• Hugo Pérez Hernáiz contributes to WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own
On March 19, Carlos Ocariz, mayor of Caracas’ Sucre Municipality, launched an association of 76 opposition mayors called “Association of Mayors for Venezuela.” The group includes other prominent national and regional opposition figures such as Gerardo Blyde, Mayor of Baruta; Alfredo Barrios, Mayor of Irribaren; David Smolansky, Mayor of El Hatillo; and Antonio Ledezma, Mayor of Metropolitan Caracas.
According to the coalition of opposition parties Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) press release, the new association seems to have specific aims related to the current political juncture: “citizen security, violations of human rights, and criminalization of protests.” However, the fact that the announcement was made by Mr. Ocariz could be significant for future leadership struggles within the opposition. Ocariz belongs to Primero Justicia, the political party headed by Henrique Capriles, the 2012 and 2013 opposition presidential candidate. Through grassroots community work in the poor barrios of Sucre, Ocariz has successfully countered the image of middle class lawyers so often attached to his party. Ocariz has remained a popular local leader and has not yet made the jump to national politics. Becoming the spokesperson of this new mayors’ association could provide him with a platform for national leadership.
This is in part because opposition mayors have gained increasing prominence in the last two months, largely as a result of the national government’s response to the ongoing protests. In March, Venezuela’s highest court, the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ), ordered several opposition mayors to prevent the “placement of obstacles in public streets,” in their municipalities. The order was aimed against the guarimbas (barricades) used in protests, but it put the mayors in the difficult position of possibly having to repress their own constituencies. Subsequently, on March 19, Vicencio Scarano, the Mayor of San Diego, in Carabobo State, was sentenced to 10 months and 15 days in prison for failing to obey the orders of the TSJ.
On March 25, the Mayor of San Cristobal, in Táchira state, Daniel Ceballos, was also sentenced to a prison term of 12 months by the TSJ. The Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) diligently informed the public on March 20 that it had received the notification of “absolute absence” of the Mayor of San Diego and that new elections would be called for the post. On March 26, President Nicolás Maduro announced that the government has already decided on two candidates to run for the posts of San Diego and San Cristobal. These actions by the government have put a nationwide focus on mayors who otherwise would likely have remained local political figures.
Other opposition leaders have also received much attention in recent weeks. On March 24, the President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello announced that Assembly member Maria Corina Machado would be stripped of her assembly post because of her failed attempt to address the Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Washington. Panama had ceded its seat in the OAS to Machado but Venezuela managed to block her intervention. The acceptance by Machado to sit for Panama at the OAS would contravene, according to Mr. Cabello, articles 191 and 197 of the Constitution that state that Assembly representatives cannot accept posts from foreign countries. Cabello asked that she be also put under investigation for “treason to the fatherland” by siding with a “hostile country” (Panama). On Monday March 31 Venezuela’s Supreme Court (TSJ) upheld that Machado be stripped of her seat at the National Assembly, which means that Machado has lost her parliamentary immunity and could be arrested under the same charges of inciting the protests as Leopoldo López.
The episode has placed Ms. Machado as the leader of the most confrontational opposition sector, demanding La Salida. The other leader of La Salida, Leopoldo Lopez, is still in jail and mostly out of the public spotlight, although he recently managed to answer a written interview to CNN En Español. Machado, however, belongs to an old aristocratic family, and it seems unlikely that her leadership can go beyond the traditional opposition support groups.
Mr. Capriles’ leadership of the opposition has been put into question since the opposition’s poor showing in the December 2013 elections. Since the protests erupted in February, he has tried to find a middle course, asking for peaceful demonstrations and dialogue with the government. The violence of the protests and the heavy-handed crackdowns by the government has seemingly left him out of place in a radicalized context. Recently, he has tried to strike a more confrontational tone by threatening to take the Miranda barrios out to the streets if the government denies him the state’s share of the national budget. He also made a strong warning about the cases of the Mayors of San Diego and San Cristobal.
Last week the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), after a two day visit of its delegation to Venezuela, published a statement recognizing the willingness to dialogue by all parties. UNASUR recommended the participation of a “witness of good faith to facilitate the dialogue between the parties.” It is still not clear if UNASUR itself could be that witness of good faith. On March 28 the Vatican made public its willingness to act as witness for the dialogues. In his meeting with the UNASUR delegation, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo stated that the opposition would be willing to go to a dialogue with the government mediated by a witness of good faith, but also mentioned that they would not attend without the setting of a clear agenda. If future talks are convened with the presence of a witness of good faith – be it UNASUR, the Vatican, or a different organization – leadership within the opposition could become further divided between those who decide to attend those talks and those who don’t.