2011-07-29 Competition Finalist: WikiLeaks: Can the Venezuelan Opposition Benefit from Chávez’s Illness?

By Nikolas Kozloff

With a big question mark hanging over the health of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the right wing opposition sees opportunity. Though Chávez initially claimed that he was merely suffering from a "pelvic abscess," the firebrand leader subsequently conceded that he had cancer. In a shock to the nation, Chávez announced that he had a tumor removed during a sojourn in Cuba, and that he would "continue battling."

It's unclear how the president's shaky health might factor in the nation's upcoming 2012 election. The populist leader, who has closely identified himself with the so-called "Bolivarian Revolution," has never shown much interest in grooming a successor within his own United Socialist Party of Venezuela or PSUV, and so if Chávez should falter it is easy to imagine a scenario in which much of his political project could unravel or be derailed by the right.

Reporting over the past several weeks suggests that Chávez might be in worse shape than has been commonly let on. Though he returned to Venezuela after his operation in Cuba, Chávez recently announced that he would pay yet another visit to Cuba in order to undergo chemotherapy. The firebrand leader, however, still refuses to reveal what kind of cancer he has or its severity. Ominously, one medical source reported to Reuters that Chávez's cancer had spread to the rest of his body and was in an advanced stage. Hardly inspiring confidence, Chávez remarked "I have faith in God, science and our Cuban and Venezuelan doctors, all the people who attend to me and finally myself and this will to live."

On the surface at least, Chávez's illness would seem to represent a political boon to the Venezuelan opposition. On the other hand, rightist forces have been incredibly disunited and fractured. In 2002, the opposition failed to dislodge Chávez through a military coup d'etat, and shortly thereafter an oil lockout went down to similar defeat. At the polls, the right has fared abysmally: in 2004, opposition efforts to remove Chávez through a constitutional recall proved unsuccessful and led to the implosion of a political umbrella group known as Coordinadora Democrática. The following year, the opposition boycotted the electoral process altogether, thus providing handy victory to Chávez forces in legislative elections. As if it could get no worse, in 2006 Chávez trounced rightist candidate Manuel Rosales by almost 30% in Venezuela's presidential election.

The Impact of WikiLeaks

U.S. diplomatic cables recently declassified by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks underscore the complete ineptitude of the Chávez opposition. In the run up to the 2006 presidential election, for example, U.S. diplomats noted that Venezuela's largest opposition party, Acción Democrática or AD, was "going nowhere fast." Mincing no words, the US embassy noted that the party's secretary general Henry Ramos Allup was "unimaginative, overconfident, and even repellent" as well as "crude, abrasive and arrogant."

The problem, diplomats noted, was that Ramos did not seek unity within the Chávez opposition, preferring instead to plead for international assistance while insulting other party officials. Politically bankrupt, AD failed to advance an effective party platform or address the needs of the Venezuelan poor. In the long-term, U.S. officials noted, AD was unlikely to progress because officials professing alternative views were rarely given a voice. "As a result," the embassy wrote, "AD's voter base, which consists of people who vote for the party out of tradition, is quickly dwindling."

Perhaps, "cable gate" will wind up benefiting Chávez if the Venezuelan leader overcomes his illness and runs in the 2012 election [it would not be the first time that WikiLeaks has had a political impact upon a Latin American election, as evidenced by recent developments in Peru]. For years, Chávez has sapped the opposition's strength and credibility by pointing to the latter's links to the United States, and WikiLeaks cables give the Venezuelan yet more ammunition.

Indeed, under Ramos's leadership, AD became a crass party which repeatedly requested "funds and favors" from the U.S. embassy. Public opinion polls show Ramos with very low popular support, and if the politician winds up becoming a leading opposition candidate then revelations stemming from WikiLeaks documents will no doubt figure in the election.

A Fractured Opposition

Despite these setbacks, U.S. cables suggest that the right failed to learn from its own mistakes. As recently as 2009, in fact, the embassy remarked that the opposition was considering coordinating its messages and actions to a greater degree, but "was still a long way from doing so." Frustration within AD ranks continued unabated, though one party member opined hopefully that a former party member, Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, might one day rise to national prominence and challenge Chávez in future.

Even as the Venezuelan president succeeded in eliminating term limits and concentrating more power in his hands, the right was "fractured" and could not develop a strategy or common vision. Once again not mincing words, the embassy wrote "opposition parties do not now possess the cohesiveness, grassroots strength, or public support to constitute a real check on the Venezuelan president's ongoing efforts to 'accelerate' his Bolivarian Revolution."

Within the ranks of the opposition Un Nuevo Tiempo or UNT party, petty rivalries complicated the right's prospects of ever making political inroads against Chávez. Reportedly, mayor of Maracaibo and former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales was only interested in claiming power for himself rather than grooming "rising stars in the party." Because of internal dissension, it was unlikely that younger and more charismatic leaders within the UNT such as former mayor of Chacao [a district of Caracas] Leopoldo López would ever gain notoriety. In a critical speech directed at his colleagues, López declared that the opposition needed to "renew itself by conveying more hope and less confrontation."

In June, 2009 the opposition encouraged greater cohesion by creating the so-called Coalition for Democratic Unity, known by its Spanish acronym MUD, a kind of successor group to the earlier failed Coordinadora Democrática. Despite such moves, a further WikiLeaks cable paints a similarly bleak picture of Chávez foes. Commenting on an opposition conference, the Americans noted that "among the 50 or so leaders on camera...there were just two female faces visible and very little enthusiasm."

Notably, some of those who attended the conference paid more attention to their Blackberries than speeches delivered on the floor, and overall the event contrasted starkly with "Chavez's enthusiastic, color-coordinated PSUV rallies."

Fundamentally, the UNT continued to suffer from internal rivalry between Rosales and López, and younger generation figures such as Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski were absent from the conference.

The Opposition Field

With one opposition figure already tarnished by the WikiLeaks scandal, other possible contenders within the presidential field may hope that further disclosures will not derail their chances in 2012. Those contenders include Ledezma, a hard line right winger who once went on a hunger strike against Chávez when the president sought to strip the Caracas mayor of much of his political power.

Then there is López, a 40-year old young Turk with a radiant Hollywood smile who is the bane of the old guard anti-Chávez folk. The former Chacao mayor has been accused of corruption and currently the politician is prohibited from seeking public office though López hopes to overturn the ruling.

Rosales, former Mayor of Maracaibo and two term governor of the oil-rich state of Zulia, faces a similar uphill climb: when the authorities accused the pro-business populist of corruption, the anti-Chávez figure fled to Peru. Though he would likely win any primary to take the fight against Chávez, Rosales would first have to return to Venezuela and confront his daunting legal challenges. If Rosales fizzles as a candidate, then UNT colleague and governor of Zulia state Pablo Pérez might step into the breach.

Potentially the most dangerous political foe for Chávez, however, might be the less ideological Capriles. An energetic and youthful governor of the country's second most populous state of Miranda, Capriles claims to represent a more moderate, Brazilian-style leftist current in contrast to Chávez's populism. Hoping to emulate some of Chávez's popular social programs, Capriles has set up free health clinics in poor neighborhoods and provides subsidized food to poor families.

In February, 2012 the opposition will settle on a candidate and, assuming the government does not change the timetable, the election will proceed in December. Surveying the political landscape and Chávez's frail physical health, many of the leading presidential contenders may sense opportunity. They had better hope, however, that they can avoid the fate of colleague Ramos and that further revelations stemming from WikiLeaks don't undermine their standing or credibility.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com

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