Getting to Know the Venezuelan Opposition

Daniel Crump @dannycru 

Image © Globovision

Later this year, the citizens of Venezuela will go to the polls to decide whether the Hugo Chavez era will continue for another six years. His opponent, Henrique Capriles, head of the Democratic Unity coalition (MUD), promises Venezuela social and political reform and a return to bosom of the International Community after years of suspicion and a stint in George Bush’s Axis of Evil.

Despite the clear battle lines currently being drawn by both candidates, Mr Capriles appears to be refusing to charge in head first into an absolute criticism of the President’s rule, instead preferring to score his opponent well on some issues whilst maintaining a ‘could do better’ approach to others. This may well be because of the nature of the Chavez years, at best a passionate, nationalist defence of the spirit of Simon Bolivar, and at worst, a couple of election results away from being the 21st Century’s most unpredictable dictatorship.

Thanks to the President’s media hegemony following a failed 2002 coup against him, Venezuelans are treated to daily Presidential addresses and regularly see scheduled television programming interrupted by speeches with no set time limit. This has no doubt permeated Venezuelan way of life to the extent that even Chavez’s opponents must struggle to visualise an MUD period of power. Being so used the familiar, even when not finding it favourable, has the effect of casting dark shadows over the alternative and this is something Hugo Chavez looks set to exploit. Perhaps wisely, Capriles stays firmly on the side of caution when voicing his desire for reform.

When it comes to Venezuelan policies on oil manufacturing, the opposition recognises that the largest state owned firm, PDVSA, has become a symbol of national pride, much in the same way as YPF has come to personify the credibility of the Argentinean state and its leader Christina Fernandez. Therefore, despite being more inclined to privatisation in principle, Capriles proposes to keep PDVSA in state hands whilst introducing a more professional and cost effective system of management, making the company ‘de-politicised’. This is in line with his wider vision for Venezuelan business, arguing that a sweeping wave of privatisation is not what the country currently needs, but promising to look at each case on its merits.

If Hugo Chavez has become synonymous with oil policy and wealth redistribution, Mr. Capriles has sighted education as his flagship policy. He has been vocal in praising the President for building more schools, along with more health centres, in the country’s most deprived areas, something the opposition leader promises to continue. However, he has called for a more professional approach to the running of new schools and aims to curb the high levels of corruption and political partisanship that has been an unfortunate side effect of Chavez’s social policies. Capriles sights education as the long-term solution to Venezuela’s high crime wave, the issue that most Venezuelans claim to worry most about. 

In terms of foreign policy, Capriles has indicated that he would like to review Venezuela’s links to Cuba. Currently, the Communist island receives special treatment when it comes to oil supply, and Venezuelan shanty towns are currently filled with Cuban doctors while it’s state and national offices are home to several Cuban Intelligence Advisors. Chavez has been the driving force behind the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) which attempts to install regional economic integration based on welfare support, and rejects the idea of free trade agreements with the American area’s northern giants. Again, a complete dismantling of ALBA is not currently on Mr Capriles’s cards, but it is unlikely that the status quo will survive if he wins the vote in October.

Venezuela may not have the cleanest democratic record of recent years, but it is still able to boast regular elections and limited term times unlike other nations nearby. Yet, there is no indication that Chavez will relinquish power quietly. His army of loyal media representatives have led a damning campaign against Mr Capriles, as well as the opposition supporting Television Company, Globovision. Venezuela’s Supreme Court this week ordered a seizure of the company’s assets worth $5.7m along with a further $2.1m in fines. It’s only crime appears to be who they have chosen to endorse.

The victory that brought Mr Capriles to the position of Presidential hopeful has itself been cast into doubt as some Chavez supporters question whether a man they see as a homosexual with Jewish descent is a legitimate individual to run for Venezuela’s Presidency. One state radio commentator wrote a report of Capriles highlighting his Jewish family ties. The report entitled ‘The Enemy is Zionism’ makes several dubious links between his family’s history, his grandparents both survivors of the Second World War in Poland, with his upper-class ‘bourgeois’ social status and most alarmingly his alleged links to fascism.

Capriles’s worries do not stop there. Chavez has sought to disrupt his campaign by requiring all registered voters living in Miami, natural enemies of Chavez’s ally Fidel Castro, to cast their ballots at the consulate in New Orleans, over 1,000km away.

Perhaps above all else, the Venezuelan opposition only stands a chance of winning if the vote is as free and fair as possible. Chavez has faced numerous accusations by foreign leaders of harming democracy in Venezuela, and the 2004 referendum on Presidential term limits was likely to have been rigged in the President’s favour. Evidence cited by the CIA indicates electronic voting was the main source of corruption as it was very likely tampered with and hacked into, to manipulate results.

Capriles faces an uphill battle in terms of overcoming Chavez’s disruptive tactics and making sure he does not alienate the poor, white vote by radically changing the past two decades of Chavista rule. He must promise to continue the projects for the poor but insist on making them run better. He cannot nationalise all Venezuelan business over night, but should not rule it out either. What Venezuela needs is a candidate who will end the class struggle, keep the pride of Venezuela’s hard working poor intact while offering them the chances of a better life. It’s by no means an easy job, but someone has got to do it.

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