Capriles Seeks to Thread the Needle

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Since the end of February, Capriles has been pushing for ten points that, he argues, should set the opposition’s agenda for negotiations with the government.

The points include the release of all the detainees for “political causes,” including figures such as Leopoldo López and Iván Simonivis; the dismantlement of the “paramilitary” groups (meaning the pro-government colectivos); a stop to the criminalization of peaceful protests and human rights violations, torture, and repression; the selection of a mediator (the Catholic Church is proposed as possible candidate); and the removal of “politics and the Cuban government from the armed forces.”

This mixture of general and concrete points is an attempt to provide the protests with clear objectives without asking for la salida (the exit or the solution) that more radical leaders are pushing for. Capriles has recently stated that the main, and presumably a priori, pointsfor negotiations would be the release of those arrested “for political causes” and the disarming of the colectivos. The government has been freeing students arrested during the protests, but the release of López and Simonovis, and the disarmament of the colectivos, seem unlikely in the short term.

Capriles has also proposed the organization of a new grassroots movement around what he calls Comandos de Defensa del Pueblo. On paper, these groups would transcend party lines and divisions and instead focus on the solution of community problems such as “citizen’s security, goods shortages, roads, public services, among others.” This is also a departure from the confrontational opposition strategy of recent protests. Instead Capriles, and other leaders from his party Primero Justicia such as Carlos Ocariz and Julio Borges, have insisted that the opposition should focus on grassroots work and mobilization in order to build a wider electoral base. 

Last month protests were sparked by the juncture of university student’s unrest in several cities and the manifestation convoked on February 12 by a group of opposition leaders under the slogan La Salida. These leaders, Leopoldo López, Maria Corina Machado, and Antonio Ledezma, contested the more moderate opposition course of dialogue with the government on concrete issues, such as citizens security, set by the MUD and by Herique Capriles. La Salida leaders contended that the electoral option was in jeopardy due to what they perceived as an increasingly autocratic government bent.

But on February 12, the same day the opposition rally in Caracas ended in violence, Capriles declared: “We have not abandoned the struggle and we never will, because we want progress for Venezuela, but if the struggle is violent, we will not take part in it, because that violence will not lead to a permanent and real change. What we should be doing is articulating and organizing a big social movement that includes all Venezuelans, especially those who suffer, so we can reach our objectives.”     

The government’s heavy handed response to the protests, including documented cases of use of firearms by officers of the SEBIN and beatings by National Guards, and the arrest of Leopoldo López, fueled the protests and further radicalized sectors of the opposition.

Capriles was forced to strike a middle course by calling for peaceful demonstrations with “clear objectives,” and again emphasized that the only option for the opposition is to work and wait for future electoral opportunities, all the while trying not to be seen as caving in to government pressure. He has been present at some of the more peaceful demonstrations and insisted that, despite differences, he “will not abandon” Leopoldo López.

In February 21, at the high point of the protests, Capriles gave his strongest warning so far to the La Salida movement: “They [the government] are fabricating a new April 11 [2002, coup against Chávez after massive opposition demonstrations turned violent]. (…) It’s all highly suspicious, it’s the same script. Always! the guarimba, the aggressions, the victims. (…) Are we going to bite the bait again? What we need here is reason, orientation, and a sense of political struggle.” Furthermore, he warned that a non-electoral exit of Maduro could actually mean a takeover by the President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello, an idea that had much resonance in social media: “‘Maduro leave now’ [vete ya] could turn out be ‘Diosdado take over now’ [vente ya],” he said.

But Capriles has also attempted to not seem too complacent with the government. He has twice refused invitations by Maduro for dialogue, once in the context of the Consejo Federal de Gobierno and then to a “Peace Conference” called by the President. And he has used strong language to refer to Maduro: “What is the world saying about Maduro? That he is guilty of genocide in our country. (…) I will not go and wash Nicolas’ face in Miraflores. That’s what they want, for me to go there and shake his hand as if the country was in a complete normality, as if nothing was happening here. I’m not going there to white wash this moribund government.”

Capriles position runs the risk of being perceived as “weak” by the opposition’s core base of support: the students and the middle class. For example, a popular opposition figure, catholic priest Padre José Palmar (@PadreJosePalmar), has recently tweeted that “if Capriles had not told us to go home after April 17 [presidential elections], we would already be free from this tragedy.” Capriles has argued instead that calling back the protests in April was the responsible decision at the time because “I could not risk the lives of Venezuelans given my responsibility to guarantee peace and security.”