Luis Vicente Leon on Roberto Smith

Closing out his roundup of the four main non-chavista “presidenciables” (the others being Julio Borges, Teodoro Petkoff, and one or the other of the Salases), Luis Vicente Leon evaluates Roberto Smith’s chances in today’s El Universal.

I’ll translate it leaving out Leon’s preposterous little Fantastic Four theme…

Many believe that an opposition leader’s job is: 1-to give Chavez hell, in order to rouse the peanut gallery, 2-to invoke Article 350 (on civil disobedience) as an expedient to get around the “little detail” of having to put forward an intelligent set of proposals that might rescue the search for an alternative to chavismo.

The results of that strategy are clear: the contender who does best at insulting Chavez (and I don’t doubt he deserves it) will be the darling of that 12.6% who define themselves as hardcore oppositionists. Bravo! The problem is that the 46.8% of the population that defines itself as NiNi, plus the 36.7% who define themselves as chavistas, won’t even pause to take a look.

Nobody has grasped this better than Roberto “Esmí” Perera. This is the same Roberto Smith from the USB Student Center, the dashing CAP Telecomunications Minister, the former envoy to the European Union and the successful founding CEO of Digitel, it’s just that he’s spent some time de-gringuifying his background and showing that part of him is as Caroreño as Club Torres. I think it’s brilliant.

His biggest strength is that he has a real plan to offer the country, which in the Venezuelan context is almost a miracle. His proposal is intelligent, modern, and geared at bringing people together. He aims to open spaces for all Venezuelans, regardless of ideology or class. He talks about turning Venezuela into a first world country, able to go head to head with the best societies in the world in terms of prosperity, equality, justice and peace. He’s put forward the Todos Para Arriba (clunky translation – Everyone for the Better) program: full employment, and zero crime (the central problems people mention in all polls), ending poverty, a house for everyone and a first rate educational system that allows everyone a chance for a high standard of living.

He’s been adaptable enough to understand that a head-on confrontation with Chavez would bury him from day one. He explains his strategy with a love metastory: the good girl (the people) who’s fallen in love with a low-life (do we really need to spell it out?) If you attack the low-life, you insult her, because she chose him. You need to approach her with subtlety, with tenderness, ask her out, bring her flowers, listen to her problems with absolute respect, and show her what she deserves and doesn’t have…but could have.

His proposals and his messages are not improvised. There are many hours of sophisticated study and work behind them, and a first-rate team, which is not usual in national politics.

Some might think his proposal sounds a bit “American”. But the facts show it can work. Roberto was a total unknown in Vargas when he decided to run for governor. His biggest link with the state was probably that he used the airport all the time. But during the campaign he deployed his three weapons: his proposal, a fresh team, and his wife, the efficient and well organized engine behind the leader.

This total unknown blew 16 other opposition candidates out of the water, all of them from Vargas. More importantly, chavistas didn’t see him as an enemy, but as an option.

But it’s not all positive. Unlike the other three (Borges-Petkoff-Salas), few people know him, and I had to spend half this column just introducing him. He sees that as an advantage because his negative ratings are lower that way. I think that’s a far-fetched interpretation. Smith needs to improve his name recognition, work his image hard and get some coaching for his media appearances, which are still lackluster. Despite his personal and professional qualities, he can come across as being closed to advise and suggestions, and finally, the political platform supporting him is extremely weak, though the arrival of Cipriano Heredia and Vision Emergente might help.

One way or another, he is a disciplined, smart, organized operative who surprised everyone in Vargas and could do it again nationwide. Today he is in the spotlight more due to his proposal than his leadership. That could be the right way to build a real leader. We’ll see.