The Venezuelan opposition’s silver lining
October 9th, 2012
04:46 PM ET

The Venezuelan opposition’s silver lining

By Christopher Sabatini, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly. The views expressed are his own.

For a brief moment last week, a few started to believe the impossible: that after 14 years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez would lose an election to a unified opposition led by a young, energetic former governor, Henrique Capriles Radonski. But when the results were announced on Sunday night, Chávez had won, again.

This time, though, the victory was more about Chávez as a personal figure than his self-named Bolivarian Revolution over a fractured, discredited (and smeared) opposition. For the first time, the Venezuelan opposition made the election a referendum on Chávez’s record, rather than – as it had too often in the past – on his personality. With a record as governor of Miranda state and as a fresh face, the 40-year-old Capriles separated himself from the shadow of the corruption and mismanagement that preceded Chávez, instead focusing on the dismal record of the Bolivarian Revolution.

And there is a lot to focus on: in the last 14 years, Caracas – with a murder rate of about 67 per 100,000 residents – has become one of the most violent cities in the world; profligate public spending has led to an inflation rate that topped 27 percent last year (again one of the highest in the world), and reliance on oil and the capricious expropriation of business has led to one of the lowest rates of economic growth in the region, registering a flaccid 4.2 percent last year compared to 6 percent  for Chile and 6.9 for Peru.

The strategy earned the opposition its strongest performance since Chávez was first elected in 1998, with 14 years of difficulties managing Venezuela’s problems and exorbitant promises reducing Chávez’s vote share to just over 10 percent, with Capriles – when the final votes were tallied – scoring 44 percent of the vote compared with Chávez’s 55 percent.

According to interviews and surveys, many of the poor that have remained Chávez’s base maintain a personalistic connection to the Afro/Indigenous descendant leader as a man who speaks their language and defends their interests. Less clear, though, is how many of them actually identify with Chávez’s broader project of creating a 21st Century Socialism.  International surveys like those conducted by Pew have shown that despite President Chavez’s fiery anti-American and anti-capitalist rhetoric, the majority of Venezuelan citizens are pro-market and U.S. friendly (72 percent support a free market economy and 56 percent have favorable impressions of the U.S. according to the 2007 Pew surveys).

Just as important for Sunday’s results has been the evolution of the opposition. Since 1999, the opposition has consistently shot itself in the foot, in a series of self-inflicted political wounds. Among them have been: an April 2002 coup attempt (and the return of Chávez after the interim president unwisely attempted to dissolve the constitution); a December 2002 general strike intended to force Chávez out of office (instead he fired striker oil workers); a refusal to accept the election results of a 2004 referendum on President Chavez’s mandate; and a miscalculated decision to not participate in the 2005 legislative elections. Throughout, the opposition underestimated Chávez and handed him numerous victories and a carte blanche to consolidate his power.

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This time, though, in February 2012 a broad coalition of opposition groups held a free, democratic primary in which 3 million voters participated, selecting Capriles. And that unity has held even after the opposition’s defeat. For now, the opposition has hewed close to the consensus candidate, whose concession remarks have shown a remarkable level of moderation and a long-term view. Despite fears of post-election violence, Venezuela has been quiet – something due in no small measure to the restraint and commitment of Capriles and the opposition to the democratic process and securing the gains of Sunday.

The ultimate question will be what both sides will do in the next month and over President Chavez’s new six-year term that will start in January 2013. For Chávez, the question will be whether he ramps up his Bolivarian Revolution or recognizes that he is now governing a country split largely down the middle – just over 50 percent with him and just under that against him. For most political leaders, that result would be a sign of the need to reach across the aisle and moderate political goals. But this is a former military officer and coup leader who when he has won in the past has engaged in a flurry of nationalizations and policies to consolidate power. And if his campaign platform – which calls for a greater role for the military and the formation of popular communes and assemblies stretching from the executive down to communities – is any indication, he has a pretty ambitious plan for consolidating his revolution this term.

The opposition this time appears to be playing the long-game. Certainly, Capriles’s post- election call for patience and for his supporters to stay the course speaks to a new level of maturity of a fractious opposition movement. The question is whether – given their differences – they are willing to stick with him.

