BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela (Reuters) - When state governor Henri Falcon abandoned Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party in 2010 and later joined the opposition, he was pilloried as a “traitor” by former pal and then president Hugo Chavez.
Now, it is opposition hardliners who insult him with that same word as Falcon promotes dialogue with Chavez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, in a bid to ease political hatreds and an economic crisis in the South American OPEC nation.
“I have no hang-ups over what anyone says about me. We must end the polarization that has caused so much damage,” said the 53-year-old former military man, who is widely viewed as a potentially pivotal figure in Venezuela’s political future.
“In Colombia, they’re sitting down with guerrillas. The United States and Cuba are resolving their differences. So why not us? The alternative is chaos,” Falcon told Reuters on Thursday after addressing a student rally in Barquisimeto, capital of Lara state that he governs.
Boasting both “Chavista” roots and opposition credentials - he was presidential candidate Henrique Capriles’ manager for his campaign against Maduro in 2013 - Falcon is one of the few politicians able to straddle Venezuela’s political divide.
His moderate views echo those of many Venezuelans fed up with the insults and violence of recent years, and Maduro earlier this year called him an “exception” in a field of opposition leaders he dismissed as contemptible coup-mongers.
With the ruling “Chavismo” movement at one of its lowest ebbs and the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition divided and disillusioned, it is hard to predict Venezuela’s political direction, though legislative elections late this year will be an important indicator.
Maduro has another four years as president but polls predict the opposition will capture the National Assembly. That could encourage them to try to unseat him with a recall referendum allowed half-way through the presidential term in 2016.
Should a “transition” government emerge in any scenario, Falcon could be a central figure. Some Venezuelans see him as a possible future presidential candidate.
“I believe in a government of national unity,” Falcon said. “This model is finished. But we can’t jump from one extreme to another.”
Falcon, who is one of only three opposition governors in Venezuela’s 23 states, opposed last year’s street protests that hardline foes hoped would topple Maduro.
Violence around the protests left 43 people dead on both sides of the political divide
“A bad experience. A mistake. They brought deaths, left people in prison, weakened leaderships, caused a lot of damage, and helped the government in the polls,” the governor said, gazing across Barquisimeto from his top-floor office.
With the failure of that tactic, the opposition’s next chance to hurt Maduro is in the legislative elections and Falcon predicted a “devastating” 15 percentage point win for the opposition if they were held today.
“But you can’t underestimate the government,” he added, saying its use of public money and influence over local institutions and media gives it a vast advantage in campaigning.
A self-styled center-leftist, Falcon admires Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, who seeks to combine a business-friendly economy with strong social welfare programs.
As well as promoting dialogue, Falcon is urging the Maduro government and business leaders to sit down together to find a path out of recession, high inflation and widespread product shortages.
Unprecedented meetings last year, with both opposition politicians and entrepreneurs, quickly petered out. Despite being depicted by opposition hardliners as spineless and sucking up to the government, Falcon still champions rapprochement.
On a visit to the Vatican in March, he asked Pope Francis to mediate in Venezuela. And he has worked with the Maduro government on a project to build a massive religious statue in Barquisimeto that he enthusiastically touts as a symbol of peace and cooperation.
Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Editing by Girish Gupta and Kieran Murray