Transitions

Venezuela’s opposition hits the diplomatic road

Last week, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles made his first trip abroad following last April’s disputed election. If his objective was to stir the pot back home, he achieved it: The enraged response from the Venezuelan government suggests we should expect to see him travelling more often. These trips are part of a new phase ...

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles made his first trip abroad following last April’s disputed election. If his objective was to stir the pot back home, he achieved it: The enraged response from the Venezuelan government suggests we should expect to see him travelling more often.

These trips are part of a new phase for the Venezuelan opposition. For the first time, they are embarking on a serious diplomatic offensive. The opposition believes that international pressure is the only thing the government will respond to, since dissenting Venezuelans clearly don’t count. Some experts believe that international pressure sometimes served as an influence on President Hugo Chávez. For example, during the 2000s, there was a widely held view in U.S. foreign policy circles that Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was a moderating factor in Venezuela, someone to whom Chávez listened.

More recently, after ignoring requests for an audit of this year’s election, the Maduro government originally changed its mind under pressure from South American governments represented by the umbrella group UNASUR (though it has since gone back on its word). The opposition thinks the only thing the Venezuelan rulers seem to fear is international pressure, particularly from Latin American governments, and they hope their lobbying will prompt the Maduro government into thoroughly auditing the election.

After publicly denouncing the April 14th presidential election — which saw Nicolás Maduro beat Capriles by a razor-thin margin of 1.5 percentage points — the opposition has been going through the required motions to get the "fraudulent" election results overturned. It first requested a comprehensive audit, and when this request was denied, it asked the Supreme Tribunal to void the election and order a new one be held.

The court has not ruled yet, but members of the opposition harbor little hope that their request will yield results. That is why they have begun taking their case abroad.

A few weeks ago, lawmaker Maria Corina Machado was tipped to head the foreign lobbying efforts for the opposition coalition, known as the Democratic Unity Roundable, or MUD. Since then, Machado has traveled to Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Mexico, and the United States. During her travels, she has met with legislators, government officials, former heads of state, presidential candidates, opinion makers, international bodies, and even Nobel-prize winners.

She has also faced resistance from local sympathizers of the chavista movement, as well as from the Venezuelan government. In Chile, for example, I witnessed how a group of angry protestors hurled insults at everyone who attended Machado’s meeting with the Venezuelan expat community, held in the majestic Main Hall of the old Congress building. For its part, the Maduro government says that the opposition’s efforts to lobby its case abroad amount to "treason," a charge frequently hurled at anyone who dissents from the official party line.

Machado is the ideal person for this job. Smart, telegenic, and an excellent English speaker, she has the star quality as well as the gravitas to discuss Venezuelan politics with anyone.

She also bears the scars of chavista violence — literally. On April 30th, she, along with two other opposition legislators, was savagely beaten on the floor of the National Assembly while chavista authorities locked the doors and Assembly President Diosdado Cabello smirked with approval. Machado’s nose was broken and nobody was punished. She is traveling with her nose still heavily bandaged post-surgery.

Machado’s actions are paving the way for Capriles to make such trips. When Capriles traveled to Bogotá last week to meet with Colombian authorities, he also held a private meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. This prompted a furious reaction from the Venezuelan government. Cabello, speaking out of turn and before anyone in the cabinet, said that Santos’ meeting with the "fascist, murderous" Capriles amounted to putting "a bomb" on bilateral relations between the two countries. Prompted by Cabello’s outburst, and considering the enormous sway he holds over the government, the Foreign Ministry called home its envoy from Colombia’s peace talks with the FARC guerrilla group.

The Maduro government is not only reacting to the opposition’s lobbying. They’re also trying to seize the initiative. Yesterday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. This coincided with the Venezuelan government freeing documentary filmmaker Timothy Tracy, who was jailed a few weeks ago after the Venezuelans (falsely) accused him of being a CIA spy. In spite of this meeting, the Obama administration has so far refused to recognize Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela.

As the battle over Venezuela moves to the international arena, one is left wondering wh
at other options the opposition is left with. As much as foreign opinion may count, the fight to topple a president many view as illegitimate is going to require oppositionists hitting the streets of their own country in protest.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

 Twitter: @juannagel
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