U.S. 'sweetheart' of Venezuela sees worrying signs of authoritarianism

Girish Gupta
Reuters | Jul. 29, 2017 | Caracas, Venezuela

Dubbed the "sweetheart" of Venezuela's socialist revolution more than a decade ago by former President Hugo Chavez, American lawyer Eva Golinger accompanied him to eat lunch with Bashar al-Assad, dine with Muammar Gaddafi and drink cocktails with Vladimir Putin.

She was showered by impromptu kisses from supporters when in Venezuela but reviled and spat at by critics, who branded her a naive foreigner supporting a corrupt and repressive government - often on Western TV news shows.

In recent months, however, Golinger has increasingly criticized the policies of Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, who she says has trampled basic rights and let corruption run rampant.

She joins a small but growing group of critics, including former and current officials. These dissenting voices are speaking out against Venezuela's government - though not necessarily siding with the opposition - as the country undergoes a major economic crisis, leaving millions suffering food shortages.

"These are people who haven't gone grocery shopping in 15 years," she said, referring to government leaders, noting the stark contrast with Chavez who was known for engaging with everyday Venezuelans.

"They don't walk the streets. They're not taking the subway."

Authorities have convened a vote on Sunday for a legislative superbody that will have the power to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.

"Chavez never would have initiated this process to rewrite the constitution without a referendum," Golinger, 44, said in an interview from New York this week.

"There are traces of authoritarianism appearing now that are highly concerning," she said, adding that the vote needed "broader approval and participation from diverse political sectors."

Golinger is now an immigration lawyer, and is also a host on Russia's RT Spanish-language television network. She has just written her memoirs which she is soon hoping to publish.

The majority opposition has boycotted Sunday's election and Venezuela has suffered four months of anti-government unrest in which more than 110 people have died.

"Chavez never would have let things get out of hand this way. He never would have accepted deaths in the streets every day," added Golinger.

Friendship With Chavez

Golinger first visited Venezuela in the early 1990s after discovering a family link to the country. In the Andean city of Merida, she learned Spanish, wrote, and sang in a band. She had returned to New York by the time Chavez came to power in 1999.

After Chavez fought off a short-lived coup in 2002, Golinger, employed as a lawyer in New York, worked to obtain documents proving that U.S. government agencies had funded those involved.

"I had to go down there, talk to Chavez and show him all this," said Golinger, who finally succeeded in meeting Chavez and even appeared on his weekly TV show, where he referred to her as the South American country's "sweetheart."
"We developed a friendship," she said. Golinger had been attracted to Chavez's ideas on social justice and grassroots movements.

Golinger was given presidential security and even carried a gun when in Venezuela. She would accompany the president on trips abroad, giving talks on books she had written, the documents she had uncovered and meeting with foreign heads of state including al-Assad, Gaddafi and Putin as well as Chavez's close ally, Fidel Castro of Cuba.

Not everyone was impressed, however. Government critics threatened and assaulted her, she said, and even those close to Chavez grew suspicious and sought to limit access.

Shortly before Chavez's death in 2013, Golinger moved back to New York. By then she had a son and wanted to be closer to family.

Since then, Maduro's presidency has been marked by violent protests and a crumbling economy. A thousand dollars in local currency when he came to power in April 2013 would be worth just over $2 now.

However, Golinger insists she is not siding with the opposition. Many disaffected government supporters, who do not wholly support Maduro, argue they would never vote for opposition leaders as they do not want a return to the days of when the country was run by a wealthy, business-friendly elite.

"Everyone is so hard-nosed and stubborn. Neither side is working to improve the country. No one's willing to give an inch," she said.

"What is the end game right now? Is it holding on to power or bettering the country?"

Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Matthew Lewis.