Thursday, August 10, 2006

Rosales is the unity candidate: the campaign starts!

No real surprise there as to the name, though a slight surprise at the opposition finally managing to put its act together. I am rather happy to say that this blog had long ago stated that the strength of the Rosales support was underestimated by the Caracas folks that think they control politics in Venezuela. I mean of course “La Republica del Este” for its Eastern heavily anti Chavez suburbs. But eventually reality imposed itself: you could not just dismiss the governor of Venezuela’s biggest state, and THE one that resisted the chavista onslaught in 2004. His stature had not stopped increasing among Venezuelan outside of Caracas, and became nearly unstoppable after December 2005 when he is the one that managed best the “abstention” crisis of that December when he was widely expected to carry almost all of the Zulia seats against all initial odds.

Even the long term valiant effort of Borges to try to reach out of the central region was not enough. He did indeed made sure that PJ became a “national party” but it is still a party with some strength in only about half a dozen states. Rosales without a formal party already was leading in the Western half of the country. Teodoro Petkoff sort of suspected that when he went early to talk to Rosales before he even launched his own presidential bid. But Teodoro could not finish; though he was smart enough to sense where the wind was coming from and withdrew first, launching the inevitable love fest of sorts when all the other candidates withdrew, where Sumate cancelled the primaries, where Manuel Rosales was proclaimed and made his first official (and decent if populist) campaign speech. The unity picture on the right, with Borges, Rosales and Petkoff.

Chavismo was at the same time surprised but ready. Surprised because it was rather obvious that they did not expect that the opposition would unite, because they were probably really counting on a division. Indeed what better argument for Chavez as he cheats his way back to office to say that “but there were several candidates, did you not see them?”. But chavismo was ready anyway. Already tonight at 7 PM the VTV show “Dando y Dando” was nothing but a vicious attack on Rosales, at tax payer expense. Not even the “moderator” pretended any form of objectivity. We also got a “cadena” at 8 PM where for a good ten minutes we got a travelogue of Chavez last trip in that it was just an assemblage of happy pictures of loving African babies and hugs with all the leaders he visited during 2 weeks. This completed with at least 6 "major achievements of the revolution" in Venezuela. My first advice to the Rosales team is to record VTV 24/7 and all cadenas and do continuous reports of all the violations of the electoral code that Chavez is already doing. Start counting also the very few minutes that the state media will grant to Rosales as opposed to the hours and hours that Chavez will literally steal through cadenas and legal and forced governmental advertisements. You will need to document all of that to the international observers when in October the situation becomes unbearable and you might want to start street protests and withdrawal threats. Trust me on that one, chavismo is barely starting its abuses.

I really have not that much to say about Rosales. He is the typical provincial politician that made good. That is, he started on the lowest echelons of AD in the then remote “Sur del Lago” area, the humid and swampy southern side of Zulia. But he climbed steadily until he reached the Maracaibo mayor office, the second one in the country. When the chavismo tidewave came he was smart enough to leave AD and form his own political party, UNT, Un Nuevo Tiempo (a new time). He must have been a rather successful mayor as he was easily elected governor of Zulia when Chavez old buddy Arias Cardenas preferred to run for president and lost. Still, this unassuming provincial politician was not given much credit even if his 2000 victory was stronger than anyone had expected at the height of Chavez REAL popularity. In fact, the conjunction of Arias and Rosales was enough for Chavez to lose Zulia when he was taking every other state. At the time one would have thought that it was the Arias factor but now it seems that the star of Rosales was already rising.

Rosales went on to become a constructive opposition leader. At first he tried to build bridges with Caracas which, if anything, reflects well on his desire to fulfill his pledge to Zulia voters before promoting his own personal ambition. Some people even considered the UNT as a junior party of the Chavez majority. But by 2002 he was in the leading edge of the opposition, being awkwardly filmed, rather embarrassed, signing the infamous Carmona decree (I personally remember as I watched TV that April 12 whether he was going to sign so awkward was his demeanor). Since then Chavez has marked him. But it did not help because in spite of the biggest attack machine that Chavez designed he could not unseat Rosales in 2004.

Because this is a fact: for all its threats against the Carmona decree signatories, the legality is on such shaky grounds that we are still waiting for the massive trial promised. The reason is simple, if such trial is ever held chavismo will also have to take a stand in the trial and chavismo has as much to fear from a close investigation of April 2002 than the opposition. How else can we explain that 4 years have passed and nothing has been done except a few indictments and citations? Rosales being recently one of the targets by the way: we will see if the sold out judiciary dares to jail him during the campaign.

I would not dismiss Rosales easily if I were chavismo (I do not think they do considering what I already saw today, Carmona decree pictures included)). He might be an old fashioned populist politician but he holds several big cards from the start.

1) His reelection in Zulia shows that he has achieved something there, that people like him, that he reached them. No matter what dirt Chavez tries to throw at him (VTV is ripe of cheap adds about dissatisfied Zulianos), Rosales has at least as much to show for than Chavez in Venezuela, all proportions guarded.

2) Rosales cannot be tied to Caracas old politics. Rosales has never held a Caracas office. All his career is in Zulia state and all the huge rallies he has called were in Zulia, not in Caracas. In addition he bailed out of AD early enough and has been careful to surrender himself with local pols (then again he might be provincial enough to be wary of anyone not from Zulia). These days Chavez looks everyday more like just another Caracas distant pol for us in the provinces.

3) He has a rather plain speaking tone. A nice respite from the Chavez exhausting speech. After 8 years of permanent confrontation a candidate that promises good management, to bring back the bucks sent away, in a more measured tone, might have a surprising effect.

4) His face his poke marked, he is short, he looks almost as mestizo as Chavez and certainly not white, not Caracas type at all. Think province lawyer. Playing race and elite with him will not go far. Frijolito 3 will not work well with Rosales.

But Rosales has some big problems too. He will need to find fast the right confrontational tone with the CNE. He will need to solidify the opposition unity as an electoral alliance with a minimal but concrete government plan. He will need to steady himself against the Chavez formidable vulgarity onslaught. He will need to watch out for betrayal maneuvers from people such as AD or some hard right folks that might be the ones behind some other disturbing candidacies. He will need to find money. He will have barely three months to set up a support group to make sure that elections are not stolen from him. As I had written months ago: Rosales should have been a unity candidate late May, at the latest. Two full months have been wasted in intrigues.

Thus is Rosales, an accidental candidate, the one that nobody expected, the one that probably never thought he would even leave the “Sur del Lago”. Yet today he carries on his shoulders all the weight to save Venezuelan democracy. I have seen him once. A couple of years ago I was at the Eurobuilding of Caracas on a business diner. This was in the sad post recall election days. Rosales was then trying to organize the regional campaign for the elections which saw the loss of all but 2 states to Chavez. Rosales was with a small group of 2-3 people, standing up at the bar area but not drinking, waiting for someone. Nobody was stopping to say hi. Nobody was staring. He had a certain “had been look” as all the opposition leaders had these days. The conversation was serious, no one was smiling. As a blogger I was tempted to go and introduce myself but I was on business and I could not drop my party. I had a rather favorable impression of the guy: non assuming, quiet, serious, slightly undaunted to be in such a public place without any escort, not even an obvious assistant, taking himself his cell phone calls (he was the governor of the main Venezuelan state, an assistant would have been expected!). Today the sycophantic tide is turning his way. I hope, I even think that his provincial nature will protect him from them. All that he has he owes it apparently to himself alone: he owes nothing politically. He seems of the no nonsense type. He might be the man after all. We will see.

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