Why the dictatorship wants David Smolansky in jail

As El Hatillo mayor David Smolansky goes underground, I think back on the amazing, inspiring 2013 campaign that made him mayor. It’s no wonder the government’s scared of him.

David Smolansky was a name I’d heard over and over again during my student years in Caracas. Barely older than me, he was the kid who publicly denounced Chávez’s 2007 Constitutional Reform along with a Student Movement that eventually handed him the only electoral defeat the Comandante took to the grave. I found out that, like me, he was a huge sports fan. I also learned he was a journalist, and a charismatic, up-and-coming leader whose heart bled for Venezuela.

Today, he’s a wanted man.

Yesterday, after an extravagantly illegal “trial” where he was not allowed to present his defense, the Supreme Tribunal’s (TSJ) Constitutional Chamber sentenced El Hatillo’s mayor to 15 months in prison for the crime of failing to help the government’s crackdown on protests.

As I watched the news, feeling sick to my stomach, I thought back to the time I met him, back in August, 2012, during the home stretch of the longest, most grueling presidential campaign in Venezuela’s recent history. I’d just finished my master’s degree coursework in Germany and all that was left was writing up my thesis. My plan was never to stay in Venezuela, but since I happened to be here, I decided to lend a hand.

It was up to Smolansky and his group of Hatillano volunteers to prevent Capriles’ second defeat in two months.

I volunteered as much as I could: I handed out credentials, helped install venues for the MUD, and I met someone who would convince me of staying. Although we lost the 2012 presidential election by a wide margin, there was still an election for state governors due just a few weeks later, and the opposition was badly demoralized. It was up to Smolansky and his group of Hatillano volunteers to prevent Capriles’ second defeat in two months. Smolansky isn’t even in Capriles’s party, but he busted ass and made sure won the governor post in Miranda…thanks to votes from Baruta and El Hatillo.

Smolansky’s image as a student leader was so firmly established, many of his neighbors didn’t even know he lived in El Hatillo. He had flirted with the idea of running for mayor, but after the governor’s race, his mind was made up.

He was an asterisk in the polls, still he decided he’d run.

Months came and went and, as the December 2013 mayor’s election drew near, rallies became the norm not just for candidates, but for the general public too. Wherever you turned, signs, posters and an invasive campaign was there for you to chew over; El Hatillo was the only municipality where MUD didn’t have a single, consensus candidate —they could afford the luxury of what would be the last multiparty race in Venezuela. Each party ran their own player, turning the small town affair into a huge political battle.

By the final quarter of 2013, it was down to Primero Justicia’s Elías Sayegh, leading but stagnant, and Voluntad Popular’s David Smolansky, surging against all odds. A cycle of debates was organized, but Smolansky was the only candidate to show up. Bigger and bigger names started making the trek up to our mountain town as surrogates for Elías: Julio Borges, the Guanipa brothers and several other PJ heavy-hitters handed out flyers and rang on doorbells David had already rung.

El Hatillo could afford the luxury of what would be the last multiparty race in Venezuela.

An all out fight between PJ and VP broke out, a full on derby where even Leopoldo López made an appearence. By October, there was no gap between candidates. Technically tied, different pollsters gave different winners. Soon we were seeing defections from PJ to VP, with key people either distancing themselves from Elias or fully jumping ship. Our team got more robust. Anywhere you turned, David was there.

The final month was brutal. Several appearances each day, caravans blasting jingles and flyers that people handed back “because they already had one.” It felt as if something way bigger than an election for mayor — like the soul of the opposition was at stake. Eight-hour shifts were a thing of the past: 24/7, on call, ready to mobilize, and if you weren’t on the go, you’d better be busy helping somewhere else. It ended with a massive show of force; one camp held giant rallies throughout the entire municipality, while the other hosted a march and a rock concert featuring La Vida Boheme (the largest concert on El Hatillo to this day).

A tense December 8th saw voting centers crawling with members of both teams, scrambling for votes. Allied neighbors lent their homes to one side or the other; dozens of volunteers called a never ending list of phone numbers, making sure every hand shaken translated into a purple pinky, the universal sign for “ya voté.

It would turn into an unnecessarily long night. Technical problems marred the process at several of the biggest voting centers, which translated into people in line for well over five hours, a dress rehearsal for the near future, we would later come to see.

All four of our mayors are in prison or in hiding today.

Soon, PJ sat down and wondered how to pull a win, or concede defeat. David’s lead was widening by the minute. He was out of reach and close to out of sight. Those long lines began celebrating. They knew. Not a single vote in line would be for Elías Sayegh —he lost the three biggest voting centers, coincidentally the ones with the most technical issues, by margins doubling his tally. Game over.

Back at campaign HQ, confirmation from each voting station began trickling in. The numbers promising, the mood shifting from a tense penalty shootout, to a relaxed celebration. Freddy Guevara, played Smolansky’s jingle on the piano and Manuela Bolívar arrived with a smile across her face, but Leopoldo wasn’t ready to celebrate. He wanted his tendencia irreversible. It came soon enough, when Primero Justicia conceded defeat.

Voluntad Popular had a great night. Delson Guárate became the only opposition mayor in Aragua, and Warner Jiménez won in Maturín, Diosdado’s home turf. Lumay Barreto was now mayor in Guasdualito, guerrilla territory.

All four of our mayors are in prison or in hiding today.

David turned out to be as good at governing as he had been at campaigning, a crime chavismo was never going to leave unpunished.

As for David, he recently hit the 42 month mark in office, during arguably the hardest years for anyone to be a mayor in Venezuela. The collapse of the economy and the neverending political tension has rendered local offices into just that: offices. No effective public policy can be sustainably carried out. Yet under Smolansky’s watch, kidnappings —El Hatillo’s most feared form of crime— dropped by a staggering 62%. He put together the first true municipal public transport service in El Hatillo’s history when Transhatillo began running. The Police Academy was reactivated, and the municipality’s collapsed education and public health systems were brought back to life.

David turned out to be as good at governing as he had been at campaigning. That’s a crime chavismo was never going to leave unpunished.

It’s hard to explain what it feels like to have someone you know and admire go on the lam, running from injustice. That’s why, in this dark hour, I want to celebrate not just who David Smolansky is, but what he is capable of achieving if he has his freedom. Because David stands for excellence, and there’s nothing a chavista finds more threatening than that.