A Repulsive Children’s Crusade in Venezuela – But Hope for a Civil Presidential Campaign?

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A photograph of children holding assault rifles was put on Facebook by La Piedrita, or Little Stone, a militant group that supports President Hugo Chávez’s socialist Bolivarian Revolution.

It is a disgusting picture. Seated beneath a mural of Jesus Christ holding a gun, three children covering their faces with political bandanas brandish assault rifles as an adult proudly stands beside them. The photo, taken in a Caracas barrio last month as part of celebrations commemorating the fall of Venezuela’s last dictatorship in 1958, was put on Facebook by La Piedrita, or Little Stone, a militant group that supports President Hugo Chávez’s socialist Bolivarian Revolution.

To his credit, Chávez, who announced last summer that he is battling cancer, this week blasted the image as “a serious irresponsibility” that instead “hurts the revolution.” His Interior Minister, Tareck el Aissami, called it “reprehensible” and “morally unacceptable.” But in a perverse way, the picture could end up serving a positive purpose. Venezuela, which holds the western hemisphere’s largest oil reserves, is kicking off a presidential campaign that will culminate in the Oct. 7 election, when Chávez hopes to extend his 13-year-long rule for another six years. In a country as bitterly polarized as Venezuela is, the widespread shock and revulsion over La Piedrita’s act of child abuse ought to help both Chavistas and the opposition get some perspective and keep the political rhetoric more civil for the next eight months.

I’m probably being too optimistic. This is after all Venezuela, whose politics for the past decade have made even the U.S.’s look respectful – a country where 10 years ago the opposition, backed by a number of media outlets, tried to mount a coup against Chávez, a democratically elected president, and where five years later Chávez, in characteristic fashion, publicly called an opposition referendum victory “a piece of shit.” All of which is the kind of civics lesson that young Venezuelans like the kids in the barrio photo all too often get.

Yet here’s what I’m hoping. Chávez this year is facing his most formidable and unified opposition yet: he’ll probably win, but his likely challenger, center-right Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, the heavy favorite in the Feb. 12 opposition-alliance primary election, could pull an upset in October’s general election. That prospect is likely to make supporters on both sides more hair-trigger belligerent. But in such a competitive environment, Chávez and Capriles both know that thugs like the La Piedristas – famous for attacking opposition marches and harassing anti-Chávez neighborhoods on motorcycles – or the opposition ruffians who often come out of the woodwork at times like these, could cost them quite a few votes. As a result, it’s in their interest to distance themselves from the martial mud-slinging (or worse) that’s on the horizon.

The new La Piedrita controversy is a reminder that the heavier onus is on Chávez. He needs to work harder to dispel the all too real notion among his loyalists that an opposition victory is unthinkable – and the expectation that they, as well as the Venezuelan military, won’t accept it if it happens. This is hardly anti-leftist paranoia talking. It’s Chavez’s older brother and close aide Adán Chávez talking: When the President revealed his cancer condition last June, Adán warned that to keep the revolution in power, “it would be unpardonable for us to consider only the electoral path, to not consider other types of struggle, including armed struggle.” Chavistas, he said, “should be ready to take up arms to defend the revolution.”

It’s also Chávez’s new Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva talking: In November 2010, shortly after the opposition had won a majority of votes in parliamentary elections, then General Silva ominously asserted that an opposition presidential victory “would be like selling out the country – people won’t accept it, nor will the armed forces.” That military, he said, “is married to the socialist political project” of Chávez.

That kind of language is a lit match for people like the La Piedristas. And if Chávez is the democrat he insists he is, he’ll take the photo controversy as an opportunity not just to slam them but to publicly renounce any idea that an opposition win next fall will be el pueblo’s cue to take up arms, or that the fuerzas armadas owe more allegiance to el comandante Hugo than they do to the Constitution. He’ll also use it to make his government crack down on any military or civilian officials who might be arming the urban and rural “citizen militias” that he’s encouraged in recent years to help fend off the U.S. invasion he regularly warns about in order to whip up his political base.

Likewise, Capriles needs to prove to Chavista voters that he really is the rule-of-law proponent he insists he is – and insists he was during the 2002 coup that ousted Chávez for two days before he was restored to power. Capriles, then the mayor of a Caracas borough, was afterward accused of inciting an anti-Chávez riot outside the Cuban embassy during the coup and was jailed for four months. He was later acquitted – video evidence supported his claim that he’d actually prevented the storming of the embassy – but questions have since lingered about whether or not he supported and aided the putsch. (He says he did not.)

Meanwhile, after his initial and commendable criticism of La Piedrita, Chávez all too predictably reverted to form and suggested that its leaders “must be CIA infiltrators” sent by Washington to discredit his left-wing, anti-U.S. revolution. Meanwhile, another opposition leader, Diego Arria, declared that the children in the photo were being “armed and trained in accordance with President Chávez’s ideals.” OK, I’m probably being too optimistic.