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Remembering Henri Falcon’s May 2018 Presidential campaign in Venezuela


Henri Falcon was a viable candidate – attacked by his own side 

Venezuela’s opposition had a viable candidate in Henri Falcon, a two-time governor of the state of Lara. He was first elected governor of the state of Lara in 2008 as a pro-Chavez candidate.[1] He broke with Chavez in 2010 and was then re-elected in 2012 as part of the Democratic Unity Table (MUD) opposition coalition.[2] He then lost in the 2017 regional elections but conceded defeat.[3] Unfortunately, it is a big deal when any Venezuelan opposition leader actually concedes defeat in an election.

Falcon was expelled from the main opposition coalition at the time (MUD) in February of 2018 when he announced that he would run in the presidential election.[4] According to an article by US economist Mark Weisbrot, he was also threatened with sanctions by US officials who attempted to dissuade him from running.[5] Reuters also reported on March 18, 2018 that the US “top diplomat in Venezuela, Todd Robinson, met with Falcon recently, sources close to the candidate said, trying to persuade him to withdraw as his challenge was undermining U.S. efforts to isolate Maduro.”[6]

In April of 2018 Reuters reported that “The main opposition coalition is boycotting the [presidential] vote, and the country’s two most popular opposition leaders have been banned from competing.”[7] In other articles around the same time  (4/12/18, 2/28/18, 2/19/18) Reuters identified the two “most popular” leaders as Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles.[8]

That simply wasn’t true according to Datanalisis, the anti-government pollster Reuters had cited constantly for years (without disclosing that it was anti-government), and that Reuters frequently referred to as “respected” and “most closely watched”.[9]  Datanalisis was by far the Venezuelan pollster most often cited by western media.

According to Datanalisis, Falcon was in a statistical tie with Leopoldo Lopez for most popular opposition leader by February of 2018. By May of 2018, the month of the election, Datanalisis claimed Falcon’s approval rating was significantly higher than the two leaders whom Reuters had dubbed the “most popular”: eight percentage points higher than the approval rating of Leopoldo Lopez, and thirteen points higher than Capriles’.

Were Datanalisis polls puffing up Falcon’s approval rating? After all, Datanalisis director Luis Vicente Leon strongly opposes Maduro but is also totally against boycotting elections. Moreover, Datanalisis had a commercial relationship with Torino Capital whose chief economist is Francisco Rodriguez, Falcon’s economic advisor.  Were Datanalisis polls trying to move public opinion in the direction it wanted rather than simply measuring it?

If it is reasonable to suspect that Datanalisis exaggerated Falcon’s support before the election, then it must also be reasonable to suspect that it underestimated Maduro’s support. In fact, based on the 2017 regional elections, it is obvious that Datanalisis  underestimated the government’s support.

It should also be mentioned that the 2017 regional and 2018 presidential elections did not even produce the worst polling by Datanalisis in the chavista era.[10]

That said, the deep hostility that much of the opposition  (and the US government) displayed towards Falcon’s decision to run, shows that he was seen as a viable enough candidate to be fiercely attacked for “undermining U.S. efforts to isolate Maduro” as Reuters stated.[11]

Aside from being expelled from the MUD, aside from having his own side aggressively call for a boycott that hurt his chances, Falcon was also slammed during the campaign by opposition voices as a traitor who was in cahoots with Maduro.

Falcon’s economic advisor, Francisco Rodriguez, was vilified with similar allegations on social media during the campaign. Rodriguez responded on Twitter saying that people from the opposition side promoting theories that he was going to end up working for Maduro must have taken a “strong dose” of drugs. On the same day, Rodriguez took to Twitter to directly ask the opposition party Voluntad Popular (Juan Guaidó’s political party)  to “stop spreading lies” that a secret deal had been made between Maduro and Falcon.[12]

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, publicly attacked Falcon calling him “an instrument of the Venezuelan government to divide the opposition”. Falcon hit back on Twitter saying that “those who promote abstention like the Secretary General of the OAS convert themselves into Maduro’s allies”.[13]

In an interview about the presidential election that Francisco Rodriguez did months later, he blamed the “dictatorship” for creating divisions among its opponents. Rodriguez even put forward what he admitted was an “adventurous” theory that “Russian advisers” may have told Maduro how to divide the opposition using social media.[14]