They have three good reasons to do so, however. First among them are the results he delivered on Sunday: 6.4 million voters, 1.5 more than opposition candidates for president in the past. Second is the upcoming December state and local elections. The failings of the Bolivarian Revolution are most felt at the local level, and it is there that the popularity of Chávez’s project – without the former lieutenant colonel on the ballot – will be tested. The voting represents a real opportunity to make genuine inroads in the state to practically demonstrate the difference between Chávez’s inchoate political project and the opposition’s claims that it can govern more effectively.

Last is Chávez’s uncertain health. In the past year, Chávez has undergone two separate surgeries and treatment in Cuba for an undisclosed cancer. According to Article 233 of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, should a president fail to complete the first four years of his or her term, new elections must be held immediately. Until now – as is often the case with charismatic leaders – Chávez has failed to groom a successor who has the same popular appeal and authority. If the president should be unable to fulfill his term before 2016, it will be a mad scramble among the parties and movements that make up his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) to find an electable replacement. In contrast, the opposition already has one. President Chávez may have won Sunday’s elections; it’s unclear though if Chavismo without Chávez could do the same.


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Topics: Elections • Latin America • Venezuela

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    Poor Christopher Sabatini, I guess that he's quite upset since the Venezuelan elections didn't go his way. He has lots of company in Washington D.C. in that regard. I myself, on the other hand, am well pleased that Hugo Chavez won. He is a very good man.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • Henry

      Your post here is the most sensible one yet, Quigley. Thank you. The other two below are only displaying their ignorance as one can plainly see! Viva Chavez!

      October 10, 2012 at 8:51 am | Reply
      • Sophie

        Seriously? So your definition of a "good man" refers to dictators who jail critics and sings while the country's poverty worsens by the minute? Wouldn't want to know how you define a "bad" man then.

        October 10, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
      • Julie

        I have to say that having lived in Venezuela for 6 years from 2002 to 2007, I am rather an authority on what it is like to live under the Chavez regime! Bloody aweful!! Venezuela under his governance is starting to look like Zimbabwe!! No food, no electricity, no freedom! Everyone is afraid there. Afraid to vote against Chavez or to show they don't support him – they get branded!! I have a Venezuelan son in law and a Venezuelan grand daughter and also family there. A socialist/communist state doesn't work full stop!! Never has and never will!! Why don't people learn from the past? Henry and co. you have NO IDEA!

        October 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Jimbob

      The ignorance is from you, Quigley, and Henry. You two criticize others but I bet if we made a pros and cons list of Chavez's presidency, he would not come out looking good. Chavez is a cult figure to many Venezuelans and that is something that is difficult to defeat in an election. That, and that alone, is the reason he won. Every poll taken said PSUV would lose an election if Chavez was not the leader. For some unfathomable reason, Venezuelans do not blame Chavez for the sorry and deteriorating state of the country. If the opposition had won, they would have inherited a country with crumbling infrastructure, constant power outrages, food shortages, a housing shortage, high corruption, high inflation, the 4th highest murder rate in the world, the highest kidnapping rate, a high and ever rising dependence on imports, a debt rising so fast that the country might actually default if things continue. Care to dispute any of what I just said?

      October 10, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
      • GJ

        You make it sound as though a foreign globalist corporate puppet, who would have almost certainly sold out his own countrymen by selling their most valuable natural resource (oil rights) to the same multinational corporations who funded his election (although covertly through NGO's), would be somehow better equiped to deal with infrastructure and poverty issues facing Venezuela. See how unbridled corporate hegemony has worked out for the wealth-povery gap in the good old US of A. Oh yea, and we have crumbling schools, bridges, and highways here in the US too, the epitome of capitalism run wild. With less corporate regulation came the financial crisis, and now we have now record numbers of Americans needing food stamps. I don't buy your argument in the slightest.

        October 10, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
      • capnmike

        Hey GJ, go back to your stupid Marx and Lenin books and stop blathering nonsense.

        October 10, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
      • jas1234567890

        are you sure you are not talking about the USA? LOL.

        October 10, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
      • nnk

        Abajo Chavez.

        October 10, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • capnmike

      Hugo Chavez is a piece of corrupt crap who has spent the last 14 years ruining Venezuela. I know. My family is Venezuelan. He has stolen billions from the Venezuelan people, stolen their businesses and homes, and corrupted not only the government but much of what used to be productive industry. If you actually think this "election" wasn't a fraud, you are a fool. The votes were COUNTED BY CHAVISTAS, IN SECRET. It was communicated to Capriles before the election that he had better "accept the results or blood would flow"...Chavez knew in advance that the results would be rigged. The only hope that country has now to be free and Democratic is if somebody there has the guts to shoot this fat pig.

