August 31, 2004

Will somebody please give Enrique Mendoza a piano?

I. Where's our William Hague? Where are our pianos?
There's no particular reason for most Venezuelans to know who William Hague is. Briefly the leader of the UK Conservative Party, Hague was destroyed by Tony Blair in the 2002 British elections. The next day, he gave a speech to the party and nation congratulating the prime minister and promptly set off to learn the piano. Hague had never played a note in his life, but he'd understood that life after front-line politics would include much, much more free time, and he'd promised one of his constituents that, if he lost (as all opinion polls suggested) he'd dedicate himself to learning how to play. Reportedly, he's progressed to the point of learning the Moonlight Sonata.

The British have mechanisms - formal and informal - for renewing their political leaders once they've tried and failed. This is normal, as it should be. Nobody had to denounce Hague as a coupster fascist to persuade him to take up the piano. He understood that one gets one chance to lead a major British party to an election, and if yoiu fail, you resign. Simple.

Where are our William Hagues? Where are our pianos?

II. "Es que el fraude se nos fue de las manos..."
There is, to my mind, a strong whiff in the air right now of January 2003. You have to think back, to remember the panicked faces on CD leaders towards the end of that fateful month when they started to realize that the National Strike was a strategy without a plan, certain to fail. Stuck to positions too vociferously stated, the CD leaders realized only too late that they had blocked all their own exits. Extricating themselves from the giant mess they'd plunged the country and the movement into took the better part of a month. And why? Because not one of them was willing to stand up and say clearly what, nevertheless, the country could see: that they'd screwed up, put themselves into a political deadend, that they'd taken as divine truth positions that turned out to be just wrong. How many people had to lose their jobs just to protect their egos?

It was in January 2003 that that lovely phrase, in some sense true but obviously designed to pass the buck, was coined: es que el paro se nos fue de las manos - the paro ran away from us. Little by little, you can see the CD leaders sliding to the same kind of argument this que el fraude se nos fue de las manos. Certainly it it was predictable it would from the moment they decided to turn the "fraude" into an article of faith rather than a hypothesis to be either confirmed or denied on the basis of the availabe evidence. (And no, an accumulation of suspicions is not the same thing as evidence.)

III. The invisible movement
Perhaps the most telling part of the opposition's reaction to Chavez's victory is, precisely, the fact that so many don't seem to believe evidence is even necessary to demonstrate fraud. For a good many escualidos, Chavez must have lost, axiomatically. Articles like Ricardo Mitre's "Teodoro is Wrong" show clearly an opposition that takes the notion of a clean chavista win as a simple impossibility "after five years of wear and tear." Fraud is assumed but not stated - hardly in need of stating, since, after all, everyone knows that 60% of