Some bitterness and loss of objectivity is understandable given that  Rodriguez campaigned very hard for Falcon. But the very fact that Falcon and Rodriguez were able to campaign as hard as they did refutes the characterization of Maduro’s government as a dictatorship.[15]

Falcon’s aggressive campaign

Falcon launched his campaign with a blistering 35 minutes long speech on Venezuelan state TV. In that speech, he repeatedly called Maduro the “hunger candidate,” and said that it is now common to see Venezuelans looking through trash for food.[16] Falcon said democracy had been destroyed, that all Venezuela’s institutions are “slaves” to the executive, that Maduro’s government has made Venezuela into a “hell”, and that Venezuela faces the risk of civil war. Falcon promised that he would release all “political prisoners” and demanded that the election be held at a later date.

The Maduro government conceded this last demand of Falcon’s. The election was moved back a month to May 20. It’s important to remember that for almost two years since the opposition’s victory in the December 2015 National Assembly elections, a key opposition demand had been an early presidential election. The government avoided a presidential recall referendum in 2016, in part by exploiting opposition blunders, but also by using technicalities.

But after the stunning defeat in the 2017 regional elections, the opposition’s complaint was the opposite:  that the government had pulled the presidential election ahead to exploit the opposition’s divisions and disarray.

Another demand that Falcon made during his 35 minute tirade on state media was equal access to state and private media during the election campaign. That’s the kind of demand you make (justified or not) in a democracy.

Reuters conceded (albeit discreetly in the middle of a May 26, 2017 article) that “the private networks, including Globovision, do give broadly equal weight to opposition and government leaders and supporters in broadcasts – contrary to assertions by critics that they muzzle the opposition.” Unfortunately, the headline to the article strongly suggested the opposite: “Under state pressure, Venezuela TV limits live coverage of protests”.[17]

Near the end of his speech on state TV, Falcon said that those who believe a foreign invasion will “save” Venezuela” are believing an “illusion” and are “playing with the dignity” and proud history of Venezuela. It was a such a muted way to oppose foreign invasion of your own country that it was almost surreal. Falcon clearly did not feel obliged to call those who advocated foreign invasion traitors. He noticeably pulled his punches with them and with the US government which he did not even mention in his speech.  Can a public figure take a stance like that in dictatorship without being locked up as a suspected traitor or spy?

Falcon didn’t even bother to denounce US sanctions during his speech. That was striking given that his economic advisor, Francisco Rodriguez, said that the opposition’s failure to oppose US sanctions was key to the government’s victory in the 2017 regional elections.  Falcon reportedly expressed to Reuters a vague and weak opposition to some US sanctions:

Falcon implied he disagreed with possible U.S. oil sanctions against OPEC member Venezuela, saying he opposed any measures that “end up hurting the poor.”[18]

In an interview on Venevision, a large private network, during the campaign, Falcón said that Maduro’s government was an “unscrupulous monster,” but also “beatable” if voters turned out. Falcón also timidly advised government opponents that it’s foolish to wait for a “military invasion to save Venezuela.”[19]

Incidentally, Venezuela’s state telecommunications regulator, CONATEL, said that 60% of households had access to private paid TV programming in 2018 – as Venevision programming would be in most of Venezuela.[20]  In fact, Datanalisis claimed that as of 2019, 87.7% of households had access (illegal or otherwise) to paid TV broadcasts.[21] Given the way Datanalisis figures have skewed towards the opposition that’s almost certainly an exaggeration, but the key point is that the TV shows on which both Falcon and Rodriguez attacked the Maduro government during their campaign were accessible to most Venezuelan households.

In an interview on Globovision, another one of the largest private TV networks, Falcon said he appreciates the “solidarity” of the Lima Group but added that Venezuela “needs allies not bosses”.[22]

The Lima Group is an ad hoc group of countries consisting of Canada and numerous right wing governments in Latin America. It was formed due to the failure of the United States to get the votes it needed at the OAS to expel Venezuela.  The role of the Lima group was to supply political cover for a US economic attacks on Venezuela. Again, this was a remarkably feeble statement by Falcon considering the belligerence of the group towards his country.

No harm but foul

Falcon refused to accept his massive defeat and alleged unfair practices by the government that boosted its vote total. Never mind that the meager two million votes Falcon received could never have won an election. Falcon cried fraud despite having spent months passionately urging people to vote because he had obtained “guarantees” – and despite fending off personal attacks during the campaign from high profile opponents of Maduro.[23]

The story Falcon was effectively telling people was that he was a fool who had been duped by Maduro, that opposition supporters who abstained from voting because they believed the election was rigged were right to do so.

During the campaign he seemed preoccupied with winning over the US-backed hardliners as noted above. That alone would have repulsed chavista voters. By crying fraud after he lost, he looked every bit the opportunist who took a shot in the dark by running but, after he lost, then shielded himself from retaliation by the US by falling completely into line. Indeed, Falcon and his advisor Francisco Rodriguez would go on to emphatically support Juan Guaidó’s claim to being ”interim president”.[24]

Falcon further disgraced himself eighteen months later by applauding the US-backed military coup that ousted Evo Morales in Bolivia on November 10 of 2019. Falcon called it a victory for Bolivian voters from which Venezuelans should learn. “The message is clear. If we vote we win” said Falcon about as Morales was forced to flee Bolivia.[25] Francisco Rodriguez, by contrast, though he avoided the word “coup” made clear that he regarded Morales’ ouster as a setback for democracy. Rodriguez also denounced the massacres perpetrated by the dictatorship that took over after Morales was overthrown.[26] Juan Guaido, like Falcon and the rest of the opposition leadership, pointed to the coup as an inspirational event.[27]

NOTES

[1]Venezuela’s 2012 State Election: Lessons for Chavismo and the Opposition, Ewan Robertson, Dec 18, 2012,   https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/7564 accessed January 4, 2020

[2]Venezuelan Governor Henry Falcón Resigns from Chavez’s United Socialist Party, Kiraz Janicke, Feb 22, 2010,   https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/5149 accessed January 4, 2020;

[3]Venezuelan Opposition to Boycott Municipal Elections, Fissures Deepen, Lucas Koerner, Nov 1, 2017  https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13479 accessed January 4, 2020

[4] MUD Expels Henri Falcon, Ex-Chavista Challenger to Venezuela’s Maduro, Feb 28, 2018,  https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13686 accessed January 4, 2020

[5] Behind the Scenes in Venezuela, Mark Weisbrot, Mar 3, 2018,  https://www.usnews.com/opinion/world-report/articles/2018-03-03/new-evidence-the-trump-administration-is-meddling-in-venezuelas-elections accessed January 4, 2020

[6] Maduro challenger shakes up Venezuela’s presidential vote, Andrew Cawthorne, Mar 18, 2018,  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-election-analysis/maduro-challenger-shakes-up-venezuelas-presidential-vote-idUSKCN1GU04N accessed January 4, 2020

[7] EU says it may impose more sanctions on Venezuela if democracy undermined, Robert-Jan Bartunek

, April 19, 2018 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-eu/eu-says-may-impose-more-sanctions-on-venezuela-if-democracy-undermined-idUSKBN1HQ10T accessed January 4, 2020

[8] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-falcon/maduro-rival-seeks-to-liven-lackluster-venezuela-election-idUSKBN1HJ2M5, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics/venezuelan-opposition-coalition-condemns-falcon-presidential-bid-idUSKCN1GC1YQ, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-factbox/factbox-venezuelas-jailed-exiled-or-barred-opposition-politicians-idUSKCN1G31WU all acessed January 4, 2020

[9] I had often written emails to Reuters asking why it seemed to believe Datanalisis was the only pollster worth citing and also why its anti-government bias was never mentioned.

[10] On June 23, 2004, less than two months before a recall referendum was held, Luis Vicente Leon told foreign journalists “If the vote happens legally, Chavez should lose’. ( https://web.archive.org/web/20121004050641/http:/www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aKNvYA3oDmVM&refer=latin_america accessed January 4, 2020 ) Chavez won the August 15, 2004 referendum by 18 percentage points (59% to 41%).  Datanalisis said Chavez was fifteen points behind in May. A swing of 33 percentage points in public opinion in less than three months seems far-fetched. A week before the vote Leon dramatically changed his tune and wrote that  it was “perfectly possible” Chavez could, “without fraud”, win by a large margin. It looked a lot like a last minute effort by Leon to salvage credibility. http://web.archive.org/web/20040811064850/http:/www.eluniversal.com:80/2004/08/08/revo_art_08104D.shtml (accessed January 4, 2020 )

