September 26, 2002

"Please crush our movement, sir."

The thing about these "Security Zones" is that by decreeing them, the government set out an implicit dare. "You can`t come here," Chávez said, "off limits!" So, of course, following the 6-year-olds-at-the-playground mentality that dominates opposition strategizing these days, they obviously had to go and protest inside the security zone, didn't they? It was a dare! What do you think we are, a bunch of sissies?

Not to belittle the issue. The opposition's obviously justified in its anger at the security zones. It's obviously unacceptable for any government to try to tell me where I can and can't hold a political march, much less for this government to do so. But I do mean to point out how sadly predictable and slightly infantile the opposition's tactics are: there's no provocation they won't fall into, no waving red cape they won't charge.

So they went and called their rally. It's happening right now, and it looks like they got the typical, quite solid turnout...100,000 or so, I'd guess. My sisters are there, but I had to deal with a plumbing emergency so I didn't make it. From what's on the TV, it's the usual: standard noisemakers, standard waving Venezuelan flags, standard hysterically overhblown anti-chavista speeches ("This is the WORST, the most CORRUPT, the MOST CRIMINAL government Venezuela has EVER had!!!!" loud cheers "Mr. President, if you want to live in communism, go move to Cuba like you wanted to on April 11th!!!!" more loud cheers...and so on...these were thrilling 8 months ago when they were new, but at this point...sigh...]

The funny thing is that the government is normally quite savvy about not picking stupid fights like this one. Don't get me wrong, they pick about every other type of fight imaginable, but this type of fight they usually avoid. They've actually been really liberal about allowing protests and media dissent - though, yes, individual journalists are attacked by little chavista mobs with startling regularity. Still, the newspapers are still running, and absolutely chock-full of harsh antigovernment rhetoric, same for the magazines, radio stations and TV stations, all the media. Though the criticism clearly drives Chávez half insane, the government's been quite skillful about not giving the opposition any martyrs or symbols to rally around, either in terms of censored newspapers, jailed opponents or banned protests.

It's clearly the best way they could deal with it: trying to repress the huge opposition movement would blacken the government's international reputation badly, and it obviously wouldn't work because the opposition is just too large and too determined. Besides, when protest isn't banned, it's ever so much less sexy. Half the point of protesting is the transgressive thrill of challenging authority...witness the beaming pride of anti-globalization protesters everywhere as they're hauled off to jail.

Chávez hasn't fallen for it, which is what makes this latest goof with the security zones so odd. The opposition was obviously thrilled to finally get dared. The government, realizing that the likely, 100,000 strong crowd would be impossible to stop or tear-gas into submission, decided to backtrack. Chavez ordered the defense ministry to issue a permit for the march -- a permit which, incidentally, nobody had asked for.

It was a smart move, and really took the wind out of the sails out of a lot of opposition members. One disgruntled sister called me this morning saying, in a half-joking sort of tone "this damn government! I don't believe this! how dare they give us permission to march? Makes me not even want to go!" I suggested she organize a march to protest the government's decision to allow marches. Very silly, yes. But then farce is what Chávez era Venezuela is all about.

The broader point is that the opposition has an Alex Keaton problem: how do you rebel when you have a hippie dad who lets you do whatever you want? We're desperately itching to rebel, we want to so so much because we find this government so so deeply deplorable. But the more we push, the more the government digs in to its velvet-gloves policy, leaving us in a state of collective frustration.

It's vintage Chávez, come to think of it...guy's so useless he can't even repress our movement properly...