Whither the Venezuelan Opposition?

It’s been a year to the day since Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro took office. The anti-government protests that began in early February and left dozens dead and hundreds injured over the past few weeks appear to be on the wane. The split between the moderate and hardcore opposition has deepened. Negotiations between the moderate faction, led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, and the Maduro government look to be proceeding apace.

The evolution of Capriles’ attitude toward the protests has been interesting to observe. In the early stages, Capriles rejected an offer to participate in a dialogue, saying “I am not going to make Nicolas Maduro look good.” He derided the Maduro government’s “brutality” and “repression” and called the president “a serious mistake in the history of our Venezuela.” However, he remained wary of the more radical elements of the opposition. According to an unnamed source cited by the Venezuelan Interior Minister, Capriles attended a meeting with opposition politicians Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado in February. “Capriles left and said he was going because he was not going to support that crazy man, referring to Leopoldo Lopez, who was proposing setting the cities on fire,” the minister claimed.

At first, Capriles tread carefully. He did not embrace the protesters’ more violent tactics, but he generally avoided condemning them, preferring to portray the government as the main source of violence. Then, something changed. Maybe it was the rising death toll. Maybe it was the increasingly visible and apparent radicalism of the anti-government protesters. Whatever the cause for his change of heart, Capriles seems to have publicly embraced his break with those calling for “La Salida” (“The Exit”) of President Maduro. “We don’t want a coup d’etat or a social explosion,” he said recently.

Though Maduro and his government remain unpopular, the majority of Venezuelans disagree with the way the protests have unfolded. According to one poll, 85% of Venezuelans condemned the violent demonstrations and 67% disagreed with the opposition’s initial refusal to join in a dialogue with the government to resolve the situation.

Lopez and Machado’s supporters still refuse to participate in the talks, insisting that Maduro step down and that amnesty be granted to those arrested during the protests. The intransigence of this hardcore wing may boost their bona fides as unflinching anti-Chavistas, but it doesn’t necessarily bode well for the opposition’s national electoral prospects. Capriles narrowly lost to Maduro in the presidential election held last year following the death of Hugo Chavez, and while he disputed the results of that race, he also condemned the violent opposition protests that followed. “To all my followers…this is a peaceful quarrel. Whoever is involved in violence is not part of this project, is not with me,” Capriles said at the time. “It is doing me harm.”

In municipal elections held in December, Capriles’s Democratic Unity coalition also performed well, but still finished behind Maduro’s United Socialist Party overall. The lesson seems to be that moderation works. There are many things Venezuelans of varying political persuasions can agree upon, and one of them is that “coups are always bad and democracy is good.” Venezuelans have a higher “support for democracy” than any other country in Latin America. Calling for the ouster of a democratically-elected president just isn’t a good look.

It remains to be seen what will come of the peace negotiations, and there are real issues President Maduro has to address aside from the recent social unrest. However, with a deepening split between those who see Capriles as a sellout and those who view the hardcore wing as anti-democratic extremists, it will be difficult for the opposition to present itself as a coherent alternative to the well-established Chavista system. As the saying goes, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

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