To explain why left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has stayed in power for 13 years, fans and foes alike point out that he controls the western hemisphere’s largest oil reserves. But he’s also been blessed with what is arguably the most incompetent political opposition in Latin America. As Chavez gears up for another re-election bid, however, he may finally face more than just the usual gallery of feckless and fractured rivals – and that became more apparent Jan. 24 when one of the leading candidates hoping to confront him in next October’s election, Leopoldo Lopez, threw his support behind the No. 1 prospect, Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski.
Lopez’s surprise announcement, just a few weeks before an unusual, multi-party opposition primary election, offers one of the strongest signs yet that Chavez and his socialist revolution for once have a more unified force to deal with. Capriles, a 39-year-old former tax attorney with a surprisingly common touch, may well be the first viable challenger to Chavez’s controversial rule, which has reduced poverty and given the poor more empowerment, but which has been marked by a polarizing and often authoritarian style, economic mismanagement, a spiraling violent crime rate and deteriorated relations with the U.S. “I’m not part of the old Venezuelan political establishment” that Chavez toppled in the 1998 presidential election, Capriles told me this week at his campaign offices in Caracas. “I’m the last person Chavez wants to be a candidate against him.”
Capriles’ threat to Chavez can perhaps be summed up in one word: Lula. That is, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose remarkably successful mix of socialism and capitalism is Capriles’ model. It’s true that Chavez helped opened the door for Latin America’s leftists to take power again in the 2000s. But most of them, like Lula, turned out to be more moderate than Marxist – and that turned out to be geopolitical kryptonite for Chavez, whose radical influence in the region has declined sharply in the past half decade.
Chavez’s opponents, who for years let el presidente outflank and outfox them, have finally figured out that following Lula’s “third way” is probably the best way to topple Chavez inside Venezuela as well. Chavez has spent much of his presidency demonizing and dismantling capitalism in Venezuela, a strategy that has helped produce Latin America’s highest inflation rate (almost 30%) and its lowest level of foreign investment (a net outflow, in fact). Capriles’ pledge to retain Chavez’s popular social programs but revive capitalist productivity stands to resonate with Venezuelan voters, a majority of whom actually voted for opposition candidates in the 2010 parliamentary elections (although arcane proportional seating rules let Chavez’s socialist party keep its National Assembly majority).
Though he only turns 40 this summer, Capriles has racked up considered political experience as an Assembly deputy, mayor of a large Caracas borough and now Governor of Miranda, just outside Caracas. In all of those posts, say his backers, he’s demonstrated an ability to build bridges between Chavez’s largely middle- and upper-class adversaries and the President’s largely poor and working-class base of support. “People here are tired of constant ideological conflict,” Capriles argues. “I work for dialogue and accord.” Perhaps the strongest example is his Hambre Cero (Zero Hunger) program in Miranda, which takes its name directly from one of Lula’s best known anti-poverty projects and provides broad nutrition, housing, education and health aid as well as job and business training. “Chavez did well to identify poverty as a priority in Venezuela, and if we as the opposition don’t engage that social reality here, then it’s game over for us,” Capriles told me. “But to do that more effectively you also have to develop the country’s economic capacity.”
Capriles is often a target of Chavez’s populist scorn because he hails from a wealthy Caracas family that owns one of Venezuela’s largest cinema chains. While mayor of the Baruta borough in 2002, he was accused by Chavez’s government of inciting a riot outside the Cuban embassy and spent four months in jail. Capriles denied what he called a politically fabricated charge and insisted he had in fact kept the anti-Chavez crowd from storming the embassy. A court agreed and acquitted him. Capriles says he credits his political toughness largely to the example of his immigrant grandparents, who were Polish Holocaust survivors.
He’ll need a thick hide from here on out. Though Capriles is heavily favored to win the opposition alliance’s Feb. 12 primary vote, recent polls still show him well behind Chavez, who despite his recent battle with cancer remains Venezuela’s strongest political figure – one with a multi-tentacled state-run media apparatus at his disposal as well as the oil-fueled political patronage largesse that he’s already begun to ratchet up before the Oct. 7 election. And a big question is whether Chavez and his followers – including his new Defense Minister, who ominously suggested last year that the armed forces’ first loyalty is to Chavez – will allow an opposition presidential victory even if it happens.
The show of unity by the popular Lopez (who Chavez insists is disqualified from running for office because of murky corruption accusations that the Inter-American Human Rights Court recently called bogus) enhances Capriles’ chances. “I feel proud that today together we’re demonstrating we can act with greatness,” Lopez said in backing Capriles. Chavez doesn’t seem too intimidated by the “greatness” yet. When, for example, another opposition leader charged this month that the President’s property expropriations and business nationalizations are a form of “robbery,” Chavez said she wasn’t worth answering: “The eagle doesn’t hunt the fly,” he retorted. Capriles and the opposition have eight months to prove they’re big enough to hunt Chavez.