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A New Hope for Venezuela’s Opposition?

Venezuelans are clamoring for Empresas Polar CEO Lorenzo Mendoza to run for president. Could it happen?
lorenzo
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This article has been updated

They won’t be fair, but Venezuela’s presidential elections (likely coming in March or April) will be meaningful. Following his allies' success in last October’s regional vote, President Nicolás Maduro sees an opportunity to cement his control over rivals and add a veneer of legitimacy for his increasingly reckless rule.

The opposition, on the other hand, needs to prove to the majority of Venezuelans who want Maduro gone that it can act in concert toward a strategic goal – even if success at the ballot box is unlikely. 

In this context, the collective imagination of opposition voters has become firmly fixed on one name: Lorenzo Mendoza. The CEO of one of Venezuela’s most influential family corporations, Mendoza is seen as above the fray of opposition politics. The business leader has said he’s not interested in running – but could prove a formidable adversary to Maduro if he ultimately has a change of heart.

So is Mendoza a viable candidate to run against Maduro this spring? And if he does, what would it mean for him – and for the country? Here’s a look at why Venezuelans are asking for a Mendoza candidacy, and how it might come about.

Why Lorenzo Mendoza?

Empresas Polar is an institution in Venezuela. For more than 70 years, the food and beverage company has been tied to the social fabric of the country, both as a business and through its related philanthropic organization. As president of the company since 1992 (and grandson of Polar’s founder), the charismatic Mendoza has long been seen as a positive force in Venezuelan life.

Given the importance of the company in providing food for the Venezuelan economy, Polar has frequently been the target of political attacks, first by the late Hugo Chávez and later by Maduro. But neither of the two dared take radical steps, such as expropriation, against the company. These attacks – and Polar’s resilience – have systematically put Mendoza’s name on Venezuela’s front pages, and have given people the perception that he has succeeded in confronting the government without giving in. 

After a year of erratic behavior, the opposition leadership has lost credibility in the eyes of many Venezuelans who are eager for change. This has left a void in the expectations of the electorate, and many are now looking for answers outside the realm of traditional politics. Given this, and Mendoza’s reputation for business savvy and the youthful charisma he exhibits in public, and it’s plain to see why his name comes up so often in the search for a leader who can guide the country out of its morass.

What does Mendoza think of all this?

The idea of Mendoza as a candidate is widespread in economic and political circles. He has at his disposal a network of supporters who would quickly take up the job of trying to deliver him to the presidency. Mendoza has thus almost surely entertained the possibility of making a run.

Still, Mendoza has been consistent in saying he has no intention to enter the electoral arena, employing phrases like “if you know how to count, don’t count on me.” This suggests that the possibility of competing for a nomination against opposition politicians, whether in debates or through a primary election, is unlikely. His candidacy would have to be perceived as an act of public duty, rather than of personal ambition. As a result, the only realistic way he would end up taking on Maduro is if there was a widespread consensus among the regime’s opponents that he is the only person for the job.

Is such a consensus possible?

A Mendoza candidacy would be well received by a large share of opposition voters. Several non-governmental organizations would also look favorably on the businessman as a candidate, and would likely lend their resources to the cause.

But there’s politics to consider.

The discordant and contradictory behavior of opposition political figures in recent months makes it unlikely that a majority would be willing to set aside their personal goals and support Mendoza. Though some opposition groups are warm to the idea, for others it is a non-starter.

Nor is time on Mendoza’s side. The short time until the election leaves little room to come to an agreement, regardless of who runs. Maduro, of course, knows this – it’s one of the reasons why he’s worked to move the date of the elections, which were originally planned for later in the year.

What would Mendoza’s candidacy mean?

Another point to consider is what candidacy would mean for Mendoza himself. Taking on this position would put him past a point of no return. Imagine if he was chosen as a consensus candidate, and the results of the election were questioned or fraudulent (not an unlikely scenario). Mendoza would then face pressure to assume a leadership position outside the context of the election itself. Taking a backseat at such a critical moment after having lead the electoral charge would be damaging to his reputation and the work of an iconic family enterprise. But such a role would mean added risks for himself and his family, a factor that would be hard for him to ignore.

To succeed in such a scenario, Mendoza would have to shore up his position on many fronts, with guaranteed support from international actors like the State Department, the Lima Group, the OAS and the European Union. He would also need unqualified support from the opposition, and a clear plan of action for what to do the day after the election regardless of how it plays out.

Nobody can think for Lorenzo Mendoza. Whatever his next move, more will become clear after a formal call for elections is made. From my point of view, the likelihood of a Mendoza candidacy in the early elections expected this spring is minimal. But if he were to run, the decision would affect every variable in Venezuela’s current political calculus.

This article was updated to further explain calls for Mendoza's candidacy

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Seijas Rodríguez is a Venezuelan political analyst and statistician, Ph.D.  He is the director of the Delphos poll.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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