Can Venezuela’s Opposition Get Its Act Together?

Venezuela is a mess. But the opposition shows little indication that it can take advantage.

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There are two opposing narratives about Venezuela’s bruised and battered opposition.

The first version is mostly negative: The members of the opposition are embroiled in petty fights, and they can’t agree on tactics for confronting the increasingly authoritarian government of President Nicolas Maduro. While they oppose everything the government does, they fail to put forth serious policy proposals for the country.

The other? They’re in great shape.

The reason for this more optimistic take is the terrible condition of the economy, which has Venezuelans feeling desperate. Opinion polls show the government’s approval rating hovering just above 20 percent. If elections were held today, the opposition would win comfortably. The Venezuelan public has finally turned on the government, and that won’t change any time soon.

So which story is the right one? Well, as so often, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The dysfunction in Venezuela’s opposition is real, and it’s partly the result of the major organizational challenges faced by the coalition. It is structured in a way that leads to fragmentation and chaos. Funding is dwindling, and access to the media is practically non-existent.

There are three clear opposition leaders in Venezuela: Henrique Capriles, the twice-defeated presidential candidate; the outspoken and charismatic legislator Maria Corina Machado; and the jailed leader of the “Popular Will” political party, Leopoldo Lopez.

One would think that an organization with such clear leadership roles would be more streamlined than it is. The reality is somewhat more complicated. Many of the groups that form the current opposition movement lack national appeal but have a strong presence in certain parts of the countryside. Many of these local leaders have important roles to play in getting out the vote, and this gives them clout.

The multitude of factions makes the coalition unruly. This is a particularly acute problem for the upcoming parliamentary elections, where the opposition is supposed to present a single slate of candidates in order to have a shot at winning.

And then there’s funding. Opposition business people in Venezuela face enormous pressure to refrain from helping the candidates they support. The hyper-regulated economy and the lack of judicial independence mean that backing the wrong person can lead to death for a business and jail for its owners. As a matter of fact, this week the government began jailing private business owners for allegedly orchestrating the long lines outside their stores.

In the context of a crushing recession — the IMF predicts that GDP will shrink by 7 percent this year — political financing is always going to be tricky, even without the dangers involved. When you consider that the government uses the nation’s entire budget to help it win elections, the fight becomes a completely unfair one.

Venezuela’s opposition is also suffering from a lack of message discipline. In the last few years, Venezuela’s government has either co-opted or bought (via intermediaries) most of the nation’s TV and radio stations, and there are few newspapers left willing to print anti-government messages. As a result, the opposition is so desperate to get onto the news, they have no clear idea of what to say when they actually manage it.

In spite of all these problems, opinion polls are looking up for the opposition. Reputable pollster Datanálisis puts Maduro’s popularity at 22 percent, while other polls have been saying for months that the opposition is poised to win this year’s legislative elections. Public opinion seems to have turned on Maduro and his inept administration, and the situation for the president appears to be unsalvageable.

In the coming months, the opposition will need to sort out their many problems in time for the country’s next parliamentary elections, whose date has not yet been announced. If they win, they’ve vowed to implement constitutional changes to force Maduro out of power.

Whether they will be allowed to do this is a whole other story. Because he controls the judiciary and the military, Maduro will remain in a strong position even if he loses the election. Some in the opposition´s rank-and-file believe there is no way Maduro is going to allow for an opposition National Assembly to force him out of power.

When assessing Venezuela’s opposition, it’s easy to focus on their many shortcomings. But this can obscure the fact that, when compared to their counterparts in other autocracies, they’re actually doing quite well.

Iran’s opposition barely exists under the crushing weight of that country’s theocracy. Russia’s opposition has been cornered into irrelevance by Vladimir Putin and his kleptocrats. In Belarus and Cuba, the opposition is barely visible. At least in Venezuela, the opposition marches in the streets, fields political parties, and consistently polls within a few percentage points of the government in national elections.

Ultimately, the conundrum faced by Venezuela’s opposition has much to do with the fact that, even though they may represent the majority of the country right now, events are mostly outside of their hands. Their main task in the coming months is to stop the infighting, reunite, and present a viable alternative should the government collapse due to recession, infighting, or even a military coup.

They need to manage expectations, and be ready for a change that will come at a time not of their own choosing. This is a mighty complicated challenge.


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