      October 10, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
      • Rodera

        capnmike, you clearly are not happy with the results of the election (I am not either), but I have to say that what you wrote is not true. All parties had witnesses when the votes were counted so there was no possibility of a fraud. In my opinion, Mr. Capriles' position accepting the result of the election shows that he believes in democracy. It would not be smart for the opposition to ignore that there is a lot of poverty in Venezuela and that most poor people support Mr. Chavez.

        October 10, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
      • Marine5484

        You sound like another brainless, foul speaking, war loving Tea Partier, capnmike. Can you prove that the election in Venezuela was rigged? Of course not, since it never happened in the first place. Are you trying to be the Josef Goebbels of this website? It sure appears that way!

        October 10, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • VenezuelanGuy

      You and Henry, may like communism but do you live in communist country like Cuba or Venezuela? No, you do not. so STFU.

      October 10, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Reply
    • nunya


      October 11, 2012 at 12:21 am | Reply
    • Jack 3

      Is this really Sean Penn or danny Glover? It doesn't matter, you're all socialists

      October 11, 2012 at 11:11 am | Reply
  2. Ferhat Balkan

    Wonderful. Chavez has built a indisputable regime based on government dependency. Through these dependent voters, Chavez has in effect, established dictatorship. Who were Chavez's best friends again? Bashar Al-Assad, Fidel Castro, Muammar Gadafi, Putin, Ahmadinejad etc. Maybe they should form an alliance of dictators.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Gee whiz Ferhat, judging by you comment one would think that you're another Chavez hating Tea Partier. Of course a lot of ignoramuses here are upset over Chavez's winning the election but that's because he doesn't carry out orders from Washington D.C. which is a very good thing. Besides, it proves that he's not corrupt like most current European leaders!

      October 10, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Reply
      • ArchieDeBunker

        Marine5484: It is unfathomable to me that anyone who has done any reading at all about communism and marxism can possibly defend such a complete failure of a philosophy! You are probably one of those who is really angry because some people under capitalism become obscenely wealthy. Yet, you fail to realize that in every communist society that has ever existed, it' s the exact same thing – a few people control enormous wealth. Except that in the communictic society it's the party leaders who become obscenely wealthy – and at the expense of the poor people. And in every communist society that has ever existed, the VAST MAJORITY of people are poor as church mice! Contrast that to a free society like the wonderful one we had in America before the socialists took over, and you will readily recognize (if you're at all capable of being truthful with yourself after years of deluding yourself about the "wonderfulness" of communism and socialism) that the general well-being in a free society is vastly greater than anything any communist society has ever produced. In the case of the USSR and China (and probably in Venezuela and Cuba also) it was necessary for the filthy rich leaders of the Communist Party to massacre millions (about 40-million, in the case of Stalinist Russia) to keep the people in line and make them accept living in two-room, cement apartments with little heat and undependable water supplies. If you REALLY believe that there is even ONE THING superior about communistic rule over democratic rule, you need to go soak your head (preferably with your nose and mouth under the water line).

        "The major drawback of Capitalism is that some people will become obscenely wealthy. The only virtue of Socialism is that everyone shares equally in the resulting misery." Sir Winston Churchill

        October 11, 2012 at 11:33 am |
      • jheron

        Archiedebunker, almost all societies practice both capitalism and socialism together. Its just in different amounts. Many countries that engage in more "socialism" than the U.S. are doing much better than the U.S.A. and its citizens are happier.
        Capitalism is absolutely necessary, but so is some socialism. Its finding a balance that works for different countries is what is tricky. Countries that have a longer history of democracy have had much more experience with mixing the two and tend to be more stable than countries with less experience and that are on one end of the spectrum. What happens is that they tend to keep swinging from one end of the political spectrum to the other.

        October 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, the opposition should stick to Capriles and stay hopeful. It has fared well in this election, better than in the last one.
    Chavez' "Bolivarian revolution" is part of his personality cult. He makes sure he's unique and irreplaceable. The controversial nationalisations and expropriations were a vengence on capitalism. His social programs known as "missions" are a means to bribe voters – free education to all, free healthcare and housing to poor people. Yet this year was nothing like the landslide result of 2006, when he managed to get almost twice as many votes as his rivals. Indeed Chavez should be mindful of the fact that nearly half of the country is critical of his presidency. Apart from his health concerns, he faces substantial challenges – crime, inflation and mismanagement – that he has to deal with.

