Taking on a man and his revolution

On 12 February Venezuelans chose Henrique Capriles to run against Hugo Chávez for the presidency

Last week the country held its first-ever primary for the voters to select a single, unified opposition candidate to take on Mr Chávez in October’s presidential election. Can Mr Capriles win? The governor of Miranda state certainly convinced the electorate taking part that he was the man for the job, winning more than 60% of the vote and beating Zulia governor Pablo Pérez into second place.

Capriles is young – at 39 he is 18 years younger than Chávez – and the dynamism of youth could well be a bonus and will be deployed by Capriles in an attempt to paint the powerful incumbent as an irrelevant coaster, whose revolution has turned stale and is holding the country back.

The revolution Mr Capriles is going to have to try to stop is a big, international beast. Hugo Chávez embodies Bolivarianism and has located himself firmly at the forefront of the movement. He is not planning on going anywhere any time soon. Chávez regularly hails the most famous Venezuelan, Simón Bolívar, who campaigned for independence from Spain and later became president himself, as the past and future spearhead of his politics and hero for all Latin America. Mr Chávez has forged an ideology of proud self-determination, anti-Westernism and pan-Latin Americanism based on firm socialism, all of which, he claims, invoke the spirit of Bolívar.

Chávez sees his ‘Bolivarian revolution’ as an ongoing, unfinished project that is constantly evolving. He has managed to bring much of the region along with him, and he has set up the ALBA bloc as a sort of ‘Bolivarian international club’ (see ‘Bolivarian bluster‘ – 05/02/12).

Henrique Capriles has to assure the voters that there is another way. This is all the country has known for the last 13 years. He has promised to be “a president for all Venezuelans” but his foe is the ultimate populist. He has said he will get to grips with the economy but Venezuela has been growing under Chávez. The opposition is also focusing on the real scourge of rising violence and continued high murder rates. They are also united in a mass effort to boot Chávez out of power  in a pragmatic manner, totally different from the bombastic electioneering of their rival. Mr Chávez has also been making promises; he has said he will accept the result of the vote on 7 October but, at the same time, has declared that Mr Capriles cannot win and must not be allowed to take the wheels off his revolution.

Hugo Chávez is a seasoned orator and he has managed to refine a particular style of public performance that allows him to cover all manner of moods and atmospheres. On his daily morning programme Alo Presidente he can easily switch from being cocky and jovial to being condemnatory, patriotic and defiant. He recently described Mr Capriles:

“you have a pig’s tail, a pig’s ears and you snort like a pig you low-life…therefore you are a pig”

Comments such as this can seem tongue-in-cheek but Mr Capriles will be under no illusions that behind the comic asides and mercurial turns of phrase there lies a determined and barbed mind. Mr Chávez has come through recent treatment for cancer and is ready to engage again with his supporters, many of who live at the poorer end of society, and who have been helped by government social programmes and food subsidies. The president has won acclaim for his patriotism but has been criticised for hyperactive nationalisation of private companies, corruption and cronyism, and a dictatorial approach to government.

Hugo Chávez has had great success at home and abroad and will not give up on his revolución without a bloody electoral battle. Mr Capriles must be ready for the fight and show why he believes Venezuela has a better future ahead without Chávez at the helm in what are stormy regional and global waters.

MYANMAR ELECTION I – Democratic militants in Myanmar

On 1 April Burma will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog will cover it live from Yangon

If you had to name someone from Myanmar right now, the chances are that the name Aung San Suu Kyi will be on the tip of your tongue. She is deservedly held up as the epitome of democracy campaigners. She has shown how the human spirit can endure hardship (in her case illicit imprisonment). And she has been a successful woman amongst the male mists of a reclusive nation. She is a beacon for Burmese democracy and, crucially, she is not alone. There are other beacons being lit by other determined, multi-party-minded activists.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is the most well-known of the Burmese opposition parties. She has certainly been campaigning hard as the 1 April by-election comes ever nearer and international broadcasters have been picking up her flag-waving and hand-shaking. It seems to outsiders looking in that she and her followers will sweep to victory in the very few seats (48 out of 664) seats that are being contested this spring.

