October 22, 2002

I'm obviously hopping mad about the government's incredible, howling, flashing, bold-faced lying about yesterday's "paro." Thus, this week's VenEc editorial is about...

Getting rid of Chávez well

On Monday, Venezuela once again spoke loud and clear, and the government once again refused to listen. The message was, in essence, the same as on Dec. 10th, Jan. 23rd, April 11th, July 11th, and Oct. 10th. At bottom, all that opposition minded Venezuelans are trying to say, have been trying to say for close to a year now, is “we exist. Stop ignoring us. Acknowledge us.” And the government – incredibly, absurdly – simply refuses to do so.

Taken at face value, the official denial that a mass opposition movement even exists smacks of psychopathology. Faced with a discomfiting reality, the government’s line is simple denial – denial in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, denial that runs directly counter to what everyone in Venezuela saw with his or her own eyes on Monday. It makes the government come across as disturbingly autistic – locked in a private reality, radically unable to interact with the real world on reasonable terms.
But, of course, this maddeningly obtuse public posture is just that – a posture. It’s clear that, in its heart of hearts, the government understands that most of the country came to a standstill on Monday. (At least one hopes it understand this - the alternative hypothesis, that the government is run by people who actually believe its demented P.R. line, is just too frightening to consider.) In all likelihood, though, the government know its position is a farce, but has calculated that it’s to its advantage to maintain it. The question, then, is why?

In part, chavismo seems to have calculated that, to remain in power, it absolutely has to maintain the support of the 20% of Venezuelans that still follow the president with passion. To keep that fifth of the population mobilized and committed, it’s important that they continue to believe in the political viability of “the project.” Admitting the current strength of the opposition movement could be devastating to their morale.

What’s more important, though, is that if the government acknowledged the evident, the president would be forced to let go of his long-term vision of turning Venezuela into a neomarxist state. Once the government accepted that millions of common Venezuelans oppose Chávez’s ideological model, it would have little choice but to find an accommodation with them. And such an accommodation would certainly entail abandoning the president’s long-term ideological vision. This, in essence, is why María Cristina Iglesias had to go on television at lunchtime on Monday to tell Venezuelans that what they could see happening all around them was not, in fact, happening.

Faced with chavismo’s deeply dishonest obstinacy, the opposition has decided to keep pressing for early elections or for a referendum through a major signature gathering drive. Leaders such as Leonardo Pizani have even taken the significant step of publicly explaining that fair elections cannot be held until the nation’s voting system has been overhauled, and that such an overhaul will take time. Emboldened by the certainty that chavismo is only weakened and further marginalized with each passing day, the opposition seems newly prepared to show the patience and exercise the restraint necessary to reach a constitutional solution to the impasse.

Ultimately, though, democratically-minded Venezuelans have reason to feel confident. The government’s contention that the opposition movement is a fabrication of the media and “four little nutters,” in the president’s words, was a spectacular P.R. debacle. The opposition, meanwhile, is growing not only in size but also in ethical and intellectual stature. The Coordinadora Democrática now seems firmly in the hands of the moderate wing of the movement, led by forward looking, reform minded organizations like Queremos Elegir and Primero Justicia that understand the importance of removing Chávez with ballots rather than bullets. The more radical, immediatist parts of the opposition – including notably Acción Democrática – seem to have finally grasped the importance of keeping the Coordinadora united, avoiding on-the-spot announcements that escalate the potential for violence, and committing to an electoral path towards regime change, even if that means waiting a few months. That shift, in itself, was one of the most significant and positive outcomes of Monday’s protest.

Slowly but surely, the opposition is coming to understand that getting rid of Chávez will not, in and of itself, solve the nation’s problems. It will merely be the first step in the difficult road of reform. If that first step is carried out in a way that divides the country further, it could end up impeding rather than aiding the reform agenda the country so badly needs to implement. Thankfully, the opposition is starting to understand that its job is not just to get rid of Chávez. It’s to get rid of Chávez well.