Falcon cuts divisive figure in Venezuela's election

Caracas (AFP) –


Henri Falcon, who stands between Venezuelans and another six years of rule by President Nicolas Maduro in elections Sunday, cuts a polarizing figure, arousing the ire of Maduro's socialists and sections of the main opposition alike.

Falcon, a former army officer and long-time governor, leads the unpopular Maduro in the polls -- but is viewed with mistrust by many in the opposition after a past switch of allegiances.

"I am not a traitor. I am a man without complexes," the suave 56-year-old said recently, by way of explanation.

Falcon is something of a political chameleon: a former socialist stalwart who fell out with late president Hugo Chavez and left to form his own opposition party.

In doing so, he made political enemies in the socialist party, while never quite winning the opposition's trust -- to such an extent that many opposition voters believe he is working with the government.

Some in the opposition believe he is simply running in the election to position himself as the main opposition leader.

He has campaigned on a promise to open up the economy -- by adopting the dollar as Venezuela's currency -- and the country to badly-needed humanitarian aid. On the way, he has broken with the rump opposition which is boycotting the polls, buoyed by international support, on the grounds that they are likely rigged.

Falcon has said a boycott merely plays into the hands of the government.

"These concerns are legitimate. But we can't give up and let Mr. Maduro get away with six more years in power," he wrote in The New York Times in March.

"Choosing to fight under unfair rules does not legitimize the rules: it affirms our willingness to defend our rights."

If elected, he said he would end Venezuela's diplomatic isolation after years of Maduro rule and a recent wave of debt defaults.

"He has made a good effort, he is a hard-working man, focused on public management more than on political parties, but he made a wrong decision when opting to run," said opposition MP Simon Calzadilla, a friend and former ally.

- Long-term governor -

A law graduate, Falcon joined the military, but said he had never considered going into politics until he saw Chavez on television after his failed 1992 coup.

"He even went to visit him in prison," his wife Marielba Diaz told El Impulso newspaper.

Falcon retired from the military in 1991 as a non-commissioned officer and threw his lot in with Chavez's party when the future president was released from prison.

He cut his political teeth as mayor of Barquisimeto for eight years, before becoming governor of Venezuela's Lara state from 2008-2017. His refusal during this period to expropriate warehouses belonging to the country's largest food company led to a public falling out with Chavez.

He resigned from the Socialist Party in 2010. Branded a "traitor" by Chavez, he founded his own Progressive Advance party, which he aligned with the opposition coalition.

Falcon has previously fought a presidential campaign, though not as a candidate. He was the campaign manager for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles when he narrowly lost to Maduro in 2013.