Venezuela's opposition: cracking under pressure or ditching the deadweight?

Hugo Chávez's health status is unknown but all indications suggest that he is dying. If Chávez dies, Venezuela's opposition would face a presidential election -- the second in less than a year, this time against Chávez's vice president. Will they confront this new challenge united? Or will old divisions among the wildly diverse group surface once more?

The answer is a little bit of both.

On the heels of two successive defeats at the hands of Chávez and his party, the opposition has not found the time to catch its breath and recoup. Typically, the losing sides in pivotal contests go back to the drawing board to evaluate mistakes and reassess alliances. Venezuela's umbrella opposition group, the MUD, has had no such space.

After losing the presidential contest on October 7, the opposition immediately had to reorganize to face gubernatorial elections on December 16. After losing several key positions in that contest, now would be the time for its remaining leadership to refocus its plans. Instead, they find themselves in a tangle and pressured from both the government, and its own supporters.

This was evident on January 23, the 55th anniversary of the overthrow of Venezuela's last unelected dictatorship. The MUD had called for a large rally in Caracas to protest against the government and, more significantly, to appease its restless radical base which is desperate for action.

When the government promptly announced a counter-rally of its own, the MUD suspended its own and held a smaller meeting in a local stadium. They cited the need to avoid a confrontation between the two groups, but the real reason was likely that they did not want their rally to look smaller than the government's.

This is but a small sample of the pressure the opposition faces. Their main financial backers are having increasing difficulty providing funding. Many main figureheads -- state governors -- lost their jobs in the latest election, and with it, their access to Venezuelans given Chávez's near-monopoly over the media. Shut out from the airwaves and any real ability to influence the legislative agenda, there is an extremely limited opportunity for oppositionists to obtain power.

The MUD's more radical wing is not sympathetic to these difficulties. The head of this group is Diego Arria, a former governor, past president of the U.N. Security Council as Venezuela's permanent representative, and losing candidate in last year's presidential primary whose ranch was expropriated in 2010 by the government -- in an apparent act of political retaliation.

Arria has taken to Twitter to denounce the MUD, and its leader Henrique Capriles, for appeasing the government. He claims that the MUD should move to bring back democracy by denouncing the current government as illegitimate and unconstitutional since Chávez has yet to be sworn in. It's hard to make out how they plan to go about doing this. Arria's supporters suggest marching, abstaining from elections, and going to international bodies, but neither of these things have worked in the past. More importantly, convincing the majority of Venezuelans that a reelected government is illegitimate because of a technicality is going to prove very difficult.

Capriles is having none of it. In an interview with a pro-Chávez newspaper, he denounced "old-style" politicians such as Arria for sitting on his computer tweeting all day. Capriles invited him to venture out and visit poor Venezuelan barrios to listen to people's needs. Arria was incensed, and he and his followers have basically ditched the MUD and set up camp separately.

It would be easy to conclude the opposition unity is cracking. That, however, is an exaggeration. Arria only got 39 thousand votes in the primary; Capriles got close to two million, and more than six million in the presidential election.

More importantly, Arria represents a wing of the opposition linked to former corrupt governments that inspired popular disgust and thus helped to catapult Chávez into power. Capriles, by escalating the fight with Arria, may be looking to nudge him out of the opposition, thus setting himself off from the older generation's toxic brand of politics.

It is now clear that the MUD will select Capriles as its candidate in any upcoming election. In breaking with the past so openly, Capriles is potentially improving his chances. It may be too soon for a prediction, and I could be wrong, but I believe Capriles will come closer in the next election than he did in the last one. Ditching the old-style politicians from his coalition probably helps him achieve that goal.    

Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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A non-violent victory in Sudan

Editor's note: Democracy Lab reported last year on the case of Jalila Khamis Koko, the Sudanese oppositionist imprisoned by the government in Khartoum for her non-violent protest against the continuing war in South Kordofan. On Sunday, after ten months in jail, she was finally released. We asked Sudanese blogger Maysoon Al Noujomi to comment on the meaning of the verdict.

Jalila Khamis is free. Just how extraordinary and exhilarating that statement is only becomes clear when you consider its context. She has spent the past ten months in jail in Sudan, one of the world's most repressive countries. Given her own background, there seemed to be little prospect that she would ever see justice. First, she is a woman in a country that pays little regard to women's rights. Second, she is a schoolteacher, a profession that carries little social weight here. And third, she is a Nuban, a member of an ethnic minority that is concentrated in the province of South Kordofan. The Sudanese government has been waging all-out war against South Kordofan for years.

It all began when Jalila, who had opened her home to Khartoum to refugees from her home village, decided to speak out publicly against the war. She spoke of the terror of daily air raids, of malnourished children and the lack of basic supplies, of the hazardous and weary trek facing those who sought refuge. A video of her remarks was posted online by a fellow activist, raising the ire of the government. She was arrested on March 14, 2012 in Khartoum, the capital.

Under normal circumstances, the arrest of a minority woman with no social significance receives no attention at all in Sudan. The state-controlled media does not report on criticism of the government, and the atrocities of war in a remote part of the country are rarely covered. Alternative sources of information are scarce; the Internet is available only to a relative few. And yet Jalila is free, released this past Sunday when a Sudanese court was forced to acknowledge that there was no basis for the charges against her.

The credit goes, at least in part, to the concerted efforts of pro-democracy activists. As soon as they learned of her arrest, they immediately set out to determine her whereabouts within the prison system. Obtaining such information is crucial, since the Sudanese secret police (the National Intelligence and Security Services, or NISS) make a habit of denying that arrests have occurred in order to avoid public pressure. Jalila's supporters put that information to good use, quickly forming a legal defense team that pushed the authorities to either press charges or release her. Activists also ensured that the public knew the facts of her case.

After keeping her in its own jail cells for three months, the NISS transferred her to Omdurman Prison, declaring that it was preparing to try her for threatening national security, spying against the state, and instigating war -- charges that potentially carried a penalty of capital punishment.

Jalila was held in solitary confinement for long periods. She was submitted to psychological torture by prison officials who repeatedly told her that she was about to be hanged. The prosecution banned her lawyers from gaining access to the prosecution's case material and refused to give them the names of witnesses.

Even though the authorities kept changing the dates, times, and venue of the trial, activists managed to gain access to the information and share it among themselves, ensuring that someone was always on hand to monitor the proceedings. It soon became clear to those in attendance that the NISS had nothing on Jalila except the published video link; the prosecution had no choice but to reduce the list of charges to one of "spreading false news." The court sentenced her to time served for the offense and released her. She was greeted by welcoming crowds inside and outside of the court building.

Her freedom is the most eloquent response to those who question the possibility of change in Sudan, and Sudanese activists, civil rights groups, and their friends among the international community are correspondingly celebrating a remarkable victory. It attests to a growing maturity of the opposition, as expressed in two ways: the immediate response to her arrest, and the steady continuous support she continued to receive until the moment of her release.

This spirit of defiance had much to do with Jalila's own bravery. It was she, after all, who publicly stood up to the government while fully understanding the consequences of such an act. The first thing she did upon her release was to demand freedom for Intisar Alagly, another fellow detainee held for eight months by the NISS with no charges. Some of the same groups who supported Jalila are carrying on by demanding the release of another 38 women from the Nuba Mountains. In this respect, Jalila's release may ultimately have more of an impact than any military maneuvers in South Kordofan.

Maysoon Al Noujomi is a blogger and activist in Sudan.

Video Grab from Girifna