It's man versus machine for Venezuela's opposition

The opposition candidates, from left to right: Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles, Diego Arria, Maria Corina Machado, Pablo Medina and Pablo Pérez.

This Sunday, Venezuela's opposition will select its candidate to face President Hugo Chávez in next October's presidential election. Long seen as a cakewalk for Miranda State governor  Capriles, there are indications the open primary could be tighter than expected.

Miranda, population 3 million, includes large chunks of the Caracas metropolitan area, and is Venezuela's second most-populous state. Capriles, 39, handily wrested away the governorship in 2008 from one of Chávez's closest allies. Since then, he has established a good working rapport with local chavista organizations, and his administration is regarded as an efficient, solutions-centered model for how the opposition might govern in a post-Chávez world. His scrupulously non-confrontational message (he refuses to even mention Hugo Chávez by name) has played well to an electorate weary of Chávez's us-versus-them, conflict-based brand of politics.

Capriles's strongest rival, Pablo Pérez, is the governor of the most populous state. Zulia, in Venezuela's far west, is home to almost four million people. Its state capital, Maracaibo, is the country's second largest city. The opposition has run the state government for the last 12 years, establishing a vast network of local leaders who speak the language of patronage.

Pérez has run a more traditional, typically populist, yet surprisingly unfocused campaign. He entered the race late, and his main message has veered from promising to decentralize government to unifying the opposition in a single party and to getting tough on crime.

Recent polls have put Capriles far ahead of Pérez, with some suggesting that the former leads by a ratio of two to one.

In the first world, you'd call that a done deal. But in Venezuela, nobody's using the term. Even though Pérez lacks message discipline, he has assembled a fearsome coalition, one that includes his own New Era Party (UNT), as well as the old, pre-Chávez political machine run by Acción Democrática.

The Pérez people know how to get out the vote. In an unprecedented open nationwide primary, there's no way of predicting how big a role that could play. It could even be a game-changer.

On a recent trip to Maracaibo, I was impressed with the quality of UNT's organization. Activists all across the state know exactly who their voters are, and are psyched to get them to the voting booth this Sunday, opinion polls be damned. A last-minute endorsement for Capriles by one of their rivals, former mayor Leopoldo López, has been interpreted in the Pérez camp as Caracas' elite "ganging up" against the Zulia candidate.

Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, the one outright conservative in the race, is running a distant third. But Machado has gained some momentum thanks to a forceful debate against Hugo Chávez during his State of the Union speech. The consensus in Maracaibo is that her gains come at Capriles's expense, and at Pérez's benefit.

Yet while Pérez's UNT party is strong in Zulia, it is weak in the rest of the country. That is where he will have to rely on the old parties to carry the load.

Sunday's primary will answer an interesting question for Venezuela's opposition: How big a role do party-machine politics play 13 years into the Chávez era?

If, as the polls suggest, the machine candidate is crushed, it may be the last gasp of the legendary Acción Democrática -- the party that governed Venezuela for 30 of the last 53 years -- and its storied get-out-the-vote machine. A big win for Capriles would be a victory for message over mobilization.

Regardless of the outcome, Venezuela's opposition is poised to rally around the victor. Pérez and Capriles are on friendly terms, and both have vowed to support whoever wins. Let's see if they can make good on their pledge.


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Will Ugandan lawmakers move ahead with death penalty for gays?

Photo:  Mourners attend the funeral of murdered gay activist David Kato on January 28, 2011.

Uganda is once again in the international spotlight, and not for the right reasons. The infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill that was dropped by the cabinet last year has resurfaced. Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda. "It would introduce the death sentence for anyone caught engaging in homosexual acts for the second time, as well as for gay sex where one partner is a minor or has HIV," as this report by AFP explains. It also prescribes the imprisonment of family members, employers, or landlords who do not report "offenders" to the police.

David Bahati, the Bill's architect, re-tabled it Tuesday before Parliament. His submission was met with applause and a standing ovation from some members of the assembly. The MPs reportedly chanted: "Our Bill. Our Kids."

Speaking to the press, Bahati said the bill aims to protect children from gays and to cut off the funding of homosexual activities. He added that this time round, parliament would not bow to international pressure -- an allusion to the earlier attempt to pass the bill, which foundered, apparently, when officials began to worry that Western donors would cut aid to Uganda if the legislation was passed. (According to some reports, Bahati is now offering to remove the death penalty provisions to ensure passage, replacing them with life imprisonment.) The U.S., the UK, and other western countries have threatened to cut off assistance to countries that ignore LGBT rights.

Bahati is an MP of the ruling National Resistance Movement party and allegedly has ties to The Family, a group of Christian evangelicals that are said to have considerable pull in Washington.

Many Africans on social media sites and elsewhere have openly rejected the pressure, saying the West can keep its money.

Homosexuality is illegal in 37 African countries. Another piece by AFP (reprinted in the Ugandan paper The Daily Monitor) gives an overview of the situation faced by many gays around the continent:

Many African countries, with the notable exception of South Africa, have laws that ban or repress homosexuality. The subject took on added sensitivity after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently told leaders at an African Union summit they must respect gay rights....

NIGERIA already outlaws homosexuality but is in the process of adopting an anti-gay law that spells out harsh sentences for gays in Africa's most populous country.

Unanimously approved by the Senate, the bill calls for up to 14 years in jail for gays entering into "marriage" or cohabitation. It bans public displays of affection between homosexual couples and makes gay organizations illegal, which has raised some concern that funding channeled through non-governmental organizations for AIDS treatment could be put in jeopardy. The bill now goes to the lower house and requires a presidential signature to become effective.

SENEGAL slapped eight-year jail terms on nine men in 2009 for "unnatural acts and conspiracy". In January, Amnesty International said hostility was growing against Senegalese gays with "harassment, arbitrary arrest, torture and unfair trials."

In GAMBIA, homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment, for men and women. In 2008, President Yahya Jammeh vowed to push through even stricter laws, saying gays should leave the country and vowing to "cut off the head" of any homosexual caught in Gambia. He later withdrew the statement, but said he would hunt down homosexuals and expel them from their homes.

Homosexuality is illegal in other countries, notably CAMEROON, KENYA, TANZANIA and LIBERIA. In LIBERIA, the issue has been in the headlines this year after a group of activists began lobbying for the legalization of same-sex marriage. This created a furor in the country whose President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The article goes on to highlight the countries and the penalties accorded to gays. Uganda's bill is especially controversial because of the draconian punishments it spells out.

After winning the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, Frank Mugisha, a gay rights activist, wrote in The New York Times about his experience of being gay in Uganda:

Traditional culture silences open discussion of sexuality. I am 29. I grew up in a very observant Catholic family in the suburbs of Kampala. From the time I was old enough to have romantic feelings, I knew I was gay, but we weren't supposed to speak of such things.

When I was 14, I came out to my brother. Later, when others close to me asked if I was gay, I didn't deny it. Though some relatives accepted me, I came out to the rest of my family slowly. Some simply chose to ignore the fact that I was gay, or begged me not to tell anyone, fearing I'd shame our family name. Others stopped speaking to me altogether.

Many Africans believe that homosexuality is an import from the West, and ironically they invoke religious beliefs and colonial-era laws that are foreign to our continent to persecute us....

Mugisha is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), one of a number of gay rights organizations in Uganda. Mugisha's groups is part of a coalition of 43 human rights organizations called the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law has taken lead in the advocacy work against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

Parliamentarians who support the bill insist that they're going to stick to their guns. Perhaps they should stop and consider the simple point that gay rights are in themselves human rights. And Uganda's human rights record is already dismal enough as things stand now.