Buenos Aires Herald, January 27, 2015
The international campaign to pressure Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro into freeing opposition leader Leopoldo López is gaining momentum as the government faces stormy economic weather ahead.
Though in the past Maduro has given his critics plenty of opportunities to question his democratic values, the president of Venezuela has a unique opportunity now to show that he embraces basic democratic values.
Since winning the 2013 presidential election — held a month after the death of Hugo Chávez—Maduro has presided over a country in crisis. As a result of ill-conceived economic policies, the Venezuelan economy is in a deep structural crisis. Falling oil prices have made things worse for a government whose social spending depends heavily on the profits generated by the oil state giant PDVSA.
Maduro does not have the same popular appeal as Chávez. Thus, whereas the late president was able to rally the people behind him when times got tough, the current leader has only seen his popularity fall as inflation soars out of control and the government implements failed economic policies to try to combat food shortages and jumpstart the economy. With plunging oil prices, the situation has gotten even worse. Recently, in a televised speech, Maduro admitted that it is unlikely that the price of a barrel of oil will ever again break the US$100-barrier, but he assured his compatriots that “God will provide.”
Venezuela is also in the midst of a political crisis. After then-president Chávez won re-election in 2012 with 55 percent of the vote, the opposition was divided among moderates, who advocated regime change through democratic and institutional means, and radicals, who favoured street mobilizations and protests. After Chávez died, the special presidential election held in 2013 resulted in a narrow victory for Maduro, with 50.6 percent of the vote. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles (49.1 percent), challenged the results and demanded a full recount. Because the entire election process was full of irregularities and the government used its vast resources to win votes, many opponents of the Chavista movement believed the election was stolen by Maduro.
Ever since the president was inaugurated, the opposition has questioned his legitimacy. The government has responded by accusing the opposition of subversion and terrorism. One of the most radical opposition leaders is Leopoldo López. A former ally of Capriles, López achieved notoriety when the moderates were unable to force Maduro to accept a recount of the 2013 presidential election votes. Calculating that the radicalization of the opposition would weaken popular support for his adversaries, Maduro seized the opportunity to turn López into the leader of the opposition and undermine Capriles, the man who almost defeated him in 2013.
Didn’t pay off
The gamble did not pay off. Many Venezuelans feel that, by prosecuting the opposition, Maduro is trying to divert attention away from the economic problems. Others who are not supportive of López’s radical opposition strategy also reject the government’s decision to put him behind bars. Realizing that the costs of having him behind bars outweighs the benefits, a few weeks ago Maduro offered the US to free Leopoldo López in exchange for Puerto Rican political prisoners serving sentences in the United States.
Since the offer tacitly accepted that Maduro had the power to free López — contrary to the official position that alleged that he was in jail due to a decision by the independent judiciary, the US renewed pressure on Maduro to free López. This week, former presidents Andrés Pastrana of Colombia, Felipe Calderón of Mexico and Sebastián Pińera of Chile travelled to Venezuela to show their solidarity with the opposition. Pastrana and Pińera also unsuccessfully tried to visit López in jail.
President Maduro accused the three former presidents of supporting a political group that wants to overthrow him via a coup. Though the three former presidents are right-of-centre, they are also committed democrats. Maduro’s accusation is baseless, but it corresponds to the official line that seeks to label the opposition as anti-democratic, because they did not accept his victory in the 2013 presidential election.
Though Maduro wanted to make López the leader of the opposition and cast a shadow over Capriles, the move has turned into a test of Maduro’s own democratic credentials. The fact that he insists in keeping the opposition leader behind bars calls into question his values. Independent human rights organizations have called on the government to free López. The opposition has successfully used his arrest as evidence and a means to challenge Maduro’s commitment to democratic values.
Even if one accepts that Maduro won the election and López is off-base in challenging his legitimacy, the government’s obsession with López is unjustified. Democratic leaders do not put behind bars their political opponents (even if their opponents behave undemocratically). As he is going through the most difficult moment in his administration, President Maduro has a unique opportunity to show the world that he embraces democratic values.
By freeing Leopoldo López, Maduro will certainly strengthen an opposition leader, but he will also reaffirm his own credentials as a democrat and strengthen his position as he seeks to introduce policy reforms to get the economy out of the deep crisis.