World News

Critics Say He Can’t Beat a Dictator. This Venezuelan Thinks He Can.

Posted May 17, 2018 8:05 p.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2018 8:13 p.m. EDT

CARACAS, Venezuela — If there is one thing that particularly irks Henri Falcón, it’s the suggestion that you cannot beat a dictatorship.

Falcón, a former governor, promises to defeat President Nicolás Maduro when Venezuela goes to the polls Sunday. Few elections have been such a crossroads for democracy in South America in recent years — and for the fate of one of its countries.

The daily hunger across Venezuela mounts, claiming the lives of infants and sending hundreds of thousands fleeing across the border. Inflation is mind-boggling, whittling the nation’s minimum wage to the equivalent of $3 a month.

The International Monetary Fund predicts that Venezuela’s inflation — already considered the highest in the world — will hit 13,000 percent this year, destroying the livelihoods of the poor and professional classes alike. The nation’s currency, the bolívar, now trades at more than 700,000 to the dollar on the streets of Venezuela, and is worth less with each passing day.

Amid the collapse stands Maduro, the country’s president since 2013, who now rules with an authoritarian fist. Street protests against him have been met by deadly force. The legislature was effectively dissolved, replaced by a body of Maduro’s loyalists called the Constituent Assembly in a vote that the government’s own election software contractor denounced as tainted by manipulation.

Now the president has agreed to go up for re-election. But it comes with a catch: The most popular candidates among the opposition either have been barred from running or are jailed as political prisoners. After some opposition parties boycotted a previous election, the Constituent Assembly ruled that they would not be allowed to run in this one, either.

Enter Falcón, a former member of Maduro’s United Socialist Party who campaigns as though the president’s grip on power is an inevitable advantage for any opposition.

“In the history of the world, these governments always fall by decisive action — by the votes of their own people,” Falcón said.

“Chile under Pinochet came out toward democracy peacefully,” he added. “And that’s how power changed in Nicaragua, in Peru — and even in Spain after Franco.”

So Falcón, 56, has launched what most here see as a long-shot candidacy, but one that has already injected some measure of debate into an otherwise lopsided election. He pledges to rescue the country’s economy by using the dollar as its currency, to open the country’s oil sector to more foreign investment and to start paying workers a minimum of $75 a month.

In doing so, he is also taking on the opposition itself — defying its boycott of the election. Not all opposition parties were banned by the government, but the biggest ones were. So a coalition of opposition parties joined together and boycotted the election in protest.

Now, many opposition politicians describe Falcón and his Progressive Advance party as traitors, calling on their supporters not to vote at all.

“Those that are participating today, like Falcón, they’re collaborating with the regime,” said Jorge Millán, an opposition lawmaker who says he will not vote. “They’re aiding Maduro, who is looking for legitimacy in this electoral farce.”

Falcón dismissed that idea, saying the only way to win was to take part in elections.

“What do you gain from abstention?” said Falcón, arguing that the collapse of the economy created the exact conditions in which Maduro could lose.

Polling points to some wisdom in these words.

Independent polls show Falcón with a significant edge over Maduro, fueled by deep anger over the shortages of food, medicine and water that accompanied a drop in oil prices in recent years and decades of economic mismanagement. Falcón’s campaign also seems to have kept his popularity intact even as the opposition’s reputation tanked when it declined to put forward a candidate.

But the realities of Maduro’s Venezuela may be hard to overcome.

Like his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, Maduro has used the largesse of the state — even food, which the government controls — to rally voters and mobilize them on Sunday. Even so, a large majority of voters, particularly in the opposition, is expected to heed the call to abstain. And with the opposition boycotting the vote, few auditors who are not aligned with Maduro will be reviewing the results.

Beyond that, many voters are simply gone. More than 1 million Venezuelans have recently fled the country and its collapsing economy, a diaspora that is deeply angered with Maduro but unlikely to vote on Sunday, analysts say.

“Is the vote fair? It’s clearly not fair,” said David Smilde, a professor of sociology at Tulane University who studies Venezuela. “But sometimes, even in unfair conditions, it’s possible for the opposition to win.” Falcón likes to argue that he is best positioned to lead the divided country because he came from the very party he aims to defeat. After Chávez was elected in 1998, Falcón helped rewrite the constitution, then rose to become mayor of Barquisimeto, a large city, and governor of the surrounding state, Lara.

Accounts differ on why Falcón left the party in 2010. Most analysts say it was because Chávez was sidelining him as a rising star. Falcón says he felt that the governing party’s drive to nationalize private assets was leading it to an economic disaster.

Falcón continued on as governor as a member of the opposition, but lost his seat last year. He wasted little time in mounting a bid for the presidency and working out what he says is a remedy for the country’s failing economy.

His first step would be to switch to the dollar.

Falcón argues that the country’s most painful economic problems, such as low wages, stem from runaway inflation.

Francisco Rodríguez, an economist on leave from the New York investment bank Tornio Capital who is advising Falcón, said that moving to the dollar would stem inflation almost immediately. Within three months, government workers would be paid at least $75 a month, he contends, widening access to food.

“With what they’re paid now, you can’t even get people to show up to work,” he said.

Next, Falcón says he would topple other tenets of the ruling party, such as price controls, which economists say have led to shortages by making items more costly to produce than to sell.

And in the meantime, Falcón says, he would release scores of political prisoners, while re-establishing ties to the United States.

It remains unclear how Falcón would govern if he wins and Maduro accepts the result.

The country’s military has been loyal to the president, who has given top leaders control over lucrative parts of the economy. And the ruling party still runs the Constituent Assembly, the body created to sideline the legislature and rewrite the constitution.

Falcón says he’s willing to take that risk. On a recent day, he ticked off the miseries of his fellow citizens, offering each one as a reason to vote: “They are humble, poor people, people who have no food, people who have no medicine, people who have no services — the water is gone, the light is gone.” Despite the obstacles, Falcón is counting on people like José Rodríguez, a 63-year-old pensioner whose monthly check does not cover the cost of food.

Rodríguez waited for Falcón at a gathering in Barquisimeto, where the presidential hopeful had first risen as a politician. It was a crowd of just 200, but Rodríguez had waited for three hours. There were few left in his home, he said: Both of his children had left the country, seeking jobs and food.

“I’m not leaving because I’m not young enough to leave,” he said. “I’m here fighting.”

Elsewhere, José Manuel Vargas, a 22-year-old member of the party, denounced Maduro’s management and wore a jacket with the colors of the Venezuelan flag.

Then for a moment his face changed and he looked regretful.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I have thought of leaving.”

A few hours later, Falcón arrived, walking down a wide commercial street full of shuttered restaurants and businesses, not a customer in sight. He shook hands along the road and stopped a few times to hug people.

Some walked away smiling. Others did not.

“That’s the same as Maduro,” said a woman nearby.

The crowd started to disperse. Falcón darted behind a corner and was gone.

“If we don’t vote,” he said, “we squander the great opportunity we have before us.”