- 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.
The leader of Venezuela´s opposition, Henrique Capriles, visited Chile last week. His goal was to meet politicians of all stripes and to call their attention to Venezuela’s unresolved political crisis. But while many politicians and the media warmly received Capriles, he was given the cold shoulder by the two people that matter most: the country’s current president Sebastián Piñera, and former-President Michelle Bachelet.
Capriles refused to concede defeat in Venezuela’s elections in April 2013, after losing by a little over 200,000 votes. Citing numerous irregularities, he demanded a full audit of the vote. Capriles claims that opposition witnesses were removed at gunpoint or through other forms of intimidation in hundreds of voting centers. He says it was precisely in these centers that phantom votes were added to the voting machines without matching signatures being added to the registry. Venezuelans are required to sign their names in a voter notebook before proceeding to the voting booth; thus, evidence of such foul play could be discovered in the voter notebooks. Capriles’ contender, current President Nicolás Maduro, agreed to the audit initially, but he retracted his offer a few hours later.
Sensing a growing political crisis, the presidents of other South American countries demanded a full audit of the vote through a resolution by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR); Venezuela acquiesced. A few days later, though, Venezuela’s electoral body instead conducted a partial audit that did not include examining the voter notebooks.
Capriles insists the UNASUR resolution binds Venezuela to a full audit, and he wants action. He first took his case to Colombia, where he met with President Juan Manuel Santos and caused a diplomatic firestorm in Caracas. The Maduro government issued a harshly worded note of protest. After a month and a half of dramatically cooled relations, Maduro and Santos met this week in order to patch things up.
Following his initial foray into diplomacy, Capriles’ next stop was Santiago. In theory, Chile — with its center-right president and its long tradition of levelheaded foreign policy — would be an ideal place for Capriles to make his case. However, it did not play out that way.
Fearing an outpouring of rage from Caracas similar to the one hurled at Colombia, President Piñera refused to say if he would meet Capriles until a few days before the opposition leader’s arrival. By then, the pressure from forces close to chavismo had reached fever pitch — they were incensed Piñera would even consider meeting Capriles because they deem him as a "coupster," and even a "murderer."
Piñera decided to meet Capriles, but only at a private dinner held in the home of a senator — which is tantamount to a snub of Capriles. By refusing to meet him in the presidential palace, Piñera signaled that he was not taking him (or Venezuela’s opposition) seriously. But the low-key nature of their meeting did little to appease Caracas. The Chilean airline LAN (which once belonged to Piñera) has been stripped of its gate assignment at Caracas’ international airport, allegedly as punishment for flying Capriles to Santiago as a passenger.
There really was no reason not to host Capriles inside the palace. Capriles was touring on business, and many politicians — government and opposition — have met the president in his office. Even American actress Melanie Griffith was once given the presidential palace treatment — and nothing Capriles has ever done is as harmful to society as the movie version of "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
At least Piñera met Capriles and posed for a picture. The behavior of the upcoming presidential favorite — former- President and head of U.N. Women — Michelle Bachelet, however, was downright disgraceful.
Since returning to Chile to run for president, Bachelet has veered hard to the left. She has surrounded herself with a clique full of die-hard chavista apologists, and for the first time has received the endorsement of Chile’s Communist Party, which has extensive and controversial ties to Cuba and North Korea.
Prior to Capriles’ arrival, Bachelet said she would not meet him because of a "problem with her schedule." However, the night Capriles met with Venezuelan expatriates, Bachelet was in the same building for a book party. Outside of the event, hundreds of Chilean communist activists physically and verbally assaulted Venezuelan expatriates coming to hear Capriles, using the very insults uttered by prominent members of Bachelet’s inner circle. "Coupster," "fascist," and "murderer." Bachelet has so far refused to condemn the aggressions.
Bachelet’s refusal even to listen to Venezuela’s opposition signals that, when it comes to foreign policy, the radical left wing of her coalition is in command. This is in line with most of her campaign proposals, which include promising free university education for all, pledging a massive tax hike, and calling for a significant change in the country’s constitution, including the possibility of a Constitutional Assembly — all proposals championed by the left-wing governments of South America.
Chile and Venezuela have long, deep, historical ties. Andrés Bello, a former teacher of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar, settled in Chile and is considered one of the founding intellectuals of the young republic. Thousands of Chileans also found refuge in Venezuela during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship.
Overall, Capriles found a welcoming audience in Chile’s politicians. His visit was met with intense curiosity by the general public, and was heavily covered by Chilean media. However, he does not seem to have succeeded in convincing the two main politicians that his cause is just. Judging by the actions of Chile’s current leaders, whether through fear of chavista reprisals or plain ideological convergence, it seems that the current and future ties with Venezuela … are with chavismo only.