A weakening Chavez challenged by a rising Leopoldo Lopez

February 15, 2011

By Daniel Duquenal
Troy Media

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 15, 2011/ Troy Media/ – Things aren’t going well for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Even though the Venezuelan democratic opposition got 52 per cent of the popular vote in September 2010 but still had to settle for 40 per cent of legislative seats due to gerrymandering and other electoral fraudulent provisions, this was still too much for Chavez.

Last December, he executed a legislative coup d’atat in which the lame-duck National Assembly (the new assembly took effect in January) passed a series of laws that not only effectively muzzled the newly elected assembly, but exempted his administration from any significant control until the presidential election of 2012.

Nobody fooled

Politicians were not fooled: many feel that the regime’s days are numbered. Opposition groups are preparing for the primary elections that will be held late this year to pick the candidate to confront Chavez in December 2012. There is some question, however, as to whether the coming elections will be fair, because of the current situation, and if Chavez will even respect the results.

To examine the difficulties facing the opposition, we have only to examine the case of Leopoldo Lopez, as it illustrates quite well how difficult it is for a good and charismatic politician to mount a challenge to Chavez. Lopez is only the latest candidate to face attacks by Chavez: others include Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate in 2006 now in exile in Peru or Antonio Ledezma, elected Caracas mayor in 2008 but who unconstitutionally lost his position prerogatives and functions after pressure was applied by Chavez.

Lopez was the mayor of Chacao, the wealthiest district of Venezuela, and while mayor made quite a name for himself for his good administration and his desire to work for all his constituents, from the wealthy to the poorest, in spite of the many roadblocks set up by the regime.

His obvious popularity made him a shoo-in for the Caracas Mayor election of 2008, even in many left-wing districts. The regime, however, barred him from running through an administrative fiat.

As hard as it may be to believe, in Venezuela the regime can (illegally) bar anyone from running for office if any “misconduct” during the management of public funds is detected. It is interesting to note, however, that in perhaps 90 per cent of the cases only opposition office holders are victims of this system and they don’t even have to steal a penny. For example, you can be barred from running for public office if your budget contained provisions for the maintenance of municipal buses but you needed to use the money instead to pay the bus drivers because the government reneged on its promise to transfer funds to cover wages. Obviously, this same rule does not apply to Chavez himself, who uses state funds as if it were his own wallet.

That is what happened to Lopez as the opposition chose him to run as its mayor candidate in 2008. Lopez was barred on a triviality.

Lopez is fighting back from being barred. He took his case all the way to the Inter American Commission for Human Rights in Washington, DC. He is to present his case on March 1 to the Inter American Court in San Jose, Costa Rica and he is all but certain to win his case. As to whether the government will accept the ruling and lift the sanction is another matter, since the regime seems to drift increasingly outside of the international legal system and its obligations.

But Lopez hasn’t been sitting on his hands during this legal battle. After having founded Primero Justicia, one of the new political parties emerging to fight back Chavez hegemony, he left and briefly joined UNT, Un Nuevo Tiempo, a growing regional party. He then created his own movement, Voluntad Popular, a social democrat-type of movement, in December 2009.

He has met with some success and has been able to attract, among others, a large numbers of leaders from the student movement who made the Chavez 2007 constitutional referendum flounder. The regime replied by refusing to recognize Voluntad Popular on technicalities, not even allowing it to run its own slate in the 2010 legislative elections.

Yet this did not stop Lopez from campaigning like no other leader of the opposition in 2010, visiting some of the remotest areas of Venezuela where even pro Chavez leaders do not want, or dare, to tread anymore. His campaign not only led decisively in the election of some opposition  candidates, but definitely put his name on the Venezuelan map, away from the Caracas epicenter.

Voluntad Popular recognized

Voluntad Popular has grown into a national movement. He pursued his efforts during the catastrophic rains that Venezuela suffered in October and November of last year, when his party organized relief and volunteer convoys. The regime, visibly scared by the diligence, committed the mistake of intercepting one of the convoys and confiscating it.

Finally, this year, the regime was forced to recognize Voluntad Popular as a legitimate political party and all Venezuelans are awaiting the results of the March trial to see if Lopez will be allowed to run. His poll numbers are good these days, which not only worries Chavez but also many of the other opposition hopefuls as well.

Due to the situation in Venezuela, Daniel Duquenal is a pseudonym. A former scientist now living in the Venezuelan countryside managing his small family business, Daniel edits a very popular blog called Venezuela News and Views.