing violent crime as the only arena in which Chavez has failed, some other examples are in the article above or would be revealed by even a cursory glance at the Human Rights Watch report on Chavez’s regime. Or indeed almost any economic marker by which you can measure a country.

      • avatar
        Isabella Hunter-Fajardo

        I would agree with you that it is an overgeneralisation, but in my reply to Fred I think I explain it further.
        I would also agree that his achievements are limited. What good he achieved was largely short-term, populist and without looking to the future of the country, rather looking at his own personal future.

    • avatar
      Isabella Hunter-Fajardo

      I don’t think any credibility is lost when I say that. It is an overgeneralisation perhaps, as ‘West’ says, but on the whole, and least by comparison with Venezuela, (which an aspect of the article), democracy is practiced in the West. By ‘West’ one generally refers to a host of countries mostly in Western Europe, the USA and countries like Australia, where yes, Democracy takes place.
      I’m not from Venezuela, my mother is. I grew up in London and I’m at uni at Southampton. My perspective is that. Question the UK’s democracy, which I understand your hinting at, I think is a hitting the point of the article on the head: until someone experiences what democracy exactly isn’t then they can’t start appreciating how insanely fortunate we are to live where we live, and how we live.
      What further detail would you like? You seem to have missed some yourself: it’s not my father who’s arrested, it was a friend of my family. My father is Scottish and happily living in Oxford.
      The point of the article was the respond to claims he was a Democrat, not to weigh up achievements and shortcomings. I highlighted the negatives as they are what show him for a non-Democrat.

  2. avatar
    Alexander James Green

    Undoubtedly, being half-Venezuelan, you will probably be more informed of actual goings on in Venezuela, thus clearly you article brings to light an interesting perspective and real-life story of what life under Chavez is like for some. Moreover, I wholeheartedly sympathise with the situation that your family have experienced and wouldn’t wish that upon anyway; clearly, it is incidents like this that lead Chavez to be such a divisive character.

    And that is I think its wrong to herald over Chavez as some sort of hero as he much of what he did was wrong. Yet, in the same way, it is hard to take seriously someone who can not thus judge Chavez in a more objective light – more in a Jung Chang manner (Historian very critical of Mao cause her family was deeply affected by him). Much of what he did was good and beneficial to many Venezuelans; it leads to the argument of the ‘greater good’ which works in Chavez’s favour.

    I also find it hard to agree that his elections weren’t democratic, with international observers often asserting that were exactly that. Jimmy Carter even went the hyperbolic ‘best democracy in the world’ In fact, Chavez was more democratically-legitimate than any of the so-called west, considering his high percentage support compared to the 30-40% than most parties in power get.

    Indeed, the only two real offences I would say Chavez did conduct was that violent crime went so dramatically up and that he did become more autocratic as his regime progressed. Perhaps not a democrat wholly, but far from being a dictator – and I don’t think any political scientist in the world would say he was.

    • avatar
      Isabella Hunter-Fajardo

      Of course I have a certain perspective, but I really cannot agree that all the elections were conducted without ‘un-democratic’ goings on. I say that his initial win was democratic which is true, but as his time progressed, the democratic aspect did not. I dont know which international observers you are referring to, but I can wholeheartedly tell you that coercive and intimidating techniques were used in and prior to elections. He was not a 100% dictator, because his changes were ‘legal,’ in the literal sense of the word, for example the 2009 referendum. But the manner in which they took place were not democratic (the voting for the referendum was an example of manipulated voting practice). Also, any regime with political prisoners such as this family friend I mention, is not a democracy. The word I’d use for Chavez at the time of his death is not dictator, definitely not democrat, rather some hybrid-demagogue word which I don’t know/doesn’t exist!

    • avatar
      Isabella Hunter-Fajardo

      Also, why do you think his support was so high? It wasn’t democratic! Of course is the West parties have lower percentages, because that is human nature: people disagree! High majorities in real voting systems like ours (I know our representation system is debatable, but the point is, people have freedom to vote how the want) very hard to achieve.

