Venezuela’s Opposition Struggles for Unity

Battered by the re-election of President Hugo Chávez this month, Venezuela’s fractious opposition is struggling to remain united and rally its followers for crucial elections for governors in December.


Caracas, Venezuela — Ramón Guillermo Aveledo has been something of chief herder of cats for Venezuela’s political opposition, cajoling, arm-twisting and pleading to keep a contentious gaggle of parties all across the political spectrum from going their separate ways.

His job is not about to get any easier.

Battered by the re-election of President Hugo Chávez this month, Venezuela’s fractious opposition is struggling to remain united and rally its followers for crucial elections for governors in December.

“There is nothing to suggest we would do better apart than together,” said Mr. Aveledo, the executive secretary of the opposition coalition, known as the Democratic Unity Table, which backed Mr. Chávez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski.

Mr. Chávez, who has been in office for almost 14 years, was re-elected Oct. 7 with 55 percent of the vote, compared with 44 percent for Mr. Capriles. It was the best showing by the opposition in a presidential election since Mr. Chávez first came to office in 1999.

But a loss is a loss, and now the opposition has the difficult task of rousing its supporters for the elections for governors in the nation’s 23 states on Dec. 16.

Eight governors currently belong to the opposition, but all of them must run for re-election. That includes Mr. Capriles, the governor of Miranda, who said last week that he would run again.

Opposition activists secretly fear a debacle if their disillusioned followers refuse to go out and vote. Mr. Chávez won in 21 states, including Miranda, suggesting that he may be poised to take away some of the governorships currently in the hands of the opposition.

In two states, the opposition even seems to be helping the president’s chances; in those states, Táchira and Monagas, the opposition holds the governorships. Yet a second opposition candidate has filed to compete against the incumbent in each state, meaning they could split opposition votes and clear the way for the pro-Chávez candidates.

“The key to success is to get up quickly and keep going,” Mr. Capriles said at a news conference two days after the election, referring to the blow of losing.

But much will depend on the ability of the opposition to stay unified. The coalition did especially well in legislative elections in 2010, when the opposition won a large number of seats in the National Assembly. But now it must overcome frictions that built up during the presidential campaign.

During the race, Mr. Capriles pushed many opposition politicians and their parties to the sidelines, confiding in a small group of advisers. That was done in part to protect against charges by Mr. Chávez that he represented old parties that had failed to solve the nation’s problems before Mr. Chávez took office.

Some of these strains were visible. Activists from parties in the coalition complained that the Capriles campaign would not let them get involved.

“We were not treated well,” said Henry Ramos, the head of Democratic Action, a social democratic party that, along with the Christian Democrats, dominated Venezuelan politics during the second half of the 20th century.

Mr. Capriles’s attempts to distance himself at times took on comic dimensions. At one Democratic Action event, party officials prominently displayed a life-size cutout of Mr. Capriles, who was not in attendance. Some observers saw a dig at the candidate, though Mr. Ramos said that was not the intention.

Still, Mr. Ramos said he stopped attending campaign meetings a few weeks before the election after a leader close to Mr. Capriles referred to Democratic Action and other groups as “parasite parties.”

Mr. Capriles did nothing to heal potential rifts in comments he made after the election. “I defeated the old politics,” he said.

Mr. Ramos scoffed at his comments. “He didn’t defeat anyone,” Mr. Ramos said. “They defeated him.”

Still, he predicted the Unity Table would stay together, and others agreed.

“The main element that will make unity stay together is the pressure of the citizens,” said María Corina Machado, a conservative politician. “Wherever you go, people tell you, ‘You have to stay united.’ ”

Leopoldo López, who heads a small party called Popular Will, said the main achievement was to run primary elections that produced a single slate of opposition candidates. But, he added, “it’s not enough; we have to go deeper” and work more closely with groups like unions and rural organizations.

But as the opposition struggled to recover from defeat, small cracks were showing within Mr. Chávez’s ranks as well.

Mr. Chávez handpicked his candidates for governor from loyalists within his cabinet, the ranks of retired military officers and his own party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, ignoring in many cases candidates proposed by other leftist parties allied with him.

That prompted rare public criticism from Mr. Chávez’s allies. In several states, leftist parties entered their own candidates to run against those chosen by Mr. Chávez, which could divide the vote on the left.

Mr. Chávez used his election victory and the coming races to shake up his cabinet. He sent Vice President Elías Jaua to run against Mr. Capriles in Miranda. And he named the foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, as his new vice president.

The appointment immediately ignited speculation that Mr. Maduro is the favorite to succeed Mr. Chávez, who has never made his choice of a successor clear. Mr. Chávez has been battling cancer, leading to jockeying within his inner circle and much public discussion over what would happen if he became too sick to continue in office.

Under the Constitution, if the president dies or leaves office in the first four years of his six-year term, the vice president will take over while new elections were called. If the president dies or leaves office in the last two years, the vice president will serve the rest of the president’s term.

Mr. Maduro is a former bus driver and legislator, a dedicated promoter of Mr. Chávez’s socialist program who is seen as a favorite of Mr. Chávez’s Cuban allies.

Mr. Chávez has helped prop up the Cuban economy with oil shipments on preferential terms, and he is very close to the Cuban leadership. He has had at least two cancer operations, chemotherapy and radiation therapy in Cuba over the last year and a half, and Mr. Maduro accompanied him on many of those trips.

The foreign minister since 2006, Mr. Maduro helped build close ties with Iran, Syria and Libya, before the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. He helped engineer the recent inclusion of Venezuela in the Mercosur trade bloc, and Mr. Chávez also put him in charge of drafting a landmark labor law signed by the president this spring.

“Maduro becomes the man of the succession,” said a headline in the newspaper El Nacional.

But Mr. Ramos, the Democratic Action politician, was skeptical.

“Chávez is an expert in public appointments and hidden moves,” Mr. Ramos said. Why, then, was Mr. Maduro chosen as vice president? “Perhaps,” he said, “to hide the true successor.”