November 4, 2012 8:58 pm

Venezuela opposition seeks morale boost

The Venezuelan government and its supporters may still feel euphoric. But Hugo Chávez’s triumph in October’s presidential election has left the opposition and swaths of the country in gloom, wondering if there will ever be an end to “21st century socialism”.

Faced with six more years of “Bolivarian revolution”, on top of 12 years already, increasing numbers of Venezuelans are deciding to abandon their country.

“I can’t stay here any longer,” says Reny Rangel, a 30-year-old entrepreneur who sees no future for himself in Venezuela given its increasingly challenging business environment and personal safety, threatened by a rising tide of violent crime.

“I can’t sit out another six years. It would be interminable,” he despairs, saying he would rather shutter his logistics company and start life anew in the US.

As many as 1m of Venezuela’s 29m population have emigrated since Mr Chávez came to power in 1999, according to Esther Bermúdez, who runs MeQuieroIr.com (Spanish for “I want to go”), a Venezuelan website providing information for would-be émigrés.

Since the election result, “We began to see an exponential increase in traffic to our website, and it has remained high,” she says. Daily visitors have tripled to about 180,000, with most interested in emigrating to the US, Canada and Australia.

It is against this backdrop that Mr Chávez’s opponents are now trying to regroup, after their hopes were shattered in the October 7 vote. This was touted as their best chance yet to defeat the charismatic “anti-imperialist” leader.

Yet, despite a unified opposition and an energetic campaign by Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old state governor and opposition leader, the 58-year-old Mr Chávez still won with 1.5m votes more than Mr Capriles’ 6.5m.

Now, the opposition is struggling to re-energise disheartened supporters to keep the faith and vote in December’s regional elections, with 23 state governorships in play, of which the opposition currently holds eight. Next April, more than 300 mayoralties are also up for grabs.

“There are more than 6m people who are looking for a better future, and I want to tell those more than 6m Venezuelans to count on me,” said Mr Capriles after the presidential elections, vowing to keep up the fight. “I am at your service.”

He will now take on Elías Jaua, who was vice-president until earlier this month, in the state of Miranda, Venezuela’s second most populous state which includes much of Caracas. Mr Capriles is the incumbent after first winning the governorship in 2008 against Diosdado Cabello, now president of congress.

While the government is betting that momentum from Mr Chávez’s election victory will continue, the opposition often performs better in regional elections. Since the popular Mr Chávez is not on the ballot, “chavista” leaders are sometimes punished by protest voters discontented with poor local leadership.

Ramón Muchacho, an opposition politician tipped to become the next mayor of the affluent Caracas district of Chacao in April, says spirits in the opposition are “mixed”.

“There are some who have turned the page quickly after the setback [in the presidential elections], but there are others who are still in mourning, sad and tired. We have to give them time,” he said, warning that the opposition needs to be on its feet by November 1, when campaigning for the gubernatorial races begins.

Margarita López Maya, a historian at the Central University of Venezuela, argues that it is essential for the opposition to remain united. “It’s already an unequal enough contest as it is, but if they are divided they have no hope.”

She adds that Mr Chávez’s plans to deepen the “communal state”, composed of a network of community councils mostly controlled by government supporters, would further weaken governorships and mayoralties where the opposition has its power base.

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