I had the opportunity to spend the evening of the election at a popular restaurant in Miami, surrounded by Venezuelans invited by Alexis Ortiz and Pedro Mena, two leaders of the exile community representing the Democratic Unity Board (MUD, for its Spanish acronym) who did a splendid job in the recent voting.
I also had the opportunity to see many Venezuelans weep at Hugo Chávez’s triumph because this time some pollsters had convinced them that the opposition would manage to defeat him. Until half an hour before the official results were announced, there were reports that several exit polls gave the victory to Capriles.
Why did Chávez win despite his sorry performance as a leader? Vladimir Gessen, a notable Venezuelan psychologist and politician, supposes that Henrique Capriles lost the election because he couldn’t (or didn’t want to) maintain the feeling of national unity with which he won the primary. He should have conducted the campaign together with the leaders he defeated in the party-wide election held by the MUD, Gessen wrote.
Without rejecting that theory, my impression is that other decisive factors intervened:
• With his characteristic style of Latin American strongman, Chávez has emotionally connected with a substantial portion of Venezuelans. Outside that environment, he may seem a ridiculous character, comic even, but in those surroundings a lot of people perceive him as an almost religious phenomenon.
• He has created a strong patronage relationship with part of the Venezuelan electorate that lives in the country’s populous sectors. As demonstrated by the late Juan Perón in Argentina and the PRI in Mexico, someone can govern poorly for a long time yet remain popular and successful. The low social classes account for two-thirds of the Venezuelan electorate. That’s Chávez’s quarry for votes and will remain so, so long as they expect gifts from the colorful leader.
• Chávez’s huge advantages before the election made it very difficult to defeat him. He is a master of television and radio — media that he can turn into a nationwide bullhorn any time he wishes. For every minute of television available to Capriles, Chávez had 50.
• Chávez had — and utilized — the unlimited oil resources available to him through PDVSA, his top financier, plus all the tools of the state.
Under those circumstances, it’s amazing that a young Latin American politician with minimal resources and at a clear disadvantage, Henrique Capriles Radonski, obtained practically 45 percent of the popular vote, a little more than 6 million Venezuelans, becoming the adversary who so far has gained the most support among his compatriots, at the head of an opposition that’s a lot better organized.
If the MUD manages to keep the democrats united and Capriles manages to overcome the demoralization usually generated by these defeats and persuades Venezuelans that it was a feat to bring half the country together behind the democratic cause, that’s the political force that will govern Venezuela in a not-too-distant future.
The next electoral date comes in December. At stake at that time will be the governorships of the regional states and the parliaments of those federal entities. For the opposition it is very important to hold on to some of the zones of power it already controls and to increase its authority over new geographic spaces, while preparing for the day when it can conquer the presidency.
Capriles, who today is hugely recognized, popular and respected nationwide, would do well to campaign throughout the country on behalf of the opposition candidates to help them win and preserve the presence of his leadership.
When will be the day of that great triumph?
It is not far. With the opposition holding 45 percent of the vote, it’s only a matter of time. That’s almost half the country.
Nevertheless, in the short term, it depends on the serious cancer that afflicts Hugo Chávez.
When a very old Franco lay on his death bed, the Spaniards talked about “the biological solution.” Something similar may occur in Venezuela. I don’t know if that will be the solution, but it will probably be the beginning of the end of Chavismo.
The strongman will carry his legacy to his grave.