August 9, 2006

Man(uel) of the hour

Katy says: Manuel Rosales, two-term governor of the state of Zulia, in Western Venezuela, has just been confirmed as the single presidential candidate of a substantial portion of the opposition to Hugo Chávez's pseudo-socialist revolution. The announcement was made today in Caracas, after Venezuela's CNE decided yesterday that Rosales did not need to resign from his governorship but rather take a temporary leave of absence.

Zulia (where I am from, by the way) is Venezuela's most populous state. It is the home of a big chunk of Venezuela's oil wealth, as well as some of the best agricultural land in the country. It is also the home of some of Venezuela's most distinctive cultural manifestations, such as gaitas and the cult of the Virgin of La Chinita. Maracaibo, the state capital, is Venezuela's second-largest city. Once a sprawling big town riddled with problems, it has sort of come of age, and the city looks cleaner and more prosperous than many other places in the country.

Both Quico and I have expressed our misgivings about Rosales on several occasions. Both of us have come forward in favour of other candidates, such as Rausseo or Borges. However, today is not the time to dwell on these issues. I think it is a good moment to pause and reflect on all that is positive about this announcement.

Rosales' announcement is the product of intense political negotiations that began several months ago. This process involved lengthy discussions between three main candidates, several less popular ones, and Venezuela's NGOs. The fact that these people could sit down, see the urgency of what is coming to us, understand that unity is of the utmost importance, and come up with a reasonable solution at the right time is an enormous step forward for the opposition. Long gone are the extensive deliberations of the extinct Coordinadora Democrática, where nothing was ever solved, nobody had the lead voice, there was no vision and the message was never clear.

Some people have expressed misgivings about Rosales being the product of negotiations and not the product of primaries. There are several reasons why this criticism rings a bit hollow:
a) It was well known that the organization of the primaries was facing numerous logistical problems;
b) enthusiasm for the primaries was dwindling;
c) voters were afraid of participating in the primaries and ending up in some government list where they would be punished;
d) Súmate was being distracted from its role by the government's continuous harassment; and
e) the primaries would have probably yielded a Rosales victory anyway.

The way that Rosales was selected is a positive development. It is possibly the first time that different factions in the opposition have sat down, discussed what the country needs and come up with a solution. It is a big step toward proving that the opposition is capable of governing Venezuela in spite of its heterogeneity.

It was also refreshing to see the way Teodoro Petkoff, Julio Borges and the rest of the candidates came out and supported Rosales. Special mention goes to Borges, who was Rosales' main challenger and who has immediately put his party's logistical and intellectual resources at his disposal. There are rumours Rosales will announce in the next few days that Borges will be his vice-president should he win, but the fact that Borges' support did not come with a quid pro quo is certainly positive for the future.

What does Rosales bring to the table? His two main assets are an efficient record as a public servant and two electoral victories over Chávez and his barrage of tricks. His record is evident in Zulia's improvements in roads and public services. Rosales has also shown political deftness, working with both the federal government and, especially, with Maracaibo's chavista mayor. All over Maracaibo, you see a healthy competition between the public works sponsored by city hall and the works sponsored by the governor (the competition reaches somewhat tacky levels, given the enormity of the colourful signs announcing this or that sidewalk is being brought to you by either the mayor or the governor).

Rosales has skilfully hung on to his job in spite of the CNE's tricks and opposition voter apathy. He is very popular in Zulia, and it is likely he will carry this state in the election, tricks or no tricks. Zulianos are Venezuela's most region-proud bunch, and we tend to be more pragmatic in our ideology. It's my impression that, as a whole, Zulianos seem to be less prone to left-wing populism. We believe in entrepreneurship and in private property more than the rest of the country, and we can be sure that Rosales will bring these issues to the table.

As for Rosales' proposals, we'll have more time to discuss these later. From what he has already said, they combine most of the proposals brought forward by Petkoff and Borges, including a direct mechanism to hand out oil rents and the improvement of the misiones. He has also come forward against the war-like mentality that seems to pervade in the government lately, even borrowing some of Rausseo's lines by saying that airplanes will be changed to schools and missiles will be changed to hospitals.

Finally, Rosales is the product of decentralization, a complex political process started in the late 80s that has not quite achieved as much as promised in spite of its popularity. Decentralization has come under attack from the current administration. Chávez, as all good military men, hates independent subordinates, and he has implemented numerous initiatives destined to take away what little power regional and local governments had. Rosales is sure to propose further decentralization as a way of bringing power back to the communities and the states.

As I said before, today is not a day to criticize. The opposition is showing great maturity in coming up with a concerted solution at this stage of the game. Let's wait and see what happens with other candidates such as Rausseo or Smith, as well as what AD decides to do. In the meantime, let's celebrate the hope of putting a zuliano in Miraflores for the first time in our history.