Much has been made of the fact that this is the first time that Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD are running in a general election since they won the vote held in 1990. Her reward for the poll success then was the devastating house arrest from which she was only freed in 2010. This time excitement is brewing that her reward will be a true place in the Amyotha Hluttaw (lower house).

But the NLD are not the only opposition party looking to win seats in parliament. The National Democratic Force broke off from the NLD in order to compete in the last polls, in November 2010, which the NLD boycotted. The NDF currently has four MPs in the lower house and will be looking to build on this representation. There has been rivalry as well as friendship between the NLD and the NDF but it seems that the less well-known party is determined to achieve electoral success without the force of Suu Kyi on side.

Burma has many different ethnic nationalities, from the Mon of the eastern delta to the Shan of the central east and the Kachin of the far north in the hills on the border with China. Many of these groups have also formed political parties under the democratic banner and are running for power as well.

The ongoing process of reforms seems to be following Cuba’s Castro timescale (‘without rushing but without stopping’) and so far the US and the UK have seen enough to have flown in Hillary Clinton and William Hague to support the changes. The US has re-opened ambassadorial ties and the EU is discussing an easing of sanctions.

The path to democracy is now being trodden by the Burmese, with Aung San Suu Kyi at the head of the line. But it is important not to forget the other campaigners from different parties also dreaming of a better future and their efforts must be recognised as well. A strong democratic opposition to the military’s grip on parliament can only be built through a wide coalition of ethnicities and political leanings. Suu Kyi’s charisma is welcome and something that cannot be ignored by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. But there are other democrats, and their voices must be heard too.

This blog will cover the by-election live from Burma on 1 April

Bolivarian bluster

A Latin American left-leaning bloc show their internal unity and their international exposure

The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) group of socialist nations is certainly filled with bombastic leaders living up to its florid name. The bloc has just had its most recent get-together and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was a more than willing host for the club.

The leaders met yesterday for talks and debates and came out with some conspicuous agreements. Firstly, they ensured they set themselves against popular opinion at the United Nations by resoundingly supporting Russia and China’s veto of a proposed Security Council resolution on Syria endorsing an Arab League peace plan. These Latin and Caribbean countries are well known for their dislike of all things Western (as far back as September 2010 this blog highlighted the friendship between Bolivia and Iran – see ‘Latin-Persian alliance on the way? – 25/09/10′). Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador last month to re-affirm the mutual contempt for London, Paris and New York. Hugo Chávez called the veto “very positive” and Bolivian president Evo Morales said that ALBA “joins the veto”.

Controversial statements like these were not surprising. Chávez took this opportunity to criticise the handling of the Libya conflict by the Western powers with his famous categorical hyperbole :

“They invade, bomb, destroy a country, assassinate its president…it’s imperialism’s schizophrenia”

There are two Latin American nations sitting as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council and, notably, neither of them are in ALBA. Colombia and Guatemala (who both currently have conservative presidents) voted in favour of the resolution condemning the violence in Syria and calling on president Bashar al-Assad to stand down. So despite the fact that the leftist bloc’s title supposedly includes ‘the Peoples of Our America’, their support for Russia, China and Iran and anti-Western sentiment is not shared across the region.

One topic that does garner more backing from Latin Americans outside ALBA is the Falkland Islands/Malvinas territorial dispute. This weekend ALBA favourite Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian leader, called for:

“more concrete, more forceful decisions, Latin American sanctions against Great Britain…[the UK’s position is] an assault on sovereignty, extemporaneous colonialism”

Hugo Chávez has excitedly addressed Queen Elizabeth II in the past to hand over control of the islands to Argentina and this blog has covered the issue in previous posts (see ‘An island life for me‘ – 11/02/11).

The membership list of ALBA is a real political mix, including regional giants like Venezuela, Central Americans like Nicaragua and tiny Caribbean states like Antigua & Barbuda. The noises they make are often parochial proposals. But every now and again they come out with provocative opinions on sensitive global issues. ALBA loathes foreigners meddling in other states’ affairs but it seems unmovable on the Syrian violence even if, in this case, the UN resolution was based on Arab League reforms drawn up by Middle East politicians. While the Western powers will not lose sleep over the failure of St Kitts & Nevis to support them, Ecuador and Cuba are important players in that developing region and it is worrying that the ALBA organisation seems fundamentally opposed to all Western ideals.