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Venezuelan Opposition Parties Aim to Break Cycle of Failure

Venezuela's political opposition has an 11-year record of futility. President Hugo Chavez has twice won re-election, survived an opposition-led recall referendum, and secured voter approval of constitutional changes to boost executive power and end term limits. An opposition boycott of 2005 elections gave the president near-complete control of the National Assembly.

Stumbling block

During the past decade, no country in the Americas has seen more protests, demonstrations, national strikes, and venting of mass-frustration than Venezuela. Always eager to march in the streets, the opposition to President Chavez habitually stumbles at the ballot box - something anti-Chavez voters readily acknowledge.

These comments from two women in a busy Caracas plaza are typical:

"The opposition does not know how to lead, how to speak to the people," a female voter said.

"The problem with the opposition, to put it bluntly, is that they never have had the manhood to defend their ideals," said another voter.

Opposition strategy

Opposition leaders say they are aware of the shortcomings. Julio Borges heads "Justice First", one of several parties that will challenge President Chavez for control of the National Assembly on September 26.

"The opposition, with all its factions, has spent more time trying to evict Chavez from the presidential palace than fighting for the hearts of the people," Borges said. "That has been our big mistake: portraying the fight for Venezuela as a personalized battle to stop Chavez instead of offering a vision for a better country. We understand that now."

Caracas-based political analyst Luis Vicente Leon says the opposition has always underestimated President Chavez and his base of support.

"Their biggest mistake was believing, year after year, that they spoke for the majority in Venezuela," Leon said. "They did not acknowledge that Chavez was strong, popular, and had majority backing - that his message was reaching the people. The opposition wasted time and resources alleging electoral fraud when they should have been engaging people face-to-face in communities across the nation, building a viable political base."

Support base

To build that base, the opposition will have to reach out to poorer communities where President Chavez draws his support. Winning over pro-Chavez voters like Gladys Marcano will be no easy task.

"My family and I survive thanks to the president," Marcano said.

The hillside community where Marcano lives has received significant public works funding since President Chavez came to power. She sees the opposition as a throwback to past governments that turned a blind eye to the poor.

"If you knocked on doors to present the community's needs, that door was slammed in your face," Marcano noted.

Wresting control of the National Assembly from President Chavez will be a steep challenge for the opposition. More seats have been apportioned to pro-Chavez regions than areas where the opposition is strong, the president dominates Venezuela's airwaves, and he can deploy the country's vast oil wealth to his political advantage.

Cause for optimism?

But Julio Borges is optimistic.

"In this year's legislative elections, and in the presidential election in 2012, we will show that we have majority backing to take the country in a different direction," Borges said.

It is a promise the opposition has made before.