I admire Capriles for agreeing to run (as I said here). It would have been fully understandable for Capriles to have declined, given that he is likely to lose and that losing two presidential elections in one year is likely to preclude him from a future run. I think his decision is consistent with what we have seen from him before. When, for example, he was judicially pursued by the government for the events at the Cuban Embassy during the 2002 coup he did not go into exile as other opposition leaders have in the same circumstances. He faced the charges and did jail time. Here he’s taking on a presidential race seemingly out of conviction that it’s the right thing to do.
However, I was very disappointed with his acceptance speech on Sunday night. During forty minutes he insulted the Minister of Defense for being second to last in his class, suggested Nicolas Maduro’s tears for Chávez were feigned, and repeated multiple times the conspiracy theories that circulate in opposition circles that Chávez was dead or unconscious long before the government acknowledged it. Other than that, Capriles put forth his usual inspirational psychology writ large: this is David versus Goliath, we have to fight for Venezuela, he won’t let the Venezuelan people down. This was a speech that could mobilize his core support—the people who relate to him and already believe the worst about the Chávez government. But it left the disaffected Chavistas I have talked to flat or turned-off.
Monday’s press conference after registering for the presidential election was an improvement, but not enough. Capriles was at his best when he called Maduro out for making homophobic statements. Also effective was mentioning Chávez’s opposition to the embalmed bodies that were going to be displayed as part of an exhibition in 2009.
But to actually reach beyond his base, Capriles needs to address the issues facing Venezuelans. The starting point has to be the realization that Capriles is the underdog in this election not because the playing field is unfair but because Chavismo is more popular among Venezuelans than the opposition. It is more popular because more Venezuelans feel that their lives have improved or will improve under Chávez (and his chosen successor) than feel that way about the opposition. The opposition needs to make its case by critiquing the government’s policies and actions and suggesting what it would do differently and better.
The problem is not that Capriles is being pugnacious. He ought to speak up for what he believes, especially in a short campaign. What is lacking in Capriles’ discourse is substance—substantive treatment of the issues facing Venezuela. Especially as an underdog, changing people’s minds comes not from political tit-for-tat but from convincing them on key issues. This does not imply boring policy speeches. Rather, the Capriles campaign needs to figure out five to ten core issues that they can hit time and again with rhetorically constructed messages that are easy to understand and remember.
I am not trying to make a moral appeal for the political high road. This is about strategy. The ability to communicate about key issues is what allowed Bill Clinton to emerge from obscurity in 1992 and sweep to the presidency. It’s also what allowed Hugo Chávez to surge from single digits in 1997 to a landslide victory in 1998. Of course Chávez used a lot of abstract rhetoric about who Venezuela was and why Punto Fijo democracy was a sham. But he also talked about his plans for a constitutional assembly, recall referendums, the creation of a diversified economy, servicing foreign debt, addressing tax evasion, and reducing poverty. And he talked about PDVSA in the most concrete of terms: rolling back the opening to foreign investment, reducing excessive spending, reducing its administrative autonomy, and developing more downstream oil products in Venezuela. Whether these were the right positions is irrelevant. The point is that in 1998 Chavez identified problems affecting Venezuela and communicated substantive solutions that average people could understand. (Take a look at a couple of interviews from 1998 here and here).
Capriles has to do the same and there is ample space to do so.
• Talk about the economy. Why does a country with such immense economic resources have inflation of 20-30% per year? What does Venezuela’s current budget deficit mean for the future? What is wrong with the mega-loans coming from China in the past couple of years? Why are there scarcities of basic consumer goods and what can be done?
• Talk about democracy. How and why does socialism lead to the concentration of power? What are the concrete manifestations and consequences of the concentration of power? What is wrong with plans for the communal state? Why have many of the government’s participatory initiatives ossified or become co-opted?
• Talk about the infrastructure. Why does a country that once exported electricity now have rolling blackouts in the interior? Trot out Chavez’s own statements on the matter from the first years of his first presidency. Why, after 14 years of government is the key highway from Caracas to Barcelona in such awful shape? Why are there more accidents in the oil industry now? How much has the explosion of the Amuay refinery in September cost Venezuela in the importation of gasoline from the United States? What does it mean that the government has to spend billions of dollars a year on subsidizing gasoline?
• Talk about foreign policy. Building alternative international alliances is great. But who are Ahmadinejad, Lukashenko, Assad and Putin and what does it mean that Venezuela appears to wholeheartedly support them?
If and when things get tough for a Maduro government, these messages will put the opposition in position to be viable and constructive. It will also force the government to address problems rather than debating where and how to display Chávez’s remains. Average Venezuelans will appreciate that.
Let me come at this from the other direction. What do people think when a candidate does not address the substantive issues affecting their lives? At best they think the candidate has nothing to say. At worst they think the candidate has something to hide or underestimates their intelligence. In contrast, when a candidate guides them through issues and proposes solutions they feel respected. When a candidate takes some counter-intuitive policy positions, initial fear can turn into respect for the candidate’s courage and innovation.
I am not saying that hitting on issues is always the right move. I think it made sense for Obama to not talk issues in 2012 since people knew where he stood and he was ahead for most of the campaign. It also makes sense for Maduro to avoid issues since he is comfortably ahead and his main selling point is having been chosen by Chávez.
But Capriles is far behind. Unless something unexpected happens (which is always possibility as Luis Vicente Leon is right to point out) Capriles is going to lose the election. Thus this is a time to put forward concrete ideas and a vision of the country that can put the opposition in position to be relevant for future opportunities.