Ex-Baseball Executive Key To Anti-Chavez Strategy

CARACAS, VENEZUELA--A former baseball executive is plotting strategy for Venezuela's political opposition, and he's on a winning streak.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo helped the opposition make major gains in congressional elections last year, and then convinced a diverse array of parties to agree to compete in a presidential primary for the first time next February. The bearded 61-year-old is now setting his sights on channeling the opposition's momentum into a broad-based challenge against President Hugo Chavez next year.

As secretary general of the country's anti-Chavez coalition, known as the Democratic Unity Table, Aveledo works mainly behind the scenes mediating between factions, settling internal disputes and promoting efforts to lay the groundwork for a unified opposition platform. He insists that today the movement, once hindered by its divisions, is more united than ever and has become focused on presenting voters with clear alternatives to Chavez's socialist-oriented government.

Polls show Chavez remains popular but is still vulnerable, with his top challenger nearly equaling the president's support in some recent surveys.

"The Table isn't so much about what we reject as it is about what we favor," Aveledo told The Associated Press in an interview. "It's more of a project than something aimed solely at getting rid of the current government."

In order to develop clear policy alternatives, Aveledo has created a host of committees where party leaders and candidates hash out common stances on subjects including health care, education, economic policy and international affairs. They've designed plans to combat gun violence, build housing with private sector support and boost food production, among other things.

Such efforts have brought new organization to a once-fractured movement that used to focus mainly on rallying visceral opposition to Chavez. When opposition candidate Manuel Rosales was handily defeated by Chavez in the last presidential vote in 2006, some said the defeat was partly due to a failure to present an alternative platform that resonated with voters. The opposition also appeared to lack the organization of the pro-Chavez camp.

This time, Aveledo has been credited with helping settle disagreements between parties to set the Feb. 12 date for the opposition primary. He said it's been an important achievement to consolidate about 20 parties into a single bloc.

"Unity was vital in order to come up with a credible alternative," Aveledo said earlier this month in his downtown Caracas office.

He brings to the job an analytical problem-solving ability and a manager mindset that served him well from 2001 to 2007 as president of the Venezuelan Baseball League, where he was credited with making changes that put the league on better financial footing. He also is a veteran politician who was an aide to President Luis Herrera in the early 1980s and later held a congressional seat.

Eight opposition candidates are campaigning ahead of the primary, and have been touting proposals for dealing with problems such as rampant crime and underfunded schools. Whoever wins the primary is likely to keep counting on Aveledo to mobilize the alliance of parties ahead of the October presidential vote.

State governor Henrique Capriles has been leading in the polls among opposition candidates, with other young, energetic politicians such as Pablo Perez and Leopoldo Lopez trailing.

Chavez is taking the challengers seriously and has returned to his time-tested formula of labeling his foes U.S. collaborators, mocking the coalition's Spanish acronym, MUD for Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, saying opposition politicians are now the M-US, in cahoots with Washington.

Chavez, who was first elected in 1998, is seeking re-election for a third time. His popularity has risen recently and stood at 53 percent according to one September poll, possibly due in part to public sympathy surrounding his struggle with cancer.

He hasn't let up on his verbal attacks against opponents, claiming they represent the wealthy and calling them "scorpions" still hobbled by infighting.

A previous opposition coalition, called the Democratic Coordinator, collapsed after it failed to oust Chavez in a 2004 recall referendum.

But recent polls suggest the opposition has grown stronger since the Democratic Unity Table was formed in 2009. Pollster Luis Vicente Leon, who heads the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis, said the opposition's image has improved and the coalition's support has recently hovered around 40 percent.

Aveledo said the opposition is going into the campaign energized like never before. "Even taking the worst of the polls, we're starting the election campaign this time in the best situation we've ever been in," he said.

Before the country's 2010 congressional elections, Aveledo took a lead role negotiating deals between rivals parties about which candidates would run and which would bow out. He says he has a knack for such tense negotiations and prefers such a role to that of a politician constantly in front of the cameras.

"It's up to me to demand that the debate end or the difference be settled, and that a decision be reached because you can't be negotiating forever," Aveledo said.

Longtime friend and opposition politician Ramon Jose Medina said Aveledo showed his toughness and patience in the aftermath of the 2010 elections. When the electoral council lagged for hours in releasing results, some politicians were strongly urging Aveledo to demand the council immediately release partial figures, Medina said.

Instead, Aveledo kept his cool, waited and eventually spoke on television saying confidently:

"They already know what happened, we already know."

"He managed to maintain that balance in that moment, which was a moment of great tensions," Medina said, adding that Aveledo's poise won him respect both within the opposition and among Chavez supporters.

The government held on to a majority of congressional seats, but the opposition gained ground in the election and the popular vote was almost evenly split between the pro- and anti-Chavez camps. Aveledo's mediation was widely credited as a factor in the opposition's success.

Aveledo acknowledges the opposition faces hurdles going into the presidential race, including Chavez's advantage in using government funds to benefit his campaign.

But Aveledo is confident the opposition has crossed a crucial threshold by organizing a single, more cohesive bloc. That change, he said, means the ability to "to generate confidence and credibility, for the people to see there's an alternative in this country."