Facebook gives a platform to the challenger of Chavez

Wednesday saw Venezuela’s opposition presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, field questions from the internet in a first-of-its-kind Facebook Forum in Latin America. Relaxed, wearing a red short-sleeved shirt, Capriles took his message of inclusion right to the netroots — likely a strong demographic for him, and one of the few mediums the government still does not ...

DANIEL LARA (for the Capriles campaign)
DANIEL LARA (for the Capriles campaign)
DANIEL LARA (for the Capriles campaign)

Wednesday saw Venezuela's opposition presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, field questions from the internet in a first-of-its-kind Facebook Forum in Latin America. Relaxed, wearing a red short-sleeved shirt, Capriles took his message of inclusion right to the netroots -- likely a strong demographic for him, and one of the few mediums the government still does not monopolize.

The Chávez camp has been running its campaign largely on fear-mongering, painting an apocalyptic picture of mass layoffs, savage cuts to social spending, and widespread political retaliation should the opposition win the election. For Capriles, the challenge has been to defuse these fears, portraying himself as a safe pair of hands for the hopes and dreams of rank-and-file chavistas, as well as his own supporters.

That softly-softly strategy was on full display last night, as Capriles underlined his commitment to gradualism and his rejection of retaliatory politics. But he also sought to turn the tables on the chavista camp, poking fun at the government's fear-mongering: He iterated his commitment to institutionalizing the country's social safety net, which, he said, has too often been leveraged as an arm of the government's political machine, dispensing goodies to supporters and withholding them from dissenters.

Wednesday saw Venezuela’s opposition presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, field questions from the internet in a first-of-its-kind Facebook Forum in Latin America. Relaxed, wearing a red short-sleeved shirt, Capriles took his message of inclusion right to the netroots — likely a strong demographic for him, and one of the few mediums the government still does not monopolize.

The Chávez camp has been running its campaign largely on fear-mongering, painting an apocalyptic picture of mass layoffs, savage cuts to social spending, and widespread political retaliation should the opposition win the election. For Capriles, the challenge has been to defuse these fears, portraying himself as a safe pair of hands for the hopes and dreams of rank-and-file chavistas, as well as his own supporters.

That softly-softly strategy was on full display last night, as Capriles underlined his commitment to gradualism and his rejection of retaliatory politics. But he also sought to turn the tables on the chavista camp, poking fun at the government’s fear-mongering: He iterated his commitment to institutionalizing the country’s social safety net, which, he said, has too often been leveraged as an arm of the government’s political machine, dispensing goodies to supporters and withholding them from dissenters.

The Capriles campaign has been relentless in driving its main themes: The government promises ideology, Capriles promises solutions; the government has lost touch with the problems faced by Venezuelans, but Capriles is out in the countryside, listening.

But the challenge has been in even getting the message out.

The polls are showing Capriles either way down or almost tied with the president, depending on the pollster. However, political scientist Iñaki Sagarzazu — the Venezuelan version of Nate Silver — has the overall "poll-of-polls" as tightening.

In order to continue making inroads, Capriles must overcome a serious deficit in the airwaves. Venezuela’s Electoral Body is heavily restricting the amount of time each campaign can run ads on TV to no more than three minutes per day, per channel.

However, the Electoral Body lacks either the will or the power to restrict the mandatory transmission of the president’s speeches, which can run for hours on end, on every TV channel and radio station simultaneously — and which frequently contain campaign themes.

According to YoMonitoreo, a media watchdog, the government has monopolized the airwaves in this way for a total of 15 hours since the beginning of July. The group has even unveiled a Cadenómetro (a play on the word cadena, used for the president’s marathon broadcasts). It’s a clock that tallies the average number of hours the government spends on mandatory broadcasting each day. The Cadenómetro says that the Chávez government has spent, on average, 43 minutes per day touting its successes and promoting the President’s pep rallies — on each TV and radio station in the country.

This lopsided access to the media is just the tip of the iceberg as far as abuse of state resources for a campaign goes. Under these conditions, the Capriles campaign doesn’t really have a choice: It must use the Internet as a prime vehicle for getting its message across. So, yesterday’s Facebook Forum promises to be the first of many such events.

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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