By Michael M. McCarthy*
The leaked video of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López declaring a hunger strike and calling for a renewal of street demonstrations this Saturday threatens to reopen splits within the Venezuelan political opposition. With Venezuela experiencing an economic crisis – the bolívar lost a quarter of its value on the black market last week and shortages of basic goods plague daily life – the opposition, a disparate group of 29 political parties organized under the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), seems poised to score a pivotal victory in this year’s legislative election. But López’s call to protests could renew divisions between those supportive of last year’s La Salida street demonstrations and the moderate camp, led by Governor Henrique Capriles, eager to punish the government at the polls for its poor management of the economy.
- On May 17 the MUD held open primaries for 37 candidacies, and turnout (8 percent of all registered voters) exceeded expectations, despite very little media attention being devoted to the races. Capriles’s First Justice (PJ) and López’s Popular Will (VP) parties won 13 and 10 candidacies with 19.7 percent and 18.2 percent of the votes, respectively. Regionally-based parties Democratic Action, strong in rural areas, and A New Time, strong in western Zulia state, performed well, with other small parties winning the remaining candidacies. The results consolidated the negotiating leverage of the PJ and VP as the MUD began internal talks about selecting the remainder of its candidates by consensus and campaign tactics – whether to use a tarjeta única ticket or let individual parties be listed on the ballot on voting day. (The National Election Council has yet to announce the date.)
The López video, first leaked on government media outlets before going viral on social media late last Saturday, was forceful. It emerged after news broke that López’s cellmate, VP politician Daniel Ceballos – the former mayor of San Cristobal, an epicenter of the street demonstrations last year – would be transferred to a public jail for common criminals where security guarantees are considerably weaker. In the video, López mentions the U.S. investigation into chavista National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello for alleged involvement in narco-trafficking; condemns the “permanent repression of our rights”; and demands “the liberation of all political prisoners,” the “halt to persecution, repression, and censorship,” and the setting of an official date for the legislative elections, with OAS and European Union observers. On Monday, a leader of López’s party endorsed his call for a rally on Saturday, and Lopez’s wife and spokeswoman declared that Venezuela is entering “a new stage of struggle.”
The country’s situation is palpably worse than a year ago, when López went to jail, but opening a new front is not what most of the opposition had in mind. Capriles and the MUD have issued statements of support since the video leaked, and the MUD’s Executive Secretary Jesus “Chuo” Torrealba posted a call for unity on Twitter. “Going to the elections divided is a loss,” he said. “Going to the street divided is suicide. Will we learn?” Unanswered, however, is the question of the opposition’s ability to avoid becoming bogged down in a leadership struggle just as the campaign season kicks off. Oppositionists had finally found a political middle ground based on prioritizing the elections – and the narrative of ordinary Venezuelans facing daily hardships to find food and other basic necessities. However legitimate the opposition’s fury at the government’s repression and mismanagement, the call to the streets risks changing that narrative and diminishing prospects of opposition unity going into the election season.
May 27, 2015
* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.