[11] Maduro challenger shakes up Venezuela’s presidential vote, Andrew Cawthorne, Mar 18, 2018,https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-election-analysis/maduro-challenger-shakes-up-venezuelas-presidential-vote-idUSKCN1GU04N accessed January 4, 2020

[12] https://twitter.com/frrodriguezc/status/993320962794885120, https://twitter.com/frrodriguezc/status/993305182783098880 both accessed January 4, 2020

[13] Venezuela election candidate Falcon is Maduro’s pawn: OAS head,  Angus Berwick, Mar 16, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics/venezuela-election-candidate-falcon-is-maduros-pawn-oas-head-idUSKCN1GS1ZP, accessed January 4, 2020;  https://twitter.com/HenriFalconLara/status/974803355544506368 accessed January 4, 2020

[14] An interview with Francisco Rodríguez, Managing Director and Chief Economist of Torino, Jan 25, 2019  Economics, https://theglobalamericans.org/2019/01/an-interview-with-francisco-rodriguez-managing-director-and-chief-economist-of-torino-economics/ accessed January 4, 2020

[15] Rodriguez gave interviews on Venezuelan private media during the campaign promoting Falcon and his economic platform which centered on adopting the US dollar as Venezuela’s currency. Rodriguez appeared on Venevision, Televen and Globovisionhttps://youtu.be/xU7cAdXYh5A, https://youtu.be/AbtZKP05tew, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHAJbdmZxyo all accessed January 4, 2020

[16] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kW8XvfrFReA accessed January 4, 2020

[17]Under state pressure, Venezuela TV limits live coverage of protests, Deisy Buitrago and Corina Pons, May 26, 2017,  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-media-idUSKBN18M2DP accessed January 4, 2020

[18] RPT-INTERVIEW-Venezuela presidential hopeful wants Wall St. economist on team, Andrew Cawthorne and Vivian Sequera, Mar 1, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/venezuela-politics-falcon/rpt-interview-venezuela-presidential-hopeful-wants-wall-st-economist-on-team-idUSL2N1QJ0HG accessed January 4, 2020

[19] Venevision,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpS6_ciQTUM&feature=youtu.be accessed January 4, 2020

[20] Cited in “There’s Far More Diversity in Venezuela’s ‘Muzzled’ Media Than in US Corporate Press”, Lucas Koerner and Ricardo Vaz, May 20, 2019; https://fair.org/home/theres-far-more-diversity-in-venezuelas-muzzled-media-than-in-us-corporate-press/;

CONATEL data found at http://www.conatel.gob.ve/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Presentacion-de-cifras-II-2018_05-12-2018.pdf accssed January 4, 2020

[21] Provided by a source who had access to Datanalisis polls  Emersberger mentioned in this Real News segment about Venezuela’s media https://therealnews.com/stories/venezuelas-press-is-more-free-than-youd-think accessed January 4, 2020

[22] https://youtu.be/0dTJE2cZRS4 accessed January 4, 2020

[23] Venezuela: Presidential Elections Moved to May, Falcon & Maduro Agree to Electoral Guarantees, Paul Dobson, Mar 2, 2018,  https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/13695 accessed January 4, 2020

[24] https://twitter.com/HenriFalconLara/status/1090979871944306688 accessed January 4, 2020

[25] https://twitter.com/HenriFalconLara/status/1193653057118191616 accessed January 4, 2020

[26] https://twitter.com/frrodriguezc/status/1194409109866586112, https://twitter.com/frrodriguezc/status/1196095685105508359 accessed January 4, 2020

[27] Guaidó desde la Embajada de Bolivia en Caracas: El pueblo boliviano nos dio un ejemplo de resistencia, Nov 16, 2019 https://www.elnacional.com/venezuela/guaido-desde-la-embajada-de-bolivia-en-caracas-el-pueblo-boliviano-nos-dio-un-ejemplo-de-resistencia/ accessed January 4, 2020

2 Comments

  1. avatar
    Dave Markland May 19, 2020 7:14 pm 

    Thank you for this. Excellent work, Joe. I think this tale would make an excellent (though unbelievable) screenplay.

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