The Man Who Could Save Venezuela

Throughout Latin America, autocrats and aspiring autocrats have long benefited from facing a divided opposition. Over the past decade, this phenomenon has helped semi-dictatorial leftists in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Back in 2006, for example, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega captured the presidency in Nicaragua with only 38 percent of the vote, even though a majority of Nicaraguans (55 percent) voted for one of his two main conservative rivals, Eduardo Montealegre and José Rizo. That same year, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez squared off against a fractured opposition and won reelection with 63 percent support.

All of which explains why Henrique Capriles is so important.

Earlier this month, Capriles secured the presidential nomination of Venezuela’s opposition alliance, known as the Coalition for Democratic Unity (its Spanish-language acronym is “MUD”). Currently serving as governor of Miranda, the country’s second most populous state, he garnered an impressive 64 percent of the vote, thereby receiving a strong mandate to represent MUD forces in the October 2012 national election. As former Venezuelan state oil official Pedro Burelli has written, it was the best-possible outcome for the opposition and the worst-possible outcome for Chávez.

Not surprisingly, the regime immediately set out to demonize the youthful Capriles, 39, with lies and ad hominem attacks. A pro-government journalist named Mario Silva alleged that Capriles was once arrested for having public sex with a man. Chávez himself called Capriles a “low-life,” a “pig,” and “the candidate of the bourgeois, of capitalism, of imperialism,” informing his rival that “the only place you’re going to govern is the land of Tarzan and his monkey Cheetah.” For good measure, he also referred to Capriles as “crappy one.”

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s state-run media have unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitic vitriol, at once labeling Capriles both a Zionist and a Nazi. These attacks are as ludicrous as they are offensive. The grandson of Polish Jews who fled their homeland to escape the Holocaust, Capriles is a practicing Catholic, yet the government propaganda machine has portrayed his ancestry as evidence of sinister ties to “international Zionism.” One pro-Chávez columnist described Zionism as “the most rotten sentiments represented by humanity.”

Such crude, vulgar anti-Semitism is worthy of Hamas or Hezbollah. Its publication on a state-run website highlights the ugly nature of the regime in Caracas, which has consistently used anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli rhetoric to demonize its domestic and foreign critics. “Nowhere does the Jewish community in Latin America feel more under attack than in Venezuela, as the country’s leader, his cabinet, and pro-government media have launched a steady barrage of condemnation toward Israel,” the Christian Science Monitor reported in August 2009. Seven months earlier, the capital city’s Mariperez Synagogue had been robbed and vandalized, “an act seen by many in the Jewish community as the greatest anti-Semitic attack in Venezuelan history.” The armed intruders defaced the synagogue with messages such as “Jews out of here” and “Israel assassins.” (For that matter, shortly before Venezuelan’s December 2007 constitutional referendum -- in which Chávez suffered an embarrassing defeat -- state police raided a prominent Jewish social club in Caracas.)