A Venezuelan politician says he can defeat Maduro. Why does the opposition hate him?

In this March 2 photo, Henri Falcón, a former governor and former aide to the late President Hugo Chávez, speaks to the press. A boycott of the presidential election race by Venezuela’s biggest opposition parties means that Falcón is by far the most prominent candidate vying to unseat socialist President Nicolás Maduro.
In this March 2 photo, Henri Falcón, a former governor and former aide to the late President Hugo Chávez, speaks to the press. A boycott of the presidential election race by Venezuela’s biggest opposition parties means that Falcón is by far the most prominent candidate vying to unseat socialist President Nicolás Maduro. AP

Henri Falcón, the man running a controversial and long-shot race for Venezuela’s presidency, says he can save the country’s democracy, economy and its political prisoners — if the opposition would just let him. 

Falcón, 56, broke with the majority of the opposition last month when he threw his hat into the ring to take on President Nicolás Maduro in the May 20 election. The international community and the coalition of opposition parties say the electoral system is rigged beyond redemption and are refusing to participate.  

In their view, Falcón’s candidacy provides a veneer of legitimacy to the political charade — and risks delaying their goal of ousting Maduro and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

In an email exchange with the Miami Herald, Falcón defended his decision, saying that an opposition boycott only plays into the government’s hand.

“Choosing to fight despite unfair rules does not legitimize the rules: It confirms our willingness to defend our rights,” Falcón said. “An electoral boycott has never toppled a government. Popular uprisings, like the one against the Shah of Iran, military movements, coups and elections are the only way to get rid of a bad government. Abstention, however, legitimizes and prolongs the life of dictators and bad governments.” 

Once in power, Falcón says he’d move quickly to bring in humanitarian aid for a hungry nation, eradicate draconian price and currency controls and release hundreds of political prisoners.

Among those whom he would free immediately, he said, is American Joshua Holt, the former Mormon missionary who was detained in June 2016 on weapons charges.  

“The proceedings and accusations against Holt are very similar to those used against [jailed opposition politician] Leopoldo López, or against hundreds and hundreds of other Venezuelans who have been accused and tried without evidence,” Falcón said. “[Holt] represents another type of political prisoner. And as I have said on several occasions, my first decree as president will be to pardon … all political prisoners. And Mr. Holt’s freedom will be part of that.”

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Falcón’s campaign is facing an uphill battle. While some polls give him a lead over Maduro, many surveys show that the opposition has so little faith in the electoral system that abstention will amount to a near boycott. A poll by Meganalisis released this week found that just 17 percent of the population is willing to vote. Under those circumstances, analysts have warned, Maduro is almost guaranteed to win an additional six-year term.  

Falcón, however, cites other polls that show him leading against Maduro, who is struggling to control a nation buckling under hyperinflation, food shortages and general political chaos.  

“All the opinion polls show us beating Maduro. … Our campaign is focused on winning over the abstainers and generating an avalanche of votes that can sweep Maduro from power,” Falcón said. “No government suffering though a hyper-inflationary crisis has ever achieved an electoral victory. They’ve only managed to perpetuate themselves in power because the opposition boycotted the elections,” as was the case with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

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Falcón, the former mayor of Barquisimeto and governor of Lara State, in northwestern Venezuela, had been a member of former President Hugo Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) until he broke with the organization in 2010.

He was reelected as Lara’s governor in 2012 under the banner of the opposition coalition, known by the acronym MUD, but his political past and his willingness to play the moderate in a highly polarized society have made him something of an outcast.

And some critics accuse him of being a front for powerful economic interests.

Falcón acknowledges that he’s been under pressure to drop out of the race. But he denied recent accounts that the White House was also threatening him with sanctions for participating.  

“We are not aware of any pressure or threat” from Washington, he said.  

He did say he favors the sanctions that the Trump administration has used to target the country’s leadership. 

“What we do recognize are sanctions against officials for specific reasons like violating human rights, money laundering or connections with narco-trafficking. We openly support all those sanctions,” Falcón said. “When a country’s courts — as is the case in Venezuela — are unable to prosecute important public officials for violating the law, it’s clear that international sanctions are needed to fill that terrible void.” 

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Even if Falcón manages to pull off an upset, he’ll have an uphill battle. Even if he loses the May race, Maduro will hold office through the end of the year, giving him ample opportunity to undermine his successor. And the entire government is under the thumb of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), a body controlled by Maduro’s allies and the PSUV party.  

Asked how he would overcome the ANC, which has suppressed congress and the courts, Falcón said he would strip the organization of most of its power. The ANC’s only legitimate role, he said, is to produce a new constitution that would have to be ratified during a referendum.  

“The ANC may not continue to legislate … much less continue to dictate administrative measures such as the appointment of officials,” he said. “If the ANC, after the election of a new president, insists on violating the framework of its role, its [members] must be held accountable by the laws of Venezuela and the rest of the world.”

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Asked about the legal fate of Maduro and some of his closest allies — including members of his cabinet who allegedly have ties to international drug-trafficking rings — Falcón suggested he would tread carefully.

“We have said that in our government there will be no retaliation or persecution or revenge,” he said. “The government we want to form will not devote its efforts to persecuting. On the contrary, it will dedicate its efforts to building the future, to stabilizing the economy, to recovering [state run oil company] PDVSA to strengthening agricultural production to growth, to fighting violence.” 

“In the end, national and international courts will be the appropriate venues to initiate criminal proceedings against those responsible for serious crimes against humanity, against the administration, or against international laws and conventions,” he added. 

While he faces pushback and scorn from a large part of the opposition, Falcón claims he’s going into the race with his eyes open, and knows the elections won’t be fair. 

“The government will never allow a fully [transparent] process. They will always make room for their traps,” he said. “We cannot think that this is going to be a perfect process. We will never have that.” 

But if most voters boycott the election, the race is already lost, he said. 

“We have in our hands the power to prevent Maduro from staying in power for another six years,” he said. “In the words of [former] President Obama: ‘Yes, we can.’ 

This story has been edited from the original, to elaborate on one of Falcón’s quotes.

Follow Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss