Venezuelans Hold First Electoral Debate Since 2012

"The Candidates Speak" brought together eight of the pre-candidates of the opposition primaries

“The Candidates Speak”, organized by 37 civil society organizations and bringing together eight of the 14 pre-candidates of the opposition primaries in the Aula Magna auditorium of the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. There, María Corina Machado, Freddy Superlano, Andrés Caleca, Andrés Velásquez, Tamara Adrián, Delsa Solórzano, César Pérez Vivas and Carlos Prosperi answered a series of questions –more than debating head-on– about the primaries and their plans if they become president. Roberto Enríquez could not attend because he traveled to the United States to meet with his adviser Steve Hanke and Henrique Capriles rejected the invitation, accusing the debate of “deepening” the divisions of the opposition.

What did this democracy cosplay, Raul Stolk dixit, left us?

Characters and Discursive Styles

The pre-candidates established their discursive styles and campaign themes. César Pérez Vivas (Concertación Ciudadana; ex- Copei) and Andrés Velásquez (La Causa R), two veteran politicians from the pre- Chavista universe, revived the discoursive styles of the Fourth Republic: bombastic, operatic, anachronistic. The proposals of Carlos Prosperi (Acción Democrática)—talking about reviving the Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho scholarship program and promising to ensure glasses of milk in schools—were a redux from the adeco golden age. Tamara Adrián (United for Dignity), the first trans presidential candidate in the country’s history, recurred to academic language: she was also the only candidate to mention the Orinoco Mining Arc and climate change. María Corina Machado (Vente) focused on anti-socialism, capitalizing on the emotional and charismatic aspects of her communication (she also twice emphasized her willingness to receive the support of dissident Chavismo). Delsa Solórzano (Encuentro Ciudadano), faithful to her campaign, constantly focused on human rights in Venezuela. The independent candidate Andrés Caleca, one of the great surprises of the debate, was pragmatic, realistic and conciliatory: he spoke of taking the electoral route to the ultimate consequences and, strategically, he stressed the importance of winning over la Venezuela profunda and Niní country (the country that didn’t vote for either the PSUV or the MUD in the last regional elections). The other big surprise? Freddy Superlano, of Voluntad Popular, positioning himself as a sober and presidential candidate: with detailed proposals to refound the state and the Venezuelan economic model.

The Opposition’s Economic Right-Wing Turn

When asked “How would you guarantee a favorable environment for business and investment in Venezuela?”, most of the candidates stressed the importance of generating confidence in the economy and generating a new legal framework to attract foreign investment. However, at least five candidates agreed on liberal proposals for the economy: a paradigm shift in the opposition, from a more social democratic cut in previous electoral cycles.

Andrés Caleca spoke of a “maximum freedom production model.” María Corina Machado – faithful to her “center-liberal” views – spoke of an expansive stabilization of the economy followed by a subsequent productive expansion that opens the market and includes privatizations. She hopes to reinsert Venezuela into the international financial system and attract investment. Pérez Vivas, for his part, spoke of a “social and ecological market economy” with the private sector as a fundamental axis and diversified production. Diversification was also present in Tamara Adrián’s proposal: she pointed to a free-market economy that includes excluded populations and to a sustainable and productive development that replaces “wild extractivism.” Freddy Superlano spoke of reviving credits in the country, creating a new Hydrocarbons Law that allows the opening of the oil sector to private companies and giving autonomy to the Central Bank of Venezuela.

A Museum of Memory

The discussion on human rights, especially from the hand of Solórzano, was present through the debate. The pre-candidate, for example, assured that, if she becomes president, her first decree will consist of the release of all political prisoners. The other candidates also denounced the human rights violations, the murder of demonstrators and the existence of hundreds of political prisoners in the country. However, the most striking proposal –followed by a round of applause from the audience– was that of Superlano: “You speak to the country with actions. We must close El Helicoide; turn it into a museum that is a living example of what will never be repeated in this country.” On this note: the virtual reality experience “Realidad Helicoide“, created by an NGO, already shows the living conditions of political prisoners in what would be the most modern shopping center in the world and ended up becoming a torture center.

The Great Absentees?

Several journalists and commentators stressed how insubstantial many of the questions were. The big missing issues, waiting for possible solutions? Non-state (and often cross-border) armed groups and the environmental, social, and political-administrative impact of the Orinoco Mining Arc.

Another absentee? Henrique Capriles, standard bearer of Primero Justicia. The cordiality that reigned in the debate proved wrong his fears about the debate deepening the internal divisions and conflicts of the opposition. In any case, Capriles –whose numbers have deflated in the polls and has led an erratic communication campaign that jumps from the messianic to the burlesque – later made a live broadcast on Twitter with journalist Vladimir Villegas to discuss the debate. How many people connected? Around 50. The transmission of the debate on Youtube? 23,000 people connected live, on a Wednesday at noon. It reached 181,000 views the next day.

The Next Oppositional Civil War

Let us ignore, for a moment, the closure of the debate: with the image of Machado refusing to raise her hands with the other candidates (Pérez Vivas, who was holding Machado’s hand, assures that the candidate whispered to him that she had a problem with her quite symbolic ying-yang jacket and couldn’t raise her arms).

What was the real issue that sticks out possible ruptures in the opposition coalition that the primaries is expected to seal? The discussion as to whether or not make a succession plan for candidates –in the style of the Barinas regional elections in 202 – in the face of the possible victory of a candidate who is banned from running for office. Machado (recently banned), supported by Velásquez, flatly refused a succession plan. Solórzano was clear in her support for creating one. Other candidates were less clear, although Superlano repeatedly stressed his previous experience in Barinas (where his gubernatorial victory was taken away when he was banned and ended up supporting another candidate after several people close to him were banned. When the election was repeated, the strategy ensured an even greater victory for the opposition in Hugo Chávez’s home state). On Monday the 17th, in any case, the pre-candidates will meet to discuss a strategy against disqualifications.

Similarly, Machado and Superlano were clear in their vision of the primary elections as a process to define a new opposition leadership to confront the Maduro government, rather than merely as an electoral process to choose a candidate. These clearly linked gaps could generate the next oppositional civil war in the coming months. “Winter is coming …”, Tamara Adrián said, “And they [the government] are going to play Game of Thrones.”

Tony writes Venezuela Weekly, a weekly newsletter on Substack. You can subscribe here.

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) writes for Caracas Chronicles since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, the Economist, and Politico.