Monday night in Caracas, opposition candidates to President Hugo Chávez held their first debate to decide who will challenge him in the scheduled October 2012 Venezuelan presidential election. In a sign of their continuing political maturation, the candidates rightly addressed bread-and-butter issues that matter to the vast majority of Venezuelans, such as the country's skyrocketing crime rate and Chávez's poor management of the Venezuelan economy.
The debate represented another important step forward in the Venezuelan opposition's long road back to political relevance. For most of the past decade, the image of the opposition -- shared by official opinion in Washington -- has not been favorable. It was seen as disorganized, hopelessly divided, and lacking in a vision that could cut into the broad working-class support for Hugo Chávez. That has been changing, however.
And with serious questions being raised about Chávez's health, and whether he will even survive until October of next year (in a telling recent comment, Chávez told his followers that, "The revolution cannot depend on one man"), all of a sudden the Venezuelan opposition takes on a whole new importance - one that the Obama administration must recognize and adapt to accordingly.
The leading candidates are Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state, which includes much of Caracas; Pablo Pérez, governor of oil-rich Zulia state; Leopoldo López, former mayor of Chacao municipality in Caracas; and Maria Corina Machado, a founder of the civil society organization Súmate.
All four represent a new generation of Venezuelans with no ties to the old-line parties that Chávez has used as fodder in his rise to power. All the candidates convey youthful vigor and an understanding that today's Venezuela is vastly different than that of their parents. They say they want to break down the country's polarization under Chávez and provide more opportunities for marginalized communities. They also say they will unite behind whoever wins their February 2012 primary for the right to take on Chávez.
Any of the candidates can win over wealthy and middle-class voters; the key is whether they can win over disaffected Chávez supporters fed up with the hash he has made of the Venezuelan economy, the deterioration of public services, and soaring street crime.
Make no mistake about it, however: if somehow Chávez remains healthy enough to campaign and make it until next October, he will be re-elected. His popularity, willingness to spend billions for his re-election, and his control of the electoral mechanisms make him the prohibitive favorite. But that is the point -- if he is healthy. If he succumbs to his cancer, then all bets are off.
Thus, the Obama administration needs to approach the election as anything but a perfunctory Chávez victory and instead prepare for a possible tectonic shift in Venezuelan politics. That means expressions of solidarity with candidates who are trying to play by democratic rules and speaking out against Chavista attempts to rig the election for his chosen successor, if it comes to that. Chávez's faltering health means that there is every chance October 2012 will bring an opportunity for the Venezuelan people to chart a new course, one that combines an awareness of the great disparities in Venezuelan society without the radicalism, rancor, polarization, and anti-Americanism of the past twelve years. It is crucial therefore that Washington not be on the sidelines as these events play out, but is actively engaged to promote our considerable interests in such an outcome.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.