Letting Go of April: It’s Time For Capriles to End His Gap Year

In the immediate aftermath of the 14 April presidential elections, opposition leader Henrique Capriles appeared to be heading a serious challenge to the new Maduro government. Now, less than six months later the opposition movement has lost much of the momentum it once enjoyed.


With the notable exception of the ongoing university protests, the opposition appears to have almost completely abandoned any serious attempts to retain an active street presence. The regular opposition marches and nightly cacerolazos that echoed through opposition neighbourhoods across the country in April are long gone. Visiting the local supermarket is no longer a nail biting affair; the panic buying has subsided, and the shelves are generally well stocked. While scarcity of some consumer items persists nationwide, basics like cooking oil, corn flour and sugar no longer appear to be in short supply. While shortages of things like powdered milk and spare parts for motorbikes are an ongoing annoyance for some, they don’t inspire the same frustration that begins to ferment after a month without cooking oil. There simply isn’t the same tension in the air. While a rightist coup was a very real fear for many on the left earlier in the year, now such concerns have largely evaporated. However, it’s important to note that Capriles’ active base isn’t in an induced coma; it’s just hibernating. Presumably, on some level the right has divined that the material conditions for destabilisation are past, for now.

Meanwhile, President Nicolas Maduro has seen his support bounce back. The latest survey from pollster International Consulting Services (ICS), conducted between 26 May and 1 August, found that 65% of participants had a positive view of the president’s performance. Maduro’s popularity is probably largely due to more positive perceptions of the economy; with pollster Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis (IVAD) estimating that just over 60% of Venezuelans perceive that the Maduro government has both improved, and will continue to improve the economy. The government’s anti-crime project, Plan Patria Segura also faired well, with 64.5% support according to IVAD. Perhaps even more interesting is the popularity of his ‘street government’; with 73.8% of Venezuelans surveyed by ICS approving of the initiative that puts government officials on street level to discuss issues in the community. Most other major polling firms in Venezuela have likewise found similar results in recent surveys. The latest poll from Hinterlaces found a 17% decrease in opposition support, while the head of International Consulting Services (ICS) Lorenzo Martinez has stated that Maduro’s perceived “honesty” has led to a rise in his approval rating; which he put at 65% earlier this month.

Of course, in Venezuela polls are at best rough barometers of public opinion. Given Venezuela’s often dynamic, unpredictable political climate, sometimes they are completely wrong. Hinterlaces, ICS and IVAD and a handful of other major pollsters far overestimated Maduro’s victory margin in the lead up to the 14 April election. ICS, for example, predicted Maduro would receive 58.2% of the vote, while Capriles would only secure 40.5%. By the final count, Maduro won with just 50.6% to Capriles’ 49.1%. However, to assume both the Maduro and Capriles camps aren’t closely watching these polls would be fallacious. Fickle as they are, polls do influence political decision making. Capriles, therefore, should be concerned.

One of Capriles’ biggest failures has been his focus on international lobbying. Reportedly, some residents of his electorate, Miranda state, have begun to complain of his frequent absence. The government has likewise hit out at Capriles for his regular international escapades to countries like Colombia, Chile and Peru.

“Three million Mirandeans deserve the respect of the man who claims to be their governor, and that respect is shown by working on the street, not conspiring in Chile with a far right who has been the most murderous in the continent against their own country,” foreign minister Elias Jaua stated in response to Capriles’ July trip to Chile. Maduro’s international trips are likewise poorly received by voters, with just 39% of participants in the latest IVAD poll having a positive view of them.

Between his regular adventures around the continent, Capriles also finds time for his own internet show at Caprilestv; which provides viewers with a seemingly endless stream of vitriol against the government. On top of that, he has vowed to continue to contest the 14 April results, after Venezuela’s Supreme Court dismissed his case to annul part of the vote. Apparently, a scrapbook of grainy photographs doesn’t constitute legally admissible evidence of widespread, violent electoral fraud. A single document comprised of poorly taken photographs and the words “abusos electorales” repeated over and over in bold, colourful wording seems to have made up the bulwark of evidence submitted to the National Electoral Council during his appeal for a recount in late April, but was dismissed by CNE President Tibisay Lucena. Of course, the appeal never had any real chance of succeeding, as even Capriles has admitted. Like Caprilestv, the appeal was primarily an attempt to prolong the “rage” the opposition leader demanded from his supporters after he lost in April. During the economic squeeze that riled consumers in April, that rage came easily. Now, there is comparably less to rage about.

The uncertainty of April is gone, and even the economy is picking up. Any attempt to fight the election results internationally isn’t going to reverse that trend- yet another foreign trip simply isn’t going to do the trick. Likewise, his attack on the government’s ongoing anti-corruption drive has also failed to gain traction, as was made evident during his last noteworthy rally on 3 August. Framed in the context of the National Assembly stripping opposition legislator Richard Mardo of his parliamentary immunity, Capriles’ called a rally against corruption, presumably intended to reignite his movement. Yet, as Venezuelanalysis observed on 3 August, the rally appeared to draw a smaller crowd than expected. Large television screens were unnecessarily set up a few hundred metres down from the main stage to relay Capriles’ speech to a sprawling audience that simply didn’t materialise. While it was still a noteworthy gathering that looked great on national television, it didn’t compare to the much larger rallies he mustered earlier in the year. The same could be said for Maduro’s counter protest on the same day; perhaps Venezuelans of all political stripes want to take a break after months of uncertainty and rallying. This bodes well for the government, as it focuses on continuing to tackle issues like insecurity, corruption and the economy, which are important for building political capital with the electorate. He’d be even better positioned with supporters if he prioritised being a socialist over internal stability, perhaps by giving PSUV members a say over candidates in December’s municipal elections, and better resolving issues like that recently faced by workers at Diana Industries. Nonetheless, Maduro is relatively well placed on solid ground, with room to endear himself to the electorate.

Short of praying for a crisis to latch on to, though, Capriles may only have one real option left if he wants to cling to political relevance long enough to mount a formidable recall referendum mid-way through Maduro’s term. He may have to listen to the National Assembly’s head Diosdado Cabello, and start acting like a “real opposition”. This would require spending less time acting like he’s on a belated gap year, and more time in Miranda state, acting like a governor. He could try communicating directly with the people with something like Maduro’s popular “street government”, instead of loading hours upon hours of bitter, anti-government speeches onto Caprilestv. Better still, he could mitigate his adversarial tone, and try to actually work constructively with the Maduro administration. According to the latest IVAD poll, a massive 79% of Venezuelans want to see more cooperation between the government and opposition. This course of action would have overwhelming support from his own supporters; according to the same poll, 91% of self identified opposition voters want more dialogue between the left and right. This would mean dumping not only his international crusade against Maduro, but also disassociating himself with Venezuela’s  birther movement, a phenomenon that Bloomberg‘s Raul Gallegos has rightly labelled “petty”, and evidence that Capriles is “running out of ideas”.

Capriles needs to rethink his role as the head of the opposition. He still commands considerable support, and for now has no serious rivals on the right. If he does what’s right for his constituents, cooperate with the government where necessary and act critically when the need arises, he could maintain support and make a comeback in three or six years time. Or, he could ossify his identity as Venezuela’s sore loser. The former would be more palatable for his more moderate supporters (including disenfranchised Chavistas), while the latter appeals more to his hardcore base. An extreme precedent for the latter has already been set by his predecessor, Manuel Rosales, who allegedly looted his state’s treasury and made a run for Peru. The former would require imagination and compromise; two things he currently lacks. Nonetheless, the government and the Venezuelan people have left April behind; Capriles needs to as well.