How will opposition corruption scandal impact Venezuela's October election?

The Capriles campaign has done well over the past two months, narrowing Chavez's lead. But a video of a Capriles ally allegedly accepting a bribe could keep him from squeaking out a victory.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Opposition lawmaker Juan Carlos Caldera arrives for a news conference in Caracas on Thursday, September 13.

 David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.

The consequences of yesterday’s release of a video of Capriles collaborator Juan Carlos Caldera presumably accepting cash for favors are still unclear. The trend in Venezuela’s private media is to downplay it on the idea that Mr. Capriles quickly disassociated himself from Mr. Caldera and that Caldera has come up with a reasonable explanation.  El Universal’s webpage, for example, has the headline “Capriles Quick Response mitigated Effect of Caldera Video.”

I think this is wishful thinking for the following reasons.

First, the Capriles campaign has been doing well for the past two months, narrowing Chávez’s lead. But to finish strongly and actually catch Chávez, they would have to have some luck and do virtually everything right. Even a small slip-up—which at minimum this is—could prevent Capriles from squeaking out a victory.

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Second, the actual content of the video is troubling even if Caldera’s explanation is correct. At first glance it looks like Caldera is selling access to Capriles. He has said that he was actually receiving a contribution for his own electoral campaign and was simply doing a favor by serving as an intermediary to help Wilmer Ruperti gain access to Capriles. But even if this is true, in the video Caldera places great emphasis on the idea that the meeting needs to be abroad because if it were to take place in Venezuela the media and others would find out. This fits in perfectly with one of the main rhetorical foundations of the Chávez movement: national sovereignty. They have put forward an image of a Venezuelan opposition that considers itself not national but transnational and which simply steps beyond Venezuelan borders when they prove bothersome. Caldera’s statements in the video fit painfully well into these stereotypes. 

In addition, the fact that Caldera is receiving cash campaign contributions behind the closed doors of somebody’s home can only seem alarming. If this were a legitimate campaign contribution why did it not come through a check or bank transfer? Can Caldera show bookkeeping that demonstrates these funds went into a transparent campaign fund? I think that Minister of the Interior and Justice Tareck El Aissami correctly captured the optics when he tweeted “New faces, old vices.” This seems like the politics of old—the politics Capriles was supposed to be breaking with, not perpetuating.

Finally, the immediacy and character of Capriles reaction—throwing Caldera out of the campaign and suggesting he would have no future in a Capriles government—gives the impression that this was not a surprise and that he has few doubts about Caldera’s guilt. If this were truly out of character for Caldera, Capriles might have instead suggested that he had asked him for an explanation, or that he had asked him to step aside while they investigated. But immediately throwing out, with relatively harsh words, a member of his own party, a future mayoral candidate, and member of the campaign directorate, can only lead to questions regarding who Capriles associates with. 

In sum, my 24 hour take is that this is not a bump in the road or a blip on the screen but a real September surprise that could prove decisive. To make the election competitive, Capriles needs to continue to win over undecided voters by the 4 to 1 margin he did from July to August. Capriles needs to convince these voters—who are tired of Chavez but uncertain about him—that he really represents a break from the bad old days. Yesterday’s sequence of events would seem to complicate his argument.

–  David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. 

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