Planning a Political Debate Under a Dictatorship

Professor Francisco Coello, one of the leading organizers of the debate that joined eight of the candidates to the opposition primaries, hopes that this will be the first of many events of this kind

On July 12th, the event “Hablan Los Candidatos” took place in the Aula Magna of the Andres Bello Catholic University (UCAB), marking the first debate among the candidates of the 2023 opposition primary. Watching the live stream of the debate—joining the 200,000 views amassed until the moment I write this piece—was a captivating experience. Although there wasn’t much debating, seeing the candidates share their perspectives, interact positively with one another and igniting public discussion—plus a couple of memes—was a powerful reminder of the value of civic and democratic practices that had been sorely missed by the Venezuelan public. 

200k views and counting

Unsurprisingly, the organizers of the first debate of its kind in over 10 years had to overcome a variety of logistical challenges that make the successful execution of this event an achievement worth analyzing, besides the fact that Henrique Capriles, Manuel Rosales and other potential presidential candidates refused to join Maria Corina Machado, Andres Caleca, Tamara Adrian, Cesar Perez Vivas, Andres Velasquez, Carlos Prosperi and Freddy Superlano.

Professor Francisco Coello, a member of the debate’s organizational committee, told me that the idea originated at the Mercedes Pulido School of Government, where he works as the academic coordinator: “At the time, it seemed really ambitious to us. We started promoting the idea and then more than 37 civil society organizations joined and offered their networks, their organization, and their logistics in order to achieve it.”

These organizations included student unions from multiple states, human rights groups, and media outlets. “We had to figure out how to obtain podiums, address lighting and streaming concerns. VPI TV greatly aided us by ensuring transmission through its YouTube channel. El Diario also provided significant support by assisting with coverage, organizing the lists, and sending out invitations. We also took safety very seriously, we had a variety of safety protocols, that’s why the event was invite only. We wanted to make sure only those who wanted to be there were there and the audience was as representative as possible.” He especially emphasized the teams of Cultural Direction and General Services at UCAB. 

Together, they overcame the unique challenges to organizing a debate in Venezuela. For instance, the selection of debate topics amidst the multitude of issues affecting the country. Coello explained the careful consideration behind this decision: “We had an initial list, but we quickly realized that there was no way this could be covered in a single event. So we focused on two topics: the economy because it affects the day-to-day life of every Venezuelan, and something that is a concern for many citizens: how to win better electoral conditions.”

A similar process was applied to the selection of moderators. Isabella González and Luis Carlos Díaz were chosen after a meticulous process that prioritized their flexibility and public recognition. Furthermore, the structure of the debate was crafted to incorporate different discussion formats. “The first part was an exchange of general proposals, where the candidates presented their broad proposals within their allotted time. Then, the second half featured an exchange activity, intended to provide an opportunity for candidates to respond to each other and engage in more polemic exchanges.”

While Coello and his team were very happy with the success of the debate, two aspects of the event particularly stood up to them: “The first is the enthusiasm generated by the event. It shows that the country is ready to return to democratic practices, to move away from this model that consists of disqualifying and insulting the other that was imposed by those in power years ago.” Furthermore, they were pleasantly surprised by the attitude of the candidates: “The atmosphere of cordiality, camaraderie, courtesy that there was among all the candidates was very valuable. While they were waiting to enter the stage, they hung out together, had a coffee and talked. It seems to me that this is an excellent sign.” 

I was 11 when the last debate happened, and I don’t remember much about the last time candidates in Venezuela were able to interact with each other in a setting of this nature. Many young people have grown up without these visible exercises and institutions of democracy. That’s why events like Hablan Los Candidatos are so important. A primary debate might be a common thing in a normal country, but the fact that the Venezuelan civil society was able to come together and make it happen is a reminder of the power that our country can have when we work towards a shared goal. 

Coello and his team hope that this is the beginning of a trend. He mentioned that there are early talks for a second debate in September and also brought the possibility of supporting other initiatives of civic engagement among the candidates that go beyond the debate structure: “The idea is that this is not an isolated event, but rather a guideline of how to act in the context of Venezuelan politics.”