    October 10, 2012 at 6:57 am | Reply
  4. VenezuelanGuy

    To all of you who support Chavez, do you live in a communist country like Venezuela, Iran, Cuba or do you live in USA? If so, STFU.

    October 10, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Reply
    • Jack 3

      Good post!

      October 11, 2012 at 11:39 am | Reply
  5. Carlos

    This is a very good article and Fareed makes some very good points. Hopefully Capriles can keep the oposition together and they keep moving forward, that way if Chavez can't make it past 2016, they can move quickly to make sure new elections are held and someone doesn't appoint a successor. And to all of the Chavez lovers, do you say that Kim Jong Un is a good guy? How about Castro or Ortega or how was Mubarak. How is Ahmadinejad or Al Asad are they good guys too?

    October 10, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
    • aziaya

      mubarak was a dictotor too, but americans supported him all the way. and they killed gaddaffi who was a good dictator. libyans had some of the best living standards in the world

      October 11, 2012 at 4:56 am | Reply
  6. ihatechavez

    I hate chavez plus qungly ana henry you are stupid because chaves ruins venezuela and the life of venezuelanos so please someone just go and shoot chaves so venezuela could turn back to its beutiful stage with a better president like capriles to save venezuela

    October 10, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  7. Caches

    Is really sad that still people believing in a person than for more than 14 years has ruined a country with all the money received by oil sales, ( more than 1 billion$).i went to Venezuela last year and ! incredible, no power, terribles services etc. Now the people vote for that, poor of them. Each country has the government that it deserve.

    October 10, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  8. Freedom1

    Chavez, a Dictador, giving away the Venezuelan Oil almost for free! Ignorant, rude and unpolite even with his own cabinet! What an example for the rest of ignorants that following and "adore" him in Venezuela! Only an internal or external intervention will taking him down from his power! a "sniper" perhaps?

    October 10, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Reply
  9. Hasai

    Actually, I think Chavez has succeeded in creating "21st Century Socialism:" Profligate "social" spending in order to create a permanent dependent underclass, "spreading the wealth" via confiscation and nationalization of private property, a rubber-stamp government, media controls, and political harassment.

    Poor Obama must be green with envy.

    October 10, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  10. chavezno

    Viva Cancer.

    October 10, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  11. Vlad-Drakul

    Freedom 1; Freedom from freedom would be a better name as you are inciting assassination (mur der) of an openly elected democratic leader.
    Sc um rising to the surface!

    October 11, 2012 at 2:54 am | Reply
  12. f4xtrafn

    He needs another term finish destroying the economy.

    October 11, 2012 at 6:35 am | Reply
  13. Legman

    Chavez has appointed his people in all sectors of Venezuela to protect and advance his regime at command. Venezuelans simply gave this communist buffoon too much time to operate. As soon as expropriations and closing of media outlets were seen it was obvious this man was no longer caring about elections. By now Venezuela is not only in economic shambles, the entire nation is rigged, running on favoritism, and elections have been a time gaining charade since last time when he won by a hopeful "51%", please. Venezuelans have not even tried and by now it is simply too late.

    October 15, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  14. Des

    Venezuelan Election was a Fraud from the current dictatorship to keep in power. It was well executed from all different angles certainly. Five million fearful people voted either due special individual interest with the government, they were brained washed based on Cuban and Soviet well known used practices in Venezuela, or just fear that they were going to be caught not voting for the dictactor that provides its governamental job. Election results were based on Estate mighty Power, use of Estate money and resources to fund the totalitarian campaign, total control of the media, total control of the Army (with Cuban generals in charge) and, an Electoral National Committee (CNE) within the dictatorial and absolute control of Chavez (or I might say Fidel Castro, the mastermind behind the scenes). Of course, lately current totalitarian dictatorship (current government) sold a very considerable amount of Venezuelan Gold Reserves to pay for Russia and China help and advise, as the aftermath of elections. Rightful and hopeful venezuelan did their best and I applaud the efforts to become a "Free" society again. Now, more than ever all venezuelan with moral, ethics and education need to help others to see the light and, work together to get Venezuela back from all this free falling into hell.

    November 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
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