- By Juan Cristóbal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution.
Hugo Chávez’s followers like to say the late president, by trying to beat terminal cancer and remain in power, was "laying down his life for his people." But he’s not the only martyr around. One could be forgiven for thinking that Henrique Capriles also has a death wish after launching his presidential campaign under seemingly impossible circumstances.
It’s been finally announced that the election to replace Chávez will take place on April 14. Before his death, Chávez appointed Vice-President Nicolás Maduro as his heir, and Maduro now reigns as the government’s uncontested leader. Last Sunday, Capriles decided to take Maduro on, but not before seriously considering withdrawing altogether.
The reasons for not participating are many. After last October’s defeat in the presidential poll, shortly followed by a similar thumping in the gubernatorial elections, the opposition is in no mood to "compete." All of the state’s resources — cash for volunteers, handouts in the form of electrical appliances, and an overwhelming amount of free media — are used against the opposition. The result is typically the same: A valiant effort on the part of the opposition is met with a myriad of abuses, which in turn leads to a mauling. The opposition is not interested in yet another defeat, especially after thousands of grieving Venezuelans flocked to see the president’s earthly remains.
But this alone would not justify withdrawing. The reason the opposition’s chances are practically non-existent lies with other factors. Compared to the approaching one, last October’s election was downright Jeffersonian in its democratic character.
Last Wednesday, as Hugo Chávez’s coffin — sans body, according to Spain’s ABC newspaper — was paraded through the streets of Caracas, the defense minister, an active navy man, told the media that the best way to honor Chávez was "for the armed forces to ensure Maduro is elected." He warned the opposition that the military would be used against what he called "fascists," and that they would "strike their mothers," a colloquial Venezuelan expression that roughly translates into striking a deadly or fatal blow.
This came after the head of Venezuela’s Electoral Body, Tibisay Lucena, appeared at a memorial for Chávez wearing an armband that identified her membership in the chavista movement. Lucena, who has long been accused of being partial to the government, has told the opposition they only have ten days to campaign, and will be permitted four minutes of airtime a day total. That is less than a single hour of television time for the entire campaign. The government, however, will be allowed to air unlimited "informative" broadcasts, which are typically electoral in nature.
The most severe blow, however, came as 33 heads of state were attending Chávez’s funeral. With the president of Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice sitting in the crowd, the court announced that Maduro could be sworn in as "president in charge" — a term that does not exist in the constitution — and that he will not have to resign in order to contest in the election, contrary to prior court rulings and what is mandated by law. This appalled many in the opposition, who rightly viewed it as a carte blanche for Maduro to use all the powers of the state, including the limitless funds of the state oil company, PDVSA, to ensure his victory. Coincidentally, shortly after Chávez’s death, Maduro named Rafael Ramírez, PDVSA’s CEO, to head his own campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort.
An intense debate sprang up in the opposition. Many — myself included — viewed the election as a lost cause, pointing out that the powers of the state have never been so clearly aligned in favor of the government’s candidate. Capriles did not immediately accept the opposition’s offer to be its candidate, and seriously considered not running.
In spite of the obstacles, Capriles ultimately decided to run. In a moving speech, perhaps the best of his career, he vowed to fight, doing it for "the mother whose son was killed by gunfire, the worker without a job, the young student whose prospects are dim." He acknowledged that some people thought he was "headed to the slaughterhouse," but he said he would use the candidacy as a platform to warn Venezuelans of the dangers of Chávez’s successors. His coalition was impressed, and the unity of the opposition — which appeared to be cracking — immediately solidified.
According to the conventional wisdom, Maduro has a lock on this election, despite his poor speaking skills and his ill-preparedness for the job. But in valiantly taking on a seemingly insurmountable challenge, Capriles appears to have ensured he will remain the leader of the opposition — even if it’s something of a death wish.