Taking on Hugo Chávez

Gov. Henri Falcón may be the opposition’s great hope in the 2012 presidential election
Taking on Hugo Chávez
Incensed, Chávez has called the governor a ‘traitor’ | Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Henri Falcón, the governor of Venezuela’s western state of Lara, is picking up momentum. His name is being tossed around by analysts as a potential candidate to run against Hugo Chávez in the 2012 presidential elections. And with the failure of Chávez’s United Socialist Party to reach a two-thirds majority in the national assembly elections held this September, the opposition, including Fatherland for All, of which Falcón is a member, is strengthening.

Elected governor of Lara in 2008, and a former mayor of the state’s capital city of Barquisimeto—he was elected twice, in 2000 and 2004—Falcón joined Chávez’s party in 2007, but broke ranks this February to join Fatherland for All. In his open resignation letter to Chávez, Falcón wrote that the president’s party was permeated by “bureaucracy, an absence of discussion, clientelism, factionalism, and a badly understood concept of loyalty.” In response, Chávez’s party has accused Falcón of colluding with the opposition and business groups in Lara. “He’s a traitor—let the people from Lara know it,” said Chávez on his weekly television show in March. “I know it, maybe like Christ knew that Judas was the traitor.”

But while Falcón’s relationship with the president has deteriorated, he has carefully been cultivating a base of voters. The 49-year-old is well-known, thanks to his early morning tours to needy villages, called “Wake Up with Henri,” during which Falcón, wearing his trademark baseball cap, drums up support from the grassroots level. Perhaps the governor’s greatest strength is his willingness to work openly with private business. That’s a no-no in the Chávez regime, but if the economy doesn’t improve, voters may opt for a leader who is friendlier to the private sector.

Kenneth Roberts, professor of Latin American politics at Cornell University, says that defeating Chávez depends on whether or not the opposition can form a cohesive political movement with a coherent political message. “What’s interesting is that the opposition to Chávez—which is clearly there, and clearly represents 40 per cent of the population and possibly more right now—until fairly recently they’ve been remarkably ineffective at coordinating,” says Roberts. Falcón would have to win over the “ni-ni” vote: the third of the voting population that constitutes the country’s swing vote, which has traditionally voted for Chávez, but whose loyalty to the president is fragile.

That Chávez’s control of the national assembly was weakened following September’s elections is an encouraging sign for the opposition. The president’s party took less than they predicted, 96 of the 165 seats in parliament, and that was after Chávez had rejigged electoral districts so that rural district votes carried more weight than opposition-dominated urban districts. Now, people are calling for Falcón to begin his campaign for the 2012 presidential vote. Notwithstanding a unified opposition, Roberts pins Falcón’s success on oil-rich Venezuela’s economy. “If oil prices stay above $80 a barrel Chávez will survive,” he says. However, “if oil prices go down to $30, $40 a barrel, Chávez is going to be in a lot of trouble.”