On Nov. 26, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles traveled to Maracay, a large city about 60 miles west of Caracas, to campaign for the local candidate for mayor. What should have been a routine stop turned to violence as Capriles' bus was ambushed with Molotov cocktails by a pro-government motorcycle gang. The stage where he was to speak was set on fire.
The incident underscores the inherent difficulties in opposing a government like President Nicolás Maduro's. In a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, where every state institution is under the thumb of the government, and where pressures on independent media are mounting by the day, opposing chavismo is not for the faint of heart. (In the photo above, Capriles speaks to his supporters at an opposition rally in Caracas on Nov. 23.)
Opposition figureheads are pressured on several fronts. Earlier this year, the front runner for mayor of Maracay was expelled from the National Assembly on dubious grounds. He was also barred from running for political office, leaving the city's opposition movement rudderless. Last Saturday, Capriles' tour manager was detained and then freed. The candidate for mayor of Valencia, Venezuela's third-largest city, is being charged with corruption less than two weeks before the vote. Opposition lawmakers have been physically assaulted on several occasions.
A few weeks ago, Caracas awoke to find hundreds of posters splashed across the city depicting severely distorted pictures of Capriles and two other important leaders of the opposition -- blaming them for all of the country's economic ills, and labeling them a "trilogy of evil" (sic). Just yesterday, a candidate for a local council was murdered in a drive-by shooting incident in the western town of Mene Grande.
The opposition is also finding it difficult to get their message across. After being bought by pro-government businessmen, the all-news cable station Globovisión, once a bastion of the opposition, has effectively barred Capriles from its airwaves. In response, Capriles has been forced to launch his own, web-based TV channel, Capriles.tv, but its reach is limited given how Venezuela lags in Internet penetration.
With TV and radio under control, the government is going after other media. A few days ago, the chief prosecutor pressed charges against El Universal, one of Venezuela's main newspapers, alleging it had printed violent images on its cover. The government is also going after Tal Cual, an opposition-minded tabloid led by the iconic journalist and politician Teodoro Petkoff. The government has even targeted Twitter, asking them to block the accounts of people who talk about the black market exchange rate, and questioning the suspension of pro-government accounts.
The other challenge facing the opposition is funding. It is common knowledge that the Venezuelan government uses public funds for political campaigns to support government candidates or to bribe opposition politicians, as one chavista lawmaker has recently admitted doing. On the flip side, businessmen who finance the opposition are finding their activities increasingly scrutinized. Just a few days ago, the home of a prominent opposition banker was invaded by a pro-government group.
But with Venezuela's public finances in dire shape, the government is now attacking private businesses for political purposes. After Maduro ordered his citizens to raid several appliance stores, people flocked to buy cheap TV sets and air conditioners, and some looting occurred. Unsurprisingly, the government appears to have gotten a bump in popularity thanks to this move. Maduro has now turned his sights on the Central Bank's statistics department, suggesting that inflation next month should be negative thanks to his policies.
Elections themselves are also a challenge. Aside from the usual obstacles -- numerous voting irregularities were alleged in last April's Presidential election, and were never thoroughly resolved -- the chavista government now has to worry about local elections. In response to this perceived threat, Maduro has declared the date of the elections a "day of loyalty and love for Hugo Chávez," with celebrations and political rallies expected to take place all across the country.
In spite of all these problems, widespread political violence is not a major factor... yet. But as Venezuela confronts this ominous prospect, many analysts are alarmed. After all, it only takes a lit match to ignite the proverbial tinderbox.
Venezuela's opposition operates in a toxic political environment, where normal rules of campaigning must be thrown out the window. The opposition in a normal country would typically be focused on getting its message out, and on the voters' concerns.
Instead, Venezuela's opposition has to focus on making it to the next day safely.
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