Maria Corina Machado doesn't hesitate when asked her feelings about the possibility of going to prison for up to 28 years for "treason to the nation" and conspiracy.
"I'm scared, I'm very scared; I have three kids," the political activist says softly, sitting in her small office in the Caracas headquarters of Sumate, the organization that led last year's unsuccessful bid to recall President Hugo Chávez from office.
Mr. Chávez's landslide victory in that vote only added to the troubles of Ms. Machado, Sumate's vice president and the woman who has come to symbolize the anti-Chávez opposition. Machado is facing criminal charges for allegedly endorsing the April 2002 coup which unseated Chávez for 48 hours, and for Sumate's having accepted US government funds. She is due in court Wednesday for a hearing.
Machado has become a cause célèbre for Chávez's opponents and a demon for his supporters. So when Machado met with President Bush in the White House May 31, it raised a firestorm of government criticism back in Caracas. Venezuela's foreign minister called the meeting "a provocation," and the interior minister charged that Machado was a puppet of the CIA, continuing the heated rhetoric that has characterized the relationship between the Bush administration and Venezuela's leftist leader.
The anti-Machado sentiments have even infused rank-and-file Chávez supporters. "She's sold out her country," says Milagros Medina, who sells pro-Chávez books on a central Caracas plaza. Machado "should be in prison."
It's a lot to handle for someone who says she got into the politics by happenstance and that her goal is not to oppose Chávez but to strengthen Venezuela's democracy. The daughter of an affluent Caracas family, Machado worked after college as an industrial engineer before leaving to raise her family. She also founded an organization to help orphans. In 2002, a friend invited her to create a pro-democracy group. "I decided to drop everything else," she recalls.
Soon, Sumate had a list of 40,000 vol- unteers across the country, Machado says.
But Sumate's pro-democracy pretensions are no more than a front for its anti-Chávez goals, say observers. Sumate is "a thoroughly anti-Chávez group," says Larry Birns, director of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. During the anti-Chávez recall effort, Sumate "did everything required of a political campaign. They played a coordinated role."
Machado does not hide her disdain for the populist president, who she says has profoundly damaged Venezuela's democratic institutions. Chávez's critics say his government has packed the Supreme Court, used government institutions to retaliate against political opponents, and passed laws restricting media freedoms and the right to protest.
On this particular day, Machado has just returned to Caracas from a trip visiting regional Sumate organizers, and struggles to stave off discouragement. Many volunteers are afraid of government retaliation, she says, and Sumate's warnings that Venezuela's electoral system is being compromised, including the addition of foreigners to voter rolls, have fallen on deaf ears.
"In many other countries where the rule of law is respected, this would have been a real big issue," notes Machado, who says her responsibilities as Sumate's second in command and as a single mother leave her time for only three hours of sleep a night. "We expected a big reaction" to the warning. "But you know what happened? Nothing!"
Her frustration reflects the mood of the opposition, which is still trying to pick itself up from Chávez's victory in last August's referendum. The charismatic and controversial president enjoys 70 percent support in polls and has a campaign chest filled by record world petroleum prices. The disparate opposition, meanwhile, lacks a single candidate or message to rally around. Some say that Machado, articulate and passionate about her ideas, could be the candidate to unite and motivate the opposition. She denies interest.
But that discussion will become moot if Machado goes to prison. She faces a charge of treason for allegedly signing the manifesto which dissolved the nation's democratic institutions during the ephemeral 2002 coup. Machado says she had simply visited the presidential palace and wrote her name on what she believed to be a sign-in sheet. The conspiracy charge against Machado and other Sumate directors stems from $53,000 the organization received from the US Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy. Machado makes no apologies.
"It is legal, it is our right," she says of the foreign funds. "We have to do it, because if we concede, then the government has achieved what it wanted; they have intimidated us." But, Machado says, 95 percent of Sumate's funding comes from Venezuelans.
Machado vows she will see the trial through. Meanwhile, she is trying to continue her work. "If you're going to fight for democracy, this is something which you have to do every day, all day long," she says.