The Venezuelan Opposition: Can the Center Hold?

By Michael M. McCarthy*

Leopoldo Lopez (R) being escorted by the National Guard after turning himself in on February 18, 2014.  Photo Credit: Juan Barreto via Globovisión / Flickr / Creative Commons

Leopoldo Lopez (R) being escorted by the National Guard after turning himself in on February 18, 2014. Photo Credit: Juan Barreto via Globovisión / Flickr / Creative Commons

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 countrys 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 MUDs 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 oppositions 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 oppositions fury at the governments 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.

Venezuela: More of the Same Tragedy

By Michael McCarthy*

Embed from Getty Images

The gruesome murder of a pro-government Socialist Party deputy and the decision by the opposition coalition’s Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) to suspend a rally in light of the tragedy foretold an opportunity to restart a national dialogue.  But unlike in January 2014, when the murder of beauty queen Monica Spears and her family created momentum for talks on security between the government and opposition, an unfortunate and familiar downward spiral has begun.  High-level government officials’ provocative accusations that the murder of Robert Serra, one of the Venezuelan Parliament’s youngest members, was the work of right-wing actors have deepened yet again the political polarization in Venezuela.  UNASUR’s new Secretary General, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, surprisingly weighed in, strongly implying that Colombian paramilitaries were involved in Serra’s murder.  The government has long attempted to link members of Venezuela’s opposition with paramilitary groups, and Samper’s impartiality will forever be questioned by the opposition if the allegation is not proven. At Serra’s funeral, President Maduro described the MUD’s new Executive Secretary, Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba, as a piece of “garbage.”  Maduro’s name-calling is another example of the government using polarization as a tool to encourage supporters to close ranks.

Before the stabbing deaths of Serra and his female companion by unidentified assailants, the government was attempting to build momentum to resume the UNASUR-sponsored talks that had been frozen since May 3.  Samper had informed the MUD and opposition members of his intention to restart talks, and had described Maduro as “a man of dialogue, a man of peace,” adding that there were good prospects for “working a lot of things for the good of the region.”  But at this point any good will among the parties seems to have evaporated.  Moreover, for MUD secretary Torrealba, who originally said his goal was to change the MUD’s profile to mobilize a wider base of support, the primary task remains building MUD unity at a moment when different factions of the opposition are promoting widely varying initiatives.  Torrealba has little negotiating experience and does not enjoy the same access to elite sectors as his predecessor did.  His precarious position calls into question whether the MUD could negotiate as a coalition even if talks restarted.

Once again, centrifugal forces seem to be prevailing in Venezuela.  This trend raises the question of whether Venezuelan society is not only “wounded and resentful,” as Jesuit Political Scientist Arturo Sosa says, but on the verge of an estallido social – social explosion.  Mechanisms for mediating conflict through political discussion remain in place and appear unlikely to disappear completely, but confrontations are likely to continue flaring up regularly.

*Michael McCarthy is a CLALS Research Fellow.

October 7, 2014