Can new leader jumpstart Venezuela's struggling opposition?

Jesús Torrealba heads a coalition of political parties opposed to the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro. His challenge is to reunite the fractured group and appeal to the country's poor who make up the bulk of votes. 

Jorge Silva/Reuters
Jesús Torrealba, secretary of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD), poses during an interview with Reuters in Caracas, October 5, 2014.

The streets of Caracas are back to normal just six months after the biggest anti-government protests in over a decade. Tens of thousands of demonstrators angered by a listing economy and soaring crime spent weeks marching, burning tires, and calling for a change of leadership.

But even though the streets are calm again, the election of a new opposition leader could represent a longer term challenge to Venezuela's socialist government. 

Jesús Torrealba, is the new executive secretary of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), an umbrella group of opposition parties.  His job is to reunite the MUD after a tumultuous couple of years of high-stake election losses, and to help choose a candidate to take on President Nicolás Maduro in the next election.

"[Mr. Torrealba] certainly better understands the dynamic in the shanty towns and is better able to connect with disenchanted Chavitas,” says Diego Moya-Ocampos, a senior political risk analyst for the Americas at IHS in London.

But, that may not be "enough to really turn the tables" for the opposition, Mr. Moya Ocampos says .

Class divide

For the past fifteen years, since Hugo Chávez rose to power, the opposition has struggled to make headway against the Chavista government. Historically led by representatives of Venezuela's wealthy class, the opposition is seen as out of touch with the poor, who overwhelmingly voted former President Chávez into power. 

Mr. Torrealba says his background makes him the man to break this pattern. “All my life, I’ve lived in poor areas,” he says in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “But we have the resources in Venezuela to construct a first world country. Instead we’re regressing.”

He hopes to take to the streets, just as Chávez did during his own campaign a decade and a half ago, and win over the support of those disillusioned by Chavismo. A former community leader in Caracas, for years Torrealba hosted an iconic television program, "Radar of the Barrios", in which he tackled issues faced by poorer neighborhoods.

Even as the street protests have faded, Maduro’s approval ratings have slumped into the thirties. Inflation in Venezuela is running at more than 60 percent, there are shortages of the most basic goods from shampoo to insect repellent, and the country suffers one of the world’s highest murder rates with 53.7 homicides per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations. Local NGOs put the figure much higher.

Maduro won elections in April last year, a month after Chávez’s death. He did so with a margin of less than 250,000 votes against Henrique Capriles, the first of the opposition candidates to come close to tackling the government. Many credit Mr. Capriles' near success on his attempts to engage the poor.

Capriles toured the country’s barrios and vowed to continue Chávez’s popular social programs, which won him support. But pro-government media 

The tactic did have an impact. Yet, pro-government media publicized his family’s vast wealth, including a major Venezuelan cinema chain. Torrealba’s more modest upbringing could be a game-changer. While Capriles did his best to appear to be one of the poor, many were aware that in reality he was born with a silver spoon.

'Return to the past'?

Torrealba hopes to make headway in National Assembly elections next year. The opposition could then try to unseat Maduro in 2016, by calling a referendum, otherwise its next chance would come in presidential elections in 2019. 

If Torrealba is successful in bringing the opposition to power in Venezuela, he says his priority will be the floundering economy. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, and Torrealba says he wants to learn from oil-rich and politically stable nations like Norway on how to best manage its resources. 

“The challenge now is to reposition Venezuela as the vanguard of modernity in the region,” says Torrealba.

First, however, he must convince those that no longer believe in Chávez that the MUD is a promising alternative – and not a return to the elitist power structure that ruled Venezuela before Chávez burst onto the scene.

“I don’t want a return to the past,” says Torrealba. “All regression to the past is upsetting and sadly that is what we are living in now.”

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