By Girish Gupta
At his campaign headquarters in the Caracas district of Bello
Monte, Henrique Capriles finishes off his weekly TV show "We
are all Venezuela" surrounded by a staff less invigorated than
it was 18 months ago.
The mood has darkened in the wake of Capriles' two major
election defeats - by Hugo Chávez in October 2012 and by
his successor Nicolás Maduro the following April - and
the numerous hurdles which have been placed ahead of him.
And Capriles' show has been forced to broadcast online after
the country's last remaining "opposition" television station
abruptly took a more pro-government line instead and stopped
Yet, the 41-year-old Capriles remains defiantly optimistic.
"Venezuela is destined for change. Venezuela is going to
change," he tells LatinFinance, as aides clear up camera
equipment around him.
When Capriles lost to Chávez, his 44% share of the
votes was nevertheless hugely significant for a disparate
opposition which had struggled to unite during nearly a decade
and a half of self-styled Bolivarian socialism.
Capriles had been keen to adopt the mantle of the new face
of Latin American pragmatism, casting himself in the mold of
former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. "I
100% follow the model of Lula," he said before opposition
primaries in February 2012. Lula, however, endorsed
Chávez and then Maduro in subsequent elections.
A year and a half of election defeats and countless battles
later, Capriles is more measured on his role as a Venezuelan
"We must keep revising our model," he says. "Fundamentally,
I believe in the progressive model in which public and private
sectors work together." He favors market-friendly economic
policies with income redistribution, but has been guarded on
the details of his policy prescriptions, in the hope of not
alienating disillusioned Chavistas.
Pragmatic leaders are emerging across the region - from
Peru's Ollanta Humala to Uruguay's José Mujica. Humala
lost the 2006 presidential election having campaigned in a red
T-shirt and spouted anti-capitalist rhetoric, happy to trumpet
his friendship with Chávez. In elections five years
later, Humala shied away from Venezuela's former president and
smartened up in a shirt and tie - and won.
Capriles, though, notes that Venezuela remains economically
vulnerable to the political status quo. "In Latin America,
politics can end up dragging the economy with it," says
He cites Ecuador as an example. "Economically, Ecuador is
fine. Now if president Rafael Correa tries to make his project
a hegemonic one, controlling the institutions, controlling the
media, controlling the parties and power, you're going to see
that politics will end up dragging the economy down too because
there is corruption; there are abuses." These, Capriles says,
"close the window to democracy," both in Venezuela, Ecuador and
across the region.
"The challenge is how economics and politics work together
democratically," says Capriles.
Capriles lost his appeal to Venezuela's Supreme Court over
the results of the last election. Maduro won by less than
250,000 votes, according to the National Electoral Council,
though the opposition cried foul. Capriles was ordered to pay a
fine of 10,000 bolívares ($1,700) for insulting the
government and questioning the legitimacy of the court. That
same day, his chief of staff Óscar López was
arrested in what government critics see as evidence of
political oppression. Maduro said that authorities had captured
"a chief of corruption and of the mafia of the Venezuelan
Yet, Capriles takes such developments in his stride,
insisting he wants to proceed in a "legitimate" manner, that
is, within the rule of law and with respect from the
Ultimately, though, Capriles says "the question of whether
the change happens tomorrow or not, I don't know because there
are several scenarios." These include a recall referendum,
which can take place in three years, three years' short of the
presidential term limit.
Maduro lacks Chávez's popularity and relies heavily
on the momentum of his late predecessor. Local polls show that
Capriles could win against Maduro if elections were held today,
although no such poll is likely. But with annual inflation at
42.6%, a soaring crime rate and mounting shortages of basic
goods, Maduro faces formidable challenges.
This stretches into Maduro's own socialist party where
rumors abound of a challenge to his leadership. Such talk was
fuelled by leaked tapes, which revealed a lack of unity within
the government - problems not apparent under Chávez.
Capriles' strength, not shared by many in the opposition
that he leads, has always been in his ability, at least
ostensibly, to relate to the poor. Despite his wealthy
background - his family owns a chain of cinemas - Capriles
would often ride into slums on his motorbike and play
basketball with the locals during the campaigns.
It worked - almost. Before April's election, many in
Chávez strongholds said that while they were staunch
Chavistas, and always would be, they would vote for Capriles
Nevertheless, the majority of Chávez-supporters
obeyed the final public request of the ailing president, who
beseeched the nation before his final cancer operation that
should anything go wrong, they should vote for Maduro.
Chávez, of course, was the master of public relations
when it came to the poor, but was less concerned with his
international standing. Capriles, however, has spent the months
since his last narrow election defeat shoring up his ties
across the region - in some cases to the detriment of foreign
"We are taking the voice of millions of Venezuelans beyond
our borders," Capriles announced in Bogotá, before
meeting Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos.
His message looks to be getting through, although regional
leaders will be careful not to offend Venezuela, which, with
the world's largest oil reserves remains powerful if not as an
ally, at least not as an enemy.
Authorities in Venezuela reacted with fury to Capriles'
meeting with Santos. Diosdado Cabello, head of the National
Assembly, accused Santos of "placing a bomb" under the
countries' much-improved relations in recent years - and
advance that was partly due to Maduro's efforts as foreign
The would-be leader also met Chile's president
Sebastián Piñera, though Peru's Humala declined
such a meeting. Capriles, though, insists that governments
across the region are alive to his concerns over democracy and
the rule of law in Venezuela.
"I think more important than what they said was that they
listened to our approach," he says. "In Latin America these
hegemonic projects of undefined elections, constitutions that
are tailored to the government in power and so on are very
That is the message that Capriles is hoping to spread around
the region. "That's what I told Santos. That's what I told
Piñera," he says. "That's what I'm going to tell other
institutions with which we are meeting. We have to raise the
banner of democracy and change in Latin America."
Nevertheless, Capriles insists that politically, the region
is heading in the right direction. "Pragmatism is winning right
now in Latin America," he says. LF