Throughout Latin America, autocrats and aspiring autocrats have long benefited from facing a divided opposition. Over the past decade, this phenomenon has helped semi-dictatorial leftists in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Back in 2006, for example, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega captured the presidency in Nicaragua with only 38 percent of the vote, even though a majority of Nicaraguans (55 percent) voted for one of his two main conservative rivals, Eduardo Montealegre and José Rizo. That same year, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez squared off against a fractured opposition and won reelection with 63 percent support.
All of which explains why Henrique Capriles is so important.
Earlier this month, Capriles secured the presidential nomination of Venezuela’s opposition alliance, known as the Coalition for Democratic Unity (its Spanish-language acronym is “MUD”). Currently serving as governor of Miranda, the country’s second most populous state, he garnered an impressive 64 percent of the vote, thereby receiving a strong mandate to represent MUD forces in the October 2012 national election. As former Venezuelan state oil official Pedro Burelli has written, it was the best-possible outcome for the opposition and the worst-possible outcome for Chávez.
Not surprisingly, the regime immediately set out to demonize the youthful Capriles, 39, with lies and ad hominem attacks. A pro-government journalist named Mario Silva alleged that Capriles was once arrested for having public sex with a man. Chávez himself called Capriles a “low-life,” a “pig,” and “the candidate of the bourgeois, of capitalism, of imperialism,” informing his rival that “the only place you’re going to govern is the land of Tarzan and his monkey Cheetah.” For good measure, he also referred to Capriles as “crappy one.”
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s state-run media have unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitic vitriol, at once labeling Capriles both a Zionist and a Nazi. These attacks are as ludicrous as they are offensive. The grandson of Polish Jews who fled their homeland to escape the Holocaust, Capriles is a practicing Catholic, yet the government propaganda machine has portrayed his ancestry as evidence of sinister ties to “international Zionism.” One pro-Chávez columnist described Zionism as “the most rotten sentiments represented by humanity.”
Such crude, vulgar anti-Semitism is worthy of Hamas or Hezbollah. Its publication on a state-run website highlights the ugly nature of the regime in Caracas, which has consistently used anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli rhetoric to demonize its domestic and foreign critics. “Nowhere does the Jewish community in Latin America feel more under attack than in Venezuela, as the country’s leader, his cabinet, and pro-government media have launched a steady barrage of condemnation toward Israel,” the Christian Science Monitor reported in August 2009. Seven months earlier, the capital city’s Mariperez Synagogue had been robbed and vandalized, “an act seen by many in the Jewish community as the greatest anti-Semitic attack in Venezuelan history.” The armed intruders defaced the synagogue with messages such as “Jews out of here” and “Israel assassins.” (For that matter, shortly before Venezuelan’s December 2007 constitutional referendum in which Chávez suffered an embarrassing defeat state police raided a prominent Jewish social club in Caracas.)
The vicious smear campaign against Capriles indicates just how much his primary victory has rattled the government, which has been in power since 1999. While the cancer-stricken Chávez, 57, remains personally popular among many Venezuelans, and while oil revenue will allow him to boost social spending in advance of the October election, he also realizes that voters are tired of high inflation, rampant crime, food shortages, and electricity rationing. Caracas is now a global murder capital; Cuban Communists are now running key government institutions; and the state-owned oil company PDVSA has been horribly mismanaged. On February 4, there was a bad oil spill in northeast Venezuela. According to The Economist, “Anywhere from 40,000-120,000 barrels poured into a river that supplies drinking and irrigation water. Some 550,000 people now lack water at home.” (Venezuela’s total population is roughly 29 million.)
Such problems have contributed to growing public unrest. And now, at long last, the Venezuelan opposition finally has a charismatic leader who can unite its many factions and make inroads among the poor. Regardless of what Chávez and his cronies may say, Capriles is hardly a “right-winger.” He is, in fact, a center-left social democrat who wants to follow the economic model popularized by former Brazilian president Lula da Silva. And he has unquestionably produced real public enthusiasm for his candidacy.
Consider this February 12 New York Times report:
At a recent rally in Maracay, a city west of Caracas, Mr. Capriles stepped out of a van and was immediately thronged by followers. Within minutes, his face was smudged with lipstick and the pockets of his bright green shirt were stuffed with notes, many of them from people asking for help in getting better housing, a chronic problem in Venezuela. He was swept up by the crowd and propelled along the city's main commercial street for block after block, as some men pressed close to raise his hand overhead in a gesture of triumph while other people squeezed in to snap cellphone pictures. Not even the firecrackers thrown at the crowd by menacing Chávez supporters on motorcycles could dampen the spirit.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Chávez’s failed 1992 coup attempt. If he cancels the 2012 election, steals it, or refuses to accept defeat, he will have extinguished the final embers of Venezuelan democracy. Indeed, this may be the last opportunity to prevent the imposition of a full-blown petro-dictatorship. Over the next eight months, the United States and its democratic partners across Latin America should demand that Henrique Capriles be given a fair chance to campaign free of government harassment. He is the man who could save Venezuela.