The New Faces of Venezuela’s Opposition

Venezuela’s opposition has many new faces — and they’re impatient for change. Can they and the old guard get along?

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All polls in Venezuela are predicting a comfortable win for the multi-party coalition that’s opposing the ruling socialists in the December 6 legislative elections. The opposition has struggled to gain traction for years, so this realistic chance at victory (if President Nicolás Maduro respects the results) is a big moment.

This opportunity comes at least partly thanks to a new generation of young people who have injected new energy into the movement. For the first time, many of the candidates seeking to enter parliament came of age during the presidency of Hugo Chávez. Politics for them is a mix of ideals and combativeness, and while they engage in dialogue, they sometimes see compromise as a dirty word.

One of the breakout stars of this younger cadre of candidates is Manuela Bolívar. She’s running in the central state of Miranda under the banner of Voluntad Popular, the party of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López.

A former university student leader and community organizer, Manuela is also the daughter of Didalco Bolívar, a high-ranking regime apparatchik. Strangely enough, her father is a candidate for the governing party in the neighboring state of Aragua, his power base.

I spoke to Manuela about the challenges of campaigning, her curious family history, and what lies ahead.

“My parents are divorced. On the weekends, instead of spending quality time with my father, I would have to accompany him to political rallies. Hugo Chávez regularly came to my house, and I was always surrounded by chavistas, but I was never one of them. I guess I was a rebel from an early age.”

“Now, we don’t talk about politics when we get together … which is weird, since we are both running for office.”

Opposition candidates face widespread violence. Manuela herself was physically assaulted on the street a few months ago, though she was obviously pregnant. (A few days ago, she delivered a healthy baby boy). The opposition must also withstand increasing scrutiny from a politicized judiciary, and its candidates enjoy little access to Venezuela’s largely pro-government media.

But in Maduro-era Venezuela, opposition candidates know where to go to talk to voters. “All you have to do is go to the lines,” Manuela says.

For months, Venezuelans have experienced acute shortages of basic staples. Thousands of people stand in lines for hours in front of supermarkets and drug stores. “Meeting voters means going to the lines and talking to them about the reason they are there, which happens to be the main issue on their minds,” Manuela explains. “In the lines you meet people from all walks of life — young, old, poor, rich, opposition or pro-government.”

Though some may portray her as part of the more aggressive, less conciliatory wing of the opposition, Manuela says she makes a point of engaging in dialogue. I ask her if the chavistas standing in line have been receptive to her message.

“The supporters of the government are just as frustrated as the rest of us,” she says. “It’s easy to disarm their arguments because, well, they are standing in line just like everyone else, living through the failures of the system the government has shoved down everyone’s throats. Though the collapse of the revolution has left them depressed, they are finally seeing in the opposition a viable alternative.”

It helps that Manuela knows how to speak their language. As her father’s daughter, she is intimately familiar with the language and motivations of chavista voters, a trait shared by many who came of age during Venezuela’s turbulent recent history.

“I think voters are looking for someone to trust. They understand the crisis is profound, that it is the fault of the government’s failed policies, and that solving it is going to take years,” she says. “Voters are tired of being lied to, or promised magical cures for their problems. They want to hear common sense.”

So far it has been a smoother ride for the opposition than many expected, and opinion polls are predicting a massive victory for their side. The question is what they’re going to do with this power — and whether their unity will survive their victory.

Like several other opposition candidates competing in the upcoming election, Manuela hails from the generation of students who famously stood up to Chávez when he shut down an opposition TV station in 2007. Their view of politics has been marked by an open life-or-death struggle against the government’s creeping authoritarianism. Correspondingly, this generation is keen to advance constitutional reforms that would put an end to Nicolás Maduro’s government.

On the other hand, the opposition’s older members, hailing from an earlier political era, are more cautious. Politicians such as Henry Ramos Allup, a prominent leader of the “old guard,” has fewer qualms about coexisting with Venezuela’s current government. This older generation is harshly critical of the more confrontational approach espoused by the jailed López and his allies, and is more interested in improving the system from within than in overturning it. Whether these two groups can find common ground is a lingering question within an opposition that expects, soon enough, to be within reach of power.

Opinion polls show Venezuelans favor the first, more radical approach — over 68 percent of them want the Maduro government gone, either through his resignation or through a recall — by the end of 2016. (His term ends in 2019.)

Bridging the divide between the two camps will remain a challenge. When asked about it, Manuela tells me there is an agreement between both factions — once they’re in power — to push for change within institutions such as the courts and the electoral council, something both groups agree is necessary.

If the government torpedoes these efforts, the agreement specifies that the opposition will take stronger measures, triggering moves for some kind of constitutional end to the government. That could involve anything from a recall referendum to convening a constitutional assembly which would have the power to remove existing authorities, including the president.

The injection of youth into the opposition is a welcome development. But if their energy boils over into impatience and unwillingness to compromise with members of their own side, their hard-fought victory at the polls will result only in frustration, both for them and for their voters.

This dynamic bears watching, and will continue to be an important story in the next six months of Venezuela’s chaotic political life.

In the photo, anti-government students chant slogans in Caracas on November 21, 2015.

Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @juannagel

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