On April 14th, Henrique Capriles-Radonski will challenge Hugo Chávez for the presidency of Venezuela for the second time in just over six months.
On the first occasion, on October 7th last year, Chávez was very much alive – and despite the Comandante's stranglehold upon the media and his control of Venezuela's national electoral commission, the CNE, Capriles garnered 44 per cent of the vote. It was a much better performance than that achieved by any of Chávez's previous opponents. Had both candidates competed on a level playing field, there is every reason to believe that Capriles would have won.
Maduro is even trying to co-opt Capriles into his conspiracy theorizing by claiming that the U.S. "right-wing" attempted to assassinate Capriles himself!
- Antonio Herrera-Vaillant
This time around, Chávez is dead. Having failed to embalm Chávez for eternity, thanks to their legendary incompetence, his successors are nonetheless attempting to transfer his political DNA to acting President Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro wants the forthcoming election – the most important in Venezuela since the Chavistas came to power in 1999 – to be about Chávez. That's why he loudly proclaims that we Venezuelans are all Chávez. It's why he insists that Chávez died from a cancer implanted in his body by nefarious forces in Washington, DC. Maduro is even trying to co-opt Capriles into his conspiracy theorizing by claiming that the U.S. "right-wing" attempted to assassinate Capriles himself!
Against this fevered, increasingly irrational background, Capriles is trying to affect a quiet revolution in Venezuelan politics. In doing so, Capriles has had to overcome discontent within the ranks of the opposition, some of whose members criticized him for conceding too easily last October. The opposition's poor showing in last December's state and local elections further cemented the gloom about the prospects for an opposition victory on a national scale.
In standing again – a decision that necessarily involves a great risk to his own career – Capriles has come out fighting. He has openly challenged the legality of our current political arrangements: under the terms of our constitution, the acting President should be the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, and not Maduro, who was Chávez's Vice-President. Capriles has also highlighted the danger posed by the Venezuelan Defense Minister, Admiral Diego Molero Bellavia, whose flagrantly illegal pledge that the armed forces will back Maduro demonstrates a degree of military involvement in politics unseen since the departure of former dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958.
Above all, Capriles understands that the April election is about the ownership of Venezuela's national institutions. For if Maduro has his way, Chávez's lasting legacy will be the conquest of those institutions by the tribunes of his "Bolivarian revolution."
In today's Venezuela, there is no longer a constitutional separation of powers: as early as 2004, Chávez railroaded through a law that expanded the number of judges on Venezuela's Supreme Court, the TSJ, from 20 to 32, and then promptly packed the court with his own appointees. Since then, the TSJ has dutifully served the regime's every whim. Among its most notorious decisions was the suspension of the opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez from running for public office, on the basis of corruption allegations for which he was never charged, prosecuted or convicted.
It's a similar story with other nominally independent institutions that are critical to our political and economic future. The CNE electoral commission, run by Tibisay Lucena, a former Chávez aide, has consistently refused opposition entreaties for consulation on everything from voter registration to voting machines. It has also canceled, without proper explanation, a round of local elections scheduled for this July.
Our state oil company, PDVSA, which controls the 95 per cent of our foreign revenues that come from the export of petrol, has been wrecked by the replacement of competent, non-political officials with loyal Chavistas. By providing heavily subsidized oil for Chávez allies like Cuba, and by diverting funds into Chávez's high-cost, low-impact "social programs," PDVSA has become a plaything of the Chavistas, rather than the motor of our economic development.
Capriles offers a profoundly different, and far more attractive, political vision which revolves around four key points. Firstly, a return to the rule of law: no-one will be above the law, and the law will not be compromised by ideology. Secondly, the banishing of hate-filled rhetoric from our political life: last year, the Chavistas regularly threw homophobic and anti-Semitic barbs at Capriles, a continuing trend which the opposition leader has rightly condemned as "fascism." Thirdly, an end to the corruption and cronyism that stained the Chávez years, beginning with an overhaul of PDVSA. Lastly, the promise of Venezuela taking its place as a sovereign member of the community of democratic nations, no longer at the beck and call of Chávez's allies in the Cuban regime, and enjoying fruitful relations with other states in the region from Brazil and Chile to the United States and Canada.
Capriles goes into this race as a clear underdog, but he does so in a nation that traditionally favors underdogs. The stakes have never been as high as they are now, but if pro-democracy Venezuelans didn't let Chávez extinguish them while he was alive, they'll be damned if he'll do so now that he's dead.
Antonio Herrera-Vaillant is a spokesman for freevenezuela.org, an online movement to advance democracy in Venezuela.