      • avatar
        Alexander James Green

        Well, in his four elections, he gained total vote percentage of 56.20%, 59.8%, 62.8% and 55.1% respectively – that’s high + majority support, especially compared to the plurality wins that party get in the west.

        And I believe those elections were fundamentally democratic. Jimmy Carter, who won a Nobel prize for his work through the election-monitoring Carter Center, said this after all: “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”

        Unfortunately, stories like that are often passed over by western media – with a neoliberal agenda – to fit the political misrepresentation of the country.

        • avatar
          Isabella Hunter-Fajardo

          So, you really believe he’s democrat? (genuine question!)

          There seems to be a bit of debate in the world about whether or not the elections – and of course no elections are the same – were democratic in the official sense. But I know for a fact that all the things I have said in my article are true: intimidation, coercion, corruption, fear. I’ll find for some articles for you if you want, so you don’t have to just take my word for it.

          The issue with regimes like Cháves’, are that they are not overtly ‘dictatorships,’ so exterior viewers often see the base evidence and think, yep, that’s right and fair. But it’s not, it’s so different what you and people of your opinion think it is. You look at the evidence like the 2009 Human Rights Court ruling that there was no freedom of expresion interference by the Government in two TV stations, but miss the added comments stating things like the government failed “to guarantee the practice of the freedom to seek, receive, and diffuse information.”
          Basically, regimes like this one find legal loopholes, they pay off people, creative favourable evidence, (like the witnesses in the case of Iván in my article), weave in and out of the law, treading the line of legality just enough to convince large numbers of outsider commentators/regulators of their legitimacy.
          What I’m trying to show is that from an insider perspective, this apparent legitimacy, is just not the case.

          • avatar
            Alexander James Green

            Well, no, not a democrat. It’s far more difficult than that 😀 I think you are right in saying he a hybrid…he veers close to a competitive authoritarianism model, but even not that.

            The arguments in your article are good (I take your word that what you have said is true; with the insider perspective, as its easy for people like me and journalists to say Chavez was good without any real experience of the country. After all, whatever he may have done for the Venezuelan poor doesn’t make his other actions, like those inflicted upon your family and friends, a good thing or even okay. Clearly, if I was in your situation I would be unable to see any good in his policies due to my personal experience.

            I find the most difficult thing with Chavez is that in many ways he was legitimate and supported – even with his somewhat coercive democratic practices, he never went for ballot-stuffing and so forth – and thus did have popular support from many, especially those parts of society who feel unrepresented from past governments. I think much of the world and its media find this difficult, thus vilify him as something that he was not – a dictator – thus why I feel he needs defending alot of the time. The idea that he was like previous South America dictators – or even Gilonis’s idea that he was like Qaddafi, al-Assad and Ahmadinejad – is such a poor and wrong arguement.

            But you’re right; he did become increasing autocratic, he conducted class warfare on Venezuelans and crackdown on civil liberties (Instances such as the crackdown on media/tv was undoubtedly due to the fact that they inflicted a coup against in 2002). It would be thus wrong to say he was democrat either.

            (I try to make sense of the muddied waters in this: http://www.wessexscene.co.uk/news/top-news/2013/03/06/chavez-dictator-or-democrat/)

  3. avatar

    This reminds me of my geography teacher, who, teaching us about the protectionist industry in Venezuela, told us (with full irony, don’t worry!) that he was “delightfully crazy” and was defiant in the face of globalisation. Yet in that she hinted that the man really was “crazy”, for in shutting out foreign investors, he also essentially ‘locked up’ Venezuela. I think Chavez is a perfect example of how democracy isn’t the perfect system. it reminds me of when I lived in Egypt. Yes they had elections, but the opponents all disappeared, leaving Hosni Mubarak “pleased and honoured to serve the people Egypt once more”. I have friends in Egypt who are Christian, and I haven’t heard from them in a while, so I know what you mean, only in a watered down way (I only grew up there; it’s not my homeland). People used to think Mubarak was ‘progressive’ and all that bullshit. I think eventually governments will realise the measure of Chavez. Coming back around to my original point, opinions will shift as a real life representation of Animal Farm plays out before them. (Excuse the rant, I hope I’m coherent…)

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