Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez face a new political playing field filled with potential pitfalls now that their nemesis has announced he is being treated for cancer.
Venezuela’s loosely knit coalition of opposition factions insists it is sticking with plans to stand behind a single candidate in next year’s presidential election, yet the only glue that has held them together for years has been animosity toward Chavez.
If cancer were to force Chavez from the race, long-standing divisions could widen, hurting the opposition’s chances for victory.
“The situation poses a severe test for the opposition. They may sense an opportunity but there are risks of fracturing,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “Some figures might convince themselves that remaining united is not necessary, and they can afford to stake out different positions.”
“Any infighting could be very debilitating,” he added.
Most opposition politicians reject the slightest suggestion that the anti-Chavez movement could split if the president were to stop playing an active role in politics. Several months before Chavez became ill, the diverse collection of opposition parties has said it will hold a presidential primary in February to select a single presidential candidate.
But under these new circumstances, some of the president’s rivals may be “thinking that the barrier to participating in the elections is lowered,” said Carlos Blanco, professor of Latin American affairs at Boston University and former minister for state reform in Venezuela from 1989 to 1992.
“That can create a situation in which more candidates would like to run for the primaries,” thereby splintering the opposition, Blanco said.
Some of Chavez’s adversaries acknowledge that personal ambitions might get in the way.
“Anything is possible within the opposition,” Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, one of several presidential hopefuls, said in a telephone interview. “We must all relinquish any type of personal ambition, of party interests and follow the path that has been followed so far: the path toward the primary,” he said.
Some Chavez opponents have suggested the opposition primary should be held earlier, preferably in December, for the coalition to adapt to changing circumstances driven by Chavez’s illness and give the winner more time to mount a more effective campaign.
“We cannot rule out changing our agenda if that’s what the circumstances call for,” said Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, who plans to run in the primary.
For the moment, the opposition is standing firmly united on one thing, at least: its criticism of how Chavez’s government has handled his illness. They claim officials have been far too secretive and that Vice President Elias Jaua should officially take over the president’s duties until he returns from Cuba, where he is recovering after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his pelvis.
But Jaua said that wouldn’t happen; that the president is perfectly capable of running the country from Cuba.
Chavez is in the process of “getting better to keep on leading us,” the vice president said as he presided over a military ceremony Saturday in Caracas.
Investors have perceived the socialist leader’s illness as a possible opening for change, and Venezuelan government bond prices have rallied in the past two weeks.
“Bonds have gone up 7 percent since it emerged that he was in bad shape,” said Russell Dallen, who heads Caracas Capital Markets, a joint venture with the investment bank BBO Financial Services. “Markets have reacted positively to the possibility of some change in the government in Venezuela.”
Chavez himself said in an interview with Cuban state television Friday night that he planned to meet with some of his Cabinet ministers Saturday in Cuba. He also expressed optimism that he will recover.
Before Chavez’s meteoric rise to power in 1998, Venezuelans had grown largely disillusioned with the country’s politicians, pointing to their reputations as unscrupulous, self-interested and corrupt bureaucrats whose only concerns were obtaining and hanging on to power as a means of filling their pockets with public funds. Dominant political parties were equally disliked for many of the same reasons.
Politicians from the old-guard struggled for years to shed their unfavorable image following Chavez’s first victory. But more than a decade has passed and many Venezuelans from both sides of Venezuela’s political divide still believe the only objective of some old-guard politicians is ousting Chavez to regain the power and influence they lost.
In the past few years, opposition parties have made significant gains in congressional and gubernatorial elections by forging alliances between conservative and leftist politicians, but ideological differences remain.
“They don’t all like each other. They prefer to be separate,” said Luis Vicente Leon, who heads the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis. “They decided to be unified because they didn’t have any other choice.”
In the opposition stronghold of Altamira in Caracas, Chavez opponent Marie Mendez said she is hopeful that the opposition “can do something effective and not egotistical.”
“For one thing, this could help us bring in new investments,” she said.
On the other hand, she acknowledges that a number of potential opposition candidates might eventually vie for the presidency “and the opposition will likely be divided.”
She also thinks that Chavez’s illness could bring him more sympathy.
Chavez might initially benefit from public sympathy, but that is likely to give way to concerns over the potential consequences of his illness, Leon said.
*Associated Press writers Ian James and Jack Chang in Caracas and Lisa J. Adams in Mexico City contributed to this report.