Flawless failure

Prospect Magazine

Flawless failure


Chávez’s opponents must not change course

Hugo Chávez won the presidential election on an uneven playing field

Henrique Capriles didn’t do anything wrong. The 40-year-old Venezuelan opposition leader ran a nearly flawless presidential campaign against Hugo Chávez. He was the right candidate—energetic, creative, passionate and tireless—to go up against an ailing leader who makes no excuses for his desire to be president for life.

But near-perfection isn’t enough when you are competing with a modern authoritarian like Hugo Chávez. All the same, even in failure, the Venezuelan opposition is offering a textbook lesson on how best to challenge 21st century authoritarians and a guide to how Chávez (or one of his political heirs) is likely to be dislodged in the future.

The Venezuelan presidential election, held on 7th October, was never supposed to be close. The government did everything it could to see to that. At rallies, Chávez and his cronies used the state’s massive oil wealth to hand out refrigerators, washing machines, home appliances—even new homes—to those who professed their loyalty. While Capriles was limited to three minutes of TV advertisements each day, the government blanketed the airwaves with ads extolling Chávez’s accomplishments. All radio and television networks were required to carry the president’s speeches, which came nearly every day. Government employees—whose ranks have swelled in the last decade—were reminded that their livelihoods depended on punching their ballots for Chávez. Polls vary, but with as much as half of the population doubting that voting is secret, it’s a potent threat. Fear and free goods are durable currencies for a modern authoritarian.

Capriles may have done nothing wrong, but his defeat could still lead to a grave error: the Venezuelan opposition could abandon the strategy it has only recently begun. Even though Chávez has been in power for 14 years, almost all of the strides the opposition has made have come in the last two years. It took a decade to jettison the old generation of political leaders responsible for the failed policies of the 1980s and 90s before Chávez was elected in 1998. Although Capriles may have lost, he and his cohort of younger leaders are the most potent challenge to Chávez—note that in October’s election Chávez added only 135,000 votes to his 2006 election total; the opposition added nearly 1.9m.

Most modern authoritarians are more like Hugo Chávez than Muammar Gaddafi. They allow for some modicum of opposition, and at times a chance to challenge them at the polls. The Venezuelan opposition understood three basic points essential to effective campaigns against such regimes.

First, the opposition must be unified. In Venezuela, that meant holding primary elections to winnow the field of candidates to the one person best equipped to lead. It’s far easier for a strongman to maintain his rule when his opponents are divided and bickering.

Second, it isn’t enough to be against the regime—you must offer solutions. Capriles focused on Venezuelans’ real concerns: soaring crime, inflation, and corruption. He proposed following Brazil’s successful economic model and launching education initiatives to combat youth crime. Rather than overturn all of Chávez’s social programs, he zeroed in on those that have failed. While Chávez denounced him and his supporters as “fascists,” Capriles responded with an inclusive message that welcomed all Venezuelans.

And finally, the opposition put forward a candidate who has a direct connection to the people. Capriles has been the governor of Miranda, a large, politically influential state where 70 per cent live in poverty. He couldn’t have become governor without the support of the poor. As a presidential candidate, he campaigned everywhere. He addressed massive crowds in Chávista strongholds. In the last two months of the campaign, he travelled the length of the country—twice.

In the end, it wasn’t enough. That Chávez could win on an uneven playing field is no surprise. Nor should the country’s opposition be taken aback by what comes next: Chávez will ratchet up the pressure. It was after his last presidential election that he truly radicalised his agenda. With regional elections around the corner, he will look to destroy whatever inroads the opposition has made. Expect selective corruption investigations, greater censorship and anything that could sow discord in the opposition’s ranks. Even though the opposition failed to deliver a shocking upset, it got the caudillo’s attention. If it holds true to their new playbook, when it does succeed, it won’t be shocking to anyone.

  1. October 13, 2012


    The text is fully biased against Chavez. An international group of observers considered the election one of the most honest and competent worldwide (including Jimmy Carter). Mr. Chavez presidency reduced levels of poverty better than any other country. Venezuela was declared free of illiteracy by the UN.

  2. October 13, 2012

    Mike Stephenson

    I agree largely with b.v.dagnino (above). What’s wrong with the profits from the state’s massive oil wealth going to the people who live on the land from which it was extracted. Mike

  3. October 13, 2012


    ‘the state’s massive oil wealth’

    I guess that clinched it.

    Not BP’s massive oil wealth, or Texas Oil’s massive oil wealth, Venezuela’s. Free education; free health-care – all paid for by ‘the state’s massive oil wealth’.

    Makes you think, doesn’t it?

    • October 14, 2012


      Yes, Chavez has done some good things. But, it is still an authoritarian government.

  4. October 17, 2012

    John Ellis

    Latin America’s privileged elite still have a lot to learn about decades and even centuries of suppression of the majority. Chavez may not be perfect but he is not a classic authoritarian. The rich don’t like the poor being given a boot up? Well, they need to learn. If Capriles is genuine then he will eventually win through, but not if his cronies persist in twentieth-century claims to automatic rule.

  5. October 19, 2012

    miguel angel del pozo

    Sirs, thank for your analisys because will help to understand rightwing thinking and hopes! President Chavez, I am sure, will be deleited to talk to you, just put up a request for an interview so you will have the opportunity to know the “ailing political person” you said he is. Anyway, as Saint Thomas said once: “need to see to believe”

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William J Dobson
William J Dobson is foreign editor at Slate and author of “The Dictator’s Learning Curve” 

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