Andres Oppenheimer

Don’t be fooled: Henri Falcon is a traitor to Venezuela and not Maduro’s foe

Henri Falcon has positioned himself as the opposition candidate in Venezuelan elections that President Nicolás Maduro will ensure he wins.
Henri Falcon has positioned himself as the opposition candidate in Venezuelan elections that President Nicolás Maduro will ensure he wins. AP

A major lapse threatens to undermine a rare consensus among President Trump, the European Union and Latin America’s biggest countries to not recognize the results of Venezuela’s sham elections this month: their failure to name and shame bogus Venezuelan opposition candidate Henri Falcon.

Falcon, Venezuela’s top traitor du jour, likely will help legitimize the most fraudulent presidential election in South America’s recent history. Unless Western democracies explicitly denounce him as an impostor, a larger than expected number of desperate Venezuelans may vote for him — and inadvertently help make dictator Nicolas Maduro’s re-election gain credibility.

Falcon is a former governor of Lara state who broke ranks with the Chávez regime in 2010 and, in the 2013 election, became the campaign chief of the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable — Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, or MUD.

But recently, he switched sides again. Just when his former MUD coalition allies, the Organization of American States, the Trump administration, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and virtually all other major Latin American countries decided to denounce the May 20 vote as a charade, Falcon jumped ship and announced his presidential bid to run against Maduro.

Even the United Nations — quite tolerant of authoritarian regimes — has turned down Maduro’s invitation to send an observation team on election day. So has the Carter Center, and virtually all other reputable election observing institutions.

The May 20 election is, indeed, a joke: Maduro, among other things, has prohibited opposition leaders from running against him, banned the country’s biggest opposition parties and refused to allow an independent electoral tribunal.

But in a country that is suffering one of the worst economic collapses in recent history, and where polls show that 80 percent of the population wants Maduro to go, desperation may lead many Venezuelans to vote for the lesser evil.

Everybody knows that Falcon will not be allowed to win. Even Smartmatic, the automatic voting-machine company that used to run Venezuela’s elections during much of the Chavista era, pulled out of the country after last year’s elections for Maduro’s hand-picked Constituent Assembly, saying that the government had tampered with the election results.

Now, Maduro is likely to concoct election returns that will show him winning over Falcon by a small margin, so as to make it look as if it had been a competitive election. Maduro hopes that a tight election result will give at least some countries an excuse to continue doing business with his increasingly isolated dictatorship.

I asked top opposition leaders: Why would Falcon be running in an election that he knows that he won’t be allowed to win?

They said Falcon took advantage of the generalized boycott of the July 20 vote to position himself as Maduro’s hand-picked opposition leader. Falcon hopes that — as Venezuela’s economic collapse becomes unsustainable — Maduro will eventually convene a “national unity government,” in which he would be given a top position.

“Falcon has become the ‘official’ opposition,” says Julio Borges, head of the opposition’s Primero Justicia Party. “He is doing it for his own personal benefit.”

In his quest for the presidency, Falcon has the support of Wall Street bond holders, who are eager to have a friend in a potential “national unity government” who they hope would guarantee future payments of Venezuelan bonds. Falcon’s top economic adviser is Harvard-graduated economist Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist of Torino Capital, a New York financial firm focused on Latin American emerging markets.

Supporters of Falcon’s candidacy say that Venezuela’s opposition cannot make the mistake it made in 2005, when it boycotted legislative elections and allowed Chavez to win control of the congress.

But, unlike in 2005, the current boycott by Venezuela’s opposition is supported by all of the world’s major democracies. It’s a key difference: Never before had Maduro been so isolated — and so pressed to postpone his planned election and convene a free, fair and credible vote.

To prevent Falcon from giving some legitimacy to Maduro’s sham election, Western democracies should explicitly tell Venezuelan voters that Falcon’s candidacy is a hoax and threaten to impose financial and travel sanctions on Falcon unless he withdraws from the race. Maduro should not be allowed to get away with this farce.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera