Students bring Venezuela its first presidential debate in 28 years
There was a palpable uproar from social media networks in Venezuela on Monday evening as all five presidential candidates from the opposition came together for a debate at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB), in anticipation of the primary elections in February of next year.
Renowned journalist Ibeyise Pacheco wrote on her Twitter account: “There is a democratic solemnity that hasn’t been felt in this country for a long time”.
Ramon Jose Medina the technical director of the opposition coalition (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática or MUD), echoed Pacheco’s sentiment with his tweet: “The debate between the candidates demonstrated a superior level, respect, knowledge of the country’s problems and solutions. We do have a future!”
And comedian Luis Chataing – who has almost 840,000 followers on Twitter - wrote: “#debate14n Thanks to the 5 candidates for taking us to the country where we can agree and disagree in a cordial matter”.
The significance of Monday’s debate cannot be emphasized enough, as it was the first event of this kind since 1983. Maybe because of the rarity of the occasion, Venezuelans showed their frustration on Twitter when Chavez went on national television to deliver a speech that, had he chosen to extend it, would have prevented many people from watching the debate. To the relief of countless Venezuelans however, Chavez ended the cadena nacional one minute before the debate began.
Without having to resort to ustream.com, which was used for spectators outside the U.S., the only remaining opposition station, Globovision, transmitted the event locally (Venevision and Televen abstained). Henrique Capriles, Pablo Pérez, Leopoldo López, Diego Arria, and María Corina Machado exhibited their different viewpoints on eight topics - name security, job creation, and education - with an introductory 30 second-speech in which each candidate stated why he or she should be elected to the country’s highest office.
Winners and losers
40% of Venezuelans think Capriles did the best job yesterday; followed by Diego Arria with 17% and Pablo Perez with 15%, according to a poll by Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. Leopoldo Lopez, whose campaign has been overshadowed by a looming political suit that would prevent him from being elected, finished last with 6%.
Overall, there were no major stumbles. However, as is often the cases in debates, candidates like Diego Arria and Maria Corina Machado, who have had less visibility during the campaign season, generated the most buzz in post-debate discussions, as they appealed to their respective bases.
On the other hand, Capriles, Perez, and Lopez stayed in the center and treated the occasion as a an opportunity to call on independent voters, known in Venezuela as “ni-ni,” according to “What happened last night” published by the political blog Caracas Chronicles. Among those three, it was Lopez’s night to lose. And online polls reflect that he did exactly that.
Considering that Arria and Machado’s chances aren’t very good heading into the presidential election, one can conclude Capriles was the winner of last night’s debate.
Amid their differences, “all the opposition candidates strongly condemned what they perceive is an insatiable thirst for power by Chavez and promised to take measures to assure the country’s next leader doesn’t exert limitless power by utilizing other institutions like the Supreme Court to defend executive power,” according to the Associated Press.
Chavez has never accepted an invitation to participate in a publicly televised debate. There will be two or three more debates before the coalition formed by opposition parties elects the person that will run against the President.
The students were the real winners
There hadn’t been a debate of this kind in Venezuela for 28 years. But what’s even more surprising is the mechanics behind the event: it was produced and coordinated in its entirety by students from different universities – known as Movimiento Estudiantil (Student Movement) - with no involvement from Chavez’s current regime, and the questions the participants answered were collected via Twitter using the account @Debate14N.
“We were certain that Venezuela was eager for a debate, that people need to hear the differences between candidates,” said Jorge Martínez, 23, who coordinated production for the event. Martínez is also a member of the University Council at UCAB. “We are acting as hosts,” he told Debate Latino – Univision News over the phone.
In a country with a big Twitter presence, the students received more than a thousand tweets from voters via the account @Debate14N, according to Martínez.
“Thank God there are social networks, PIN, BlackBerry, and the web. They’re our closest allies,” said Anabel Navarro, 24, who already graduated, but felt the need to help her peers organize the event.
Both Navarro and Martínez were part of the movement in Venezuela when it was still in its infancy in 2007, and many students were demonstrating spontaneously against the Chávez administration’s closure, or impeded contractual concession, of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). Ever since, students have taken a protagonist’s role in the country’s politics, enjoying vast support from the population.
But Martínez points out that, with this debate, the proposals from students go way beyond carry-on signs.
“We wanted to show we’re not only in the streets to demonstrate, but to provide ideas on how to rebuild our country and democracy,” he said. “This means there’s not just one side of the country who’s answering this call, but we’re serving as referees.”
The operational committee behind the debate had 30 students, but nearly 300 student leaders also participated, helping organize in different areas.
This doesn’t mean the student population is isolated from political polarization.
Martínez said that they proposed their plan to all educational institutions, but “our peers at Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela (which has ties with the Chávez regime) didn’t show any intentions of helping us.”
In spite of some logistical obstacles, and with all eyes on them, the students filled the 683 seats at the university’s main auditorium, where the debate was held, and approximately 70 people were left standing or sitting on the adjacent steps.
But, as Navarro said, social networks were their closest allies to disseminate the different proposals to a larger audience beyond the school’s walls.
The conversation surrounding the debate went viral on Twitter using the hashtag #Debate14N and @debate14N, which was opened just for the event, and now has more than 8,000 followers.
At the end of the evening, the online show of support didn’t go to any candidate, but was directed to the youngsters, who made history in Venezuela by hosting a cordial, well-organized discussion about the country’s future.
Alberto Ravell, the former director of Globovision, wrote on his account: “A+ for the students. Venezuela wants more DEBATES! #debate14n.”
There is no doubt the next generation of politicians were the true winners last night.
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