The filmmaker Oliver Stone's documentary of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has re-energized a long-running debate about the future of Venezuela and what it means for democracy in other countries.
Mr. Stone argues the assault on human rights is of secondary concern, saying: "Why do you seek out the dark side when the guy is doing good things?" After all, "Most peoples' lives in this country have improved under Chavez."
Unfortunately, for the vast majority of Venezuelans, this statement could not be further from the truth. If you are among the millions living in barrios, you no longer trust that you will be protected, that services will be delivered, that your lights will stay on or that you will have access to clean water.
As a mayor for eight years of the commercial district of Caracas, I have seen firsthand how dreams have become more elusive for average Venezuelans, replaced by a dangerous sense of frustration and hopelessness.
Venezuela is now the murder capital of the western hemisphere -- with a 320 increase in homicides and a 1,400 percent increase in kidnappings since 2000. This pervasive state of insecurity affects all Venezuelans, especially those living in poverty.
Shelves are bare, and Venezuela's production capacity has deteriorated so much that we have had to increase food imports by 700 percent -- including goods such as meat and coffee that were once 100 percent locally produced. Prices are 650 percent higher since Chavez first took office. The recent discovery of 81,000 tons of rotting food in a government-controlled storage facility only added to the sense that this is a problem that the president has created.
Access to clean water and electricity is a similar story. Power outages are now a daily fact of life. Many government agencies have to close early in the afternoon because there is not enough electricity.
These worsening conditions have opened the door to more sinister developments, especially in the border regions with Colombia, where people speak of an alarming growth in guerrilla activity, including the FARC. Last week I visited el Alto Apure in this region and heard a mother of four describe the new reality:
"As mothers we fight a silent war against the recruitment of our children by the elenos or the boliches (the ELN and the FBL guerrilla groups)," she told me. "If we say something we risk our lives, walls listen in El Nula."
The government officially denies the presence of these groups in Venezuelan territory. However, those who live here say the groups are so pervasive that they now have absolute control of everything from gasoline distribution to the management of the health centers and the police. A middle aged shop owner who survived a recent kidnapping told me, "If you want something to get done you need to speak with the guerrillos, everything you tell the police or the army they will know, so its better to speak directly with them."
The most shocking testimony was given by a 17 year old boy who said many of his fellow students in school have been recruited as members of the guerrilla groups and go to school as informants. "They don't want to learn, they only go in order to inform the elenos what is happening in our school. [The guerillas] the offer them a salary and a motorcycle, and off they go." I asked him if any had been killed recently. The boy's 16-year-old friend looked him for permission to respond and said, "yes two weeks ago Jose Andres was killed, they said that it was an accident, but we know he died during a conflict between guerrilla groups. That happens all the time."
The difficulties here go beyond insecurity and guerrilla. This region was once one of the most productive meat production territories in Venezuela. More than 50 small, medium and large productive farms in this area alone have been confiscated and are currently controlled by the government. Production has plummeted. Land that had been full of the best cattle is now empty.
The pain has certainly undermined public confidence in Chavez, which is now at an all time low. In 2012, Venezuela will hold its next presidential election, and polls show that a majority of citizens believe it is time for a change. But change is by no means inevitable.
We in the opposition must first take responsibility for our own historical failings, and apply important lessons. It is not enough to be against Chavez. People need to hear how we will make their lives better in basic terms of safety, shelter, and a better chance to achieve dreams.
We must also be a more organized majority. In the past, we in the opposition have been our own worst enemy. Backroom decision-making and political infighting reminds the people of a past they do not want to return to. We need to show them something different: new leaders, transparent processes and ways to engage people directly in our decision-making processes.
Finally, the international community must be more engaged. The approach to Venezuela must not be unilateral but multilateral - led by institutions such as the Organization of American States.
What happens in Venezuela will have profound consequences for Latin America - and for global stability. If the playbook being used today in Venezuela is allowed to succeed without condemnation, it will be replicated not just in Latin America, but also in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
And for the average citizen, access to dreams would diminish even more.
Leopoldo Lopez was mayor of Chacao from 2000 to 2008. He won Transparency International's Award for the most transparent municipality in Venezuela. In 2009 he founded Voluntad Popular, a social organization with the goal of promoting democracy and human rights.
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