Invigorated by their first victory over Hugo Chavez, opponents of the Venezuelan president are seeking to transform a movement defined mainly by what it’s against into a viable alternative to his socialist agenda.
The opposition still faces major hurdles, but student activists and several prominent ex-allies of Chavez are giving new leadership to a movement that for years has struggled to pose a real challenge to “El Comandante.”
New elements joined the opposition to narrowly defeat Sunday’s referendum on constitutional changes that would have let Chavez run for re-election indefinitely. Protesting university students were joined by maverick lawmakers of the left-leaning Podemos party, and by former Defense Minister Raul Baduel, who likened Chavez’s proposals to a coup attempt.
“The university students, Baduel and Podemos gave the opposition the extra weight needed for victory,” said Antonio Gil Yepes of the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalasis. “They have the credibility that motivated the poor and the working class to turn their backs on Chavez.”
But to keep growing, the opposition needs to do more than just add to its numbers. It also needs to find a new message that stakes out the middle ground between Chavez’s brand of socialism and the unfettered capitalism that led to a yawning gap between Venezuela’s rich and poor, Gil Yepes said.
Venezuela’s opposition has been an amorphous grouping of old-guard politicians, business groups and labor leaders united mainly by their dissatisfaction with Chavez. Dissident military officers managed to briefly oust Chavez in 2002 but he was restored to power two days later by loyalists while crowds of his backers protested in the streets.
Focus on providing solutions
Leading opposition parties committed what some likened to political suicide in 2005, when they boycotted congressional elections, giving the president’s allies a solid majority in the National Assembly.
Now there are growing calls within the opposition to focus less on turning the public against Chavez himself and more on providing solutions for what they say are the flaws of his policies.
“The problem is not ‘Ego’ Chavez, but his myth. Those among his voters who see him with increasing skepticism need an alternative, a credible option that’s democratic,” former presidential candidate Teodoro Petkoff wrote Wednesday in his newspaper Tal Cual.
Opposition leaders this week said they hope to encourage debate with Chavez on problems such as crime and inflation.
“Faced with the government’s policies of antagonism, we are proposing policies of agreement and consensus,” said Lauurence Castro, a 26-year-old student at the University of the Andes in the city of Merida. “People are tired of so much conflict.”
Others say the opposition still needs new leaders to confront a president who can enact certain laws by decree and is likely to try other routes to push through a constitutional reform that would let him run again in 2012.
“Venezuela is in desperate need of new political leadership. The university students showed the path, an ability to organize and put forth an appealing vision, precisely what the traditional opposition was unable to do,” said Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
What's the alternative?
The opposition also has yet to define a clear alternative to Chavez’s “21st century socialism.” Some leaders say free-market capitalism is the answer and others favor socialist policies with more democratic checks and balances.
Chavez, meanwhile, predicted “a new offensive” for the reforms — perhaps in a simplified form. He suggested the complexity of the 69 constitutional revisions contributed to the defeat, and said the reforms could be resurrected by a voter petition or the National Assembly.
Even if the amendments fail and he is forced to leave office in 2013, Chavez said in a TV appearance Wednesday that he would remain active in politics: “I’m not leaving until God wants it.”
Chavez revealed that in the tense hours of the vote count, he ordered troops to be ready to seize the offices of two opposition governors if they contested the results. He also said there were standing orders to shut down any TV station that incited violence.
Chavez brushes off loss
The opposition is mistaken, Chavez warned, if it believes “we aren’t ready to confront them in an environment of violence.” He dismissed his opponents’ win as insignificant.
But Chavez denied a Venezuelan newspaper report that said he had resisted acknowledging the loss and accepted it only after military leaders pressured him. The reporter at the daily El Nacional should be given “the Nobel Prize for literature,” Chavez said.
His defense minister, Gen. Gustavo Rangel Briceno, said Chavez accepted defeat of his own accord. “No one pressures him,” Rangel said.
Without naming President Bush — who praised Venezuelans’ rejection of “one-man rule” — Chavez said his message to Washington is: “Chavez received a blow, yes, but I haven’t been weakened nor have I been pushed back one millimeter.”