HENRIQUE CAPRILES / Venezuelan opposition leader

“They stole the election victory from me”

The opposition leader asks for the Church to mediate to resolve Venezuela’s crisis

"I wouldn’t have any problem in acknowledging electoral defeat as was the case against Chávez"

An archive image of Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles. / JUAN BARRETO (AFP)

Henrique Capriles Radonski stops in the hallway before his office in an old presidential building in the Bello Monte neighborhood in Caracas and extends his hands with the fervor of someone who is on a campaign trail. The elections were held almost a month ago, but the opposition leader, clad in a tracksuit of Venezuelan colors with the badge of the Venezuelan Football Federation maintains the persona of a presidential hopeful. And with good reason. This Caracas-born lawyer, who turns 41 next July, repeats the same phrase as if it were a mantra in the course of the 90-minute-long interview he granted to this newspaper: “They stole the election victory from me. Those guys stole the elections,” he says in reference to the poll officially won by Nicolás Maduro, the anointed heir of the late Hugo Chávez.

“If they rescind the electoral records we have questioned in the electoral dispute we have filed with the Supreme Court - which make up 55.4 percent of the votes cast – we would win the elections by 400,000 votes, two percent in our favor. And that’s without going into details,” he says with righteous conviction.

Question. Do you think the winning margin was even bigger?

Answer. I don´t know for sure. That’s why I’ve asked for an audit. Nicolás Maduro is trying to link the electoral process to the voting machine. I want to get away from the machine because the problem is with the electoral register. It’s the only instrument that personalizes the vote, the only one that constitutes a record of how you and I voted. It’s not possible to gauge whether fraud existed or not by checking to see if the voting machine works. In a situation in which our election monitors were subject to intimidation, it is very likely that the ruling party had some of its supporters there to push the button on the machine several times to record votes in favor of the official candidate. How do we know this? By cross-checking the number of votes cast with the electoral register.

Q. The situation is in the hands of the Supreme Court. Given that this body is pro-Chavist, would it be right to think that that the best thing that could happen to you is that they reject the appeal. Because there is the possibility of the appeal being accepted and six months have gone by while the enthusiasm of your supporters and international interest wanes. Are you prepared for this outcome?

A. That is the big question facing the members of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela that make up the Supreme Court. Either they throw out our appeal or they take their time ruling on it. It is a difficult situation because our claim will remain in place no matter how much they try to take the heat out of it. You don’t know if that’s the card the court members will play in the face of a political crisis I see emerging. Other experiences to one side, I believe that all governments that start out with their legitimacy in question are ill-fated.

Q. You have referred to what happened in Peru in 2000 and have said that the situation in Venezuela reminds you of the final days of Alberto Fujimori in power. If you recall, the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) questioned those elections and later what happened, happened. Fujimori resigned while in Japan. Taking this example to the extreme, can you see the OAS reacting in a similar way in the case of Venezuela?

A. I wouldn’t dare to say how this will pan out because I don´t know when we will take our complaint to the international authorities. I think we’re going to end up there.

Every day Maduro stays in power, the more he sinks down because his government lacks legitimacy"

Q. You’re ready for a long fight then? Are your supporters also ready for this?

A. A relatively long fight because it’s hard for governments that lack legitimacy to remain in power.

Q. But wouldn’t you agree that the longer Maduro remains in power, the more your chances diminish?

A. I don´t see it that way. Every day Maduro stays in power, the more he sinks down because his government lacks legitimacy.

Q. But some of your supporters within six months might think that Maduro will have something to show for being in office. He could have tightened his hold on power.

A. But in what state will he get to that point? It depends on we look at the fight. This is a fight for the long haul. We have to say to the millions of Venezuelans who support us that we have to use up the domestic avenues available before taking our claim elsewhere. Will this lead to fresh elections within three months? We don’t know. For the moment, the office of Simón Bolívar Command [the name of the opposition’s election campaign] will accompany Venezuelans in their fight. The government is increasingly bunkering itself in because it doesn’t have solutions to the problems. There will be new elections here either because of what the Supreme Court does, because of the pressure of the international authorities, or because the president resigns.

Q. There are those who argue that you have embarked on a dead-end cause. You emerged from the elections reinforced as the opposition leader. A weak Maduro should bring the Chávez period to an end in the face of a severe economic crisis. But you have opted to push the issue of fraud. Aren’t you wasting what you took out of the election?

A. I promised Venezuelans I would defend their vote.

Q. But it’s a question of realpolitik.

A. No. What can I do if they stole the elections from me?

Q. You could have weighed things up politically in a different way.

A. That’s not the way I do things. I have my beliefs. I wouldn’t have any problem in acknowledging electoral defeat as was the case [in the presidential elections held] on October 7. Chávez won more votes than me.

Q. Some countries have painted a picture of ungovernability in Venezuela. Spanish Foreign Minister [José Manuel] García-Margallo has offered to act as a mediator. As one of the parties in the dispute, how would you see this?

A. I welcome any call for dialogue, but right now I don´t see the need for any other government to step in. I would prefer the Church to mediate because of the deep Catholic beliefs of the Venezuelan people.

Q. Why spurn the goodwill of others?

A. Because people would ask, for example, why Spain and not Mexico? Let’s all look for an institution we have an affinity with. The government’s reaction to these offers of mediation sows even more doubts about the election result. Only someone who is afraid would react like that.

Q. The heads of the different groups in the Coalition sent a letter to the headquarters of the OAS asking it to activate the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The US assistant secretary of state for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, has said the guarantee of democratic practices, as enshrined in the Charter, is at stake in Venezuela. Do you think that is sufficient to invoke the Charter?

A. If you read the Inter-American Democratic Charter you will see that it calls for democratic elections without coercion to be held. The idea of activating [the Charter] is to back the need for fresh elections in new conditions to be held in Venezuela without assisted voting, without the ruling party installing itself at the control points of voting centers, without our monitors being intimidated, and for there to be true electoral observance in place that is not the National Electoral Commission.

Q. Would you drop your complaint if it were seen that that this would bring with it negative consequences for the governability of the country?

A. That would be blackmail. This is a struggle for principles to which I am fully committed. I would prefer to withdraw from politics than to give in. We have to take advantage of what we have built up to make ourselves a new force in Latin America. With us, the continent would not follow the path of changing the Constitution to be re-elected and remain in power; a path followed by Bolivia and Ecuador, Venezuela’s club of friends. I have the chance to be a new reference point for the continent so that it does become full of re-elected governments.

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