Venezuelan democracy is about to be tested, once again. On April 14th, just weeks after the regrettable and untimely death of widely popular Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias (1954 – 2013), voters will decide who is to govern during the 2013-2019 period Chavez was elected to late last year. For the country’s socialist majority, who secured Chavez 8.1 million votes (55%) in the 2012 election, Interim President Nicolas Maduro is their candidate. Meanwhile, the US-backed opposition, who for years assured voters that “Chavismo without Chavez” was next to impossible, has again chosen right-wing politician Henrique Capriles Radonski to represent them at the ballot box.
Having lost to Chavez by over a million votes, Capriles is now running on a campaign aimed at dividing pro-Chavez forces and discrediting the country’s democratic institutions, something his political career depends on.
BORN INTO WEALTH
Son of Cristina Radonski Bocheneck and Henrique Capriles Garcia, 40-year old Capriles comes from one of Venezuela’s wealthiest families. The Radonskis own, the country’s largest chain of private movie theaters, while the Capriles own numerous private media outlets (Cadena Capriles) and are said to have important investments in industrial and real estate holdings. Among other things, his parents’ wealth allowed Capriles to study law at Caracas’ private Andres Bello Catholic University and participate in numerous international student exchange programs in Italy and the United States.
In 1995, a freshly-graduated Capriles dove into Venezuelan politics by acting as legal counsel to his cousin and then lawmaker Armando Capriles. Serving his cousin during the closing years (1995-1998) of the so-called Fourth Republic (1958-1998), Capriles got his taste for politics just as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won the ﬁrst (1998) of many electoral victories to come.
Eager to represent his family and social class at a time of heated national debate surrounding President Chavez’s proposal for a Constitutional Assembly, Capriles accepted a backdoor nomination from Venezuela’s right-wing party, Social Christian Democrats (Copei), and won a seat in the ﬁnal Congress (1998) convened during the Fourth Republic.
Not exactly illegal, Copei placed Caracas-based Capriles on the ballot to represent Maracaibo, capital of Zulia, where the party had a strong base of support at the time. A trained lawyer, he was sure to respect existing electoral laws by renting an apartment in Maracaibo during the course of the election.
According to investigate journalist Eva Golinger, in 2001 Capriles’ nascent Justice First party was the principal beneﬁciary of funds spent in Venezuela by the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and International Republican Institute (IRI). That year alone, the latter spent $340,000 “training” members of Justice First and others of the country’s anti-Chavez minority on, among other things, “external party communication and coalition building”.
From 2000 to 2008, Capriles served as Mayor of the wealthy eastern Caracas neighborhood of Baruta. During the shortlived 2002 coup against President Chavez, anti-communist protestors gathered outside the Cuban embassy (located in Baruta), cutting both water and electricity and threatening to storm the building. In response to requests by embassy staff for police protection, Capriles joined the protestors and forced his way into the embassy by climbing over its perimeter walls.
As Golinger notes in her book, The Chavez Code, Capriles “violated diplomatic law by forcing entry into the embassy, where he attempted to persuade Cuban Ambassador German Sanchez Otero to turn in Vice President Diosdado Cabello and other Chavez government ofﬁcials whom the opposition believed were taking refuge in the embassy”.
“Though Ambassador Sanchez Otero permitted Capriles Radonski on the premises to engage in dialogue”, explains Golinger, “he made it clear that the actions were violating diplomatic law”. Capriles “attempted to force a search of the inside of the embassy by threatening the ambassador that the situation would only worsen if a full search were not allowed. When the ambassador stood ﬁrm, Capriles Radonski left the embassy”.
The right-wing mayor allowed protests to continue as they were, abandoning the Cuban diplomats and their request for help. Fortunately, for embassy staff and Venezuelan democracy, massive pro-Chavez demonstrations reversed the short-lived coup before things got worse.
FROM GOVERNOR TO “LEADER”
Taking advantage of his family’s wealth, access to the press, and personal contacts, in 2008 Capriles moved up the political ladder by winning the governorship of Miranda, a state with some 2.6 million inhabitants. In 2012, the opposition coalition chose Capriles to “lead” their failed attempt to defeat President Chavez at the ballot box.
The Washington backed Capriles lost the election by over a million votes but kept his political career alive by returning to win Miranda’s gubernatorial race just two months later in a regional election that saw socialist candidates win 20 out of 23 governorships.
On March 10th, as the Venezuelan people were in the midst of mourning the loss of President Chavez, Capriles held a rushed press conference in which he accused Interim President Nicolas Maduro and others in Venezuela’s socialist leadership of “lying to the public about Chavez’s health”. Among other things, he claimed Chavez’s family and the country’s National Electoral Commission (CNE) had “planned with milli-metric detail” the March 5th announcement of Chavez’s passing as well as the now pending April 14th election. His strategy, it seems, is to try to divide the pro-Chavez majority while preparing for what is sure to be another electoral defeat.
Though he currently is the opposition’s most well-known elected ofﬁcial, a recent poll by Venezuela-based Datanalisis found only 34.8% of voters intend to vote for Capriles. The same poll found 49.2% of voters intend to elect socialist candidate Nicolas Maduro. The International Consulting Service (ICS) found 58.2% of voters intend to vote for Maduro, 17% more than the 40.5% that plan to elect Capriles. The Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis (IVAD) found the gap to be even wider, with 53.8% of voters planning to vote for Maduro and 31.6% for Capriles, a difference of 22%.