Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will Venezuela Allow a Top Chávez Opponent to Run?

Q: The Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) last month cleared opposition leader Leopoldo López to run for Venezuela's presidency next year. López, along with hundreds of other opposition figures, was banned from running three years ago over controversial corruption charges. President Hugo Chávez has criticized the court's ruling, calling it part of an international system that obeys U.S. 'imperial' interests. Venezuelan electoral officials have said they are waiting for a decision by the country's Supreme Court to determine if López is eligible. Is the Venezuelan government likely to comply with the IACHR's ruling or will it uphold the ban? If López is allowed to run, what chance does he have of winning the opposition's nomination? How well-positioned is the opposition to compete against Chávez in next year's elections?

A: Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue: "There is a good reason why the government of Hugo Chávez decided to ban Leopoldo López from running for office. Several years ago, López was quite competitive with Chávez in some national opinion polls. Of the various plausible challengers to Chávez in 2012, López is probably the one the government is most worried about. As a candidate, López has a number of assets. He is determined, an effective communicator and has shown impressive organizational skills in poor communities, mounting a nationwide network of volunteers and making a serious play for Chávez's constituents. Whether Chávez decides to comply with or defy the IACHR's ruling will depend fundamentally on the government's political calculations. There are arguments in favor of either option. The government will want to avoid giving López a political boost. If López is allowed to run he will have to compete against at least two very strong contenders, now leading the polls: Governors Henrique Capriles Radonski of Miranda and Pablo Pérez of Zulia. None of the candidates has any illusions about there being a level playing field in this election. Chávez has concentrated power to the extent that he controls all key institutions. His illness is a wild card, and opposition forces, though still lacking in clear programmatic alternatives, are more united than they have been in many years. To be sure, the question of whether Chávez would actually accept the results if he loses remains a valid one. But the opposition is pursuing the only viable and democratic path."

A: Daniel Hellinger, professor of political science at Webster University in St. Louis: "The legal argument seems clear; the political interests less so. Venezuela's attorney general argues the IACHR is disrespecting Venezuelan sovereignty, but the Bolivarian Constitution states that international treaties have equal standing with the constitution itself. Article 23 of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights explicitly prohibits depriving a citizen's right to seek office without due process. Venezuela contends that the comptroller general's administrative authority to ban candidates accused of corruption satisfies the country's obligations to Article 23 and notes that López enjoys all other political rights. President Chávez's disdain for the IACHR stems from its refusal to take up rights violations committed under the previous regime and because it initially endorsed the April 2002 coup against Chávez. But Venezuela has not withdrawn from its treaty obligations. López, running second among opposition candidates, is no political choirboy. López signed the notorious 'Carmona Decree' supporting the coup. The corruption case against him involves a $160,000 check signed in 1998 by his mother, then employed by the state oil company, donating company funds to his political party. In WikiLeaks documents, some U.S. embassy analysts describe López as 'arrogant, vengeful and thirsty for power.' His candidacy could favor Chávez by dividing the opposition. A Supreme Court ruling for López could extend to hundreds of other barred candidates. News reports claim that most are opposition figures, but the independent newspaper Ultimas Noticias reports that a majority of those banned in the same 2008 ruling were not members of an opposition party."

A: Diego Arria, a member of the Advisor board and director of the Columbus Group in New York: "According to the Venezuelan Constitution, the international treaties subscribed by the state are considered to be above national laws. Such is the case of the 1969 American Convention of Human Rights, which established the IACHR. In the López case, the government has already expressed its opinion against the court's ruling which, due to its political control over Venezuela's Supreme Tribunal, will most likely follow the regime's instructions challenging the IACHR decision and the convention itself. Such a violation should prompt the OAS secretary general to ask the permanent council to pronounce itself on this fundamental matter. It is too early to anticipate the outcome of the February 2012 primaries. But what is clear is that the opposition is increasingly united and has a clear shot to win. The main obstacle will be the regime's capacity to make it very unsafe for a transition. Winning the elections is not enough for a regime whose top military brass has publicly declared that the armed forces 'are socialist and committed to Chávez' and will not allow an opposition victory. Neither will the 60,000 Cuban mercenaries, nor the 125,000 militia members, the FARC and many international drug mafias that have found in Venezuela a convenient and safe haven to operate. We also cannot put aside the importance of Venezuela as the most important drug corridor of the region whose operatives will not easily give up their privileged situation in Chávez's Venezuela. A change in government will close them for business which today operates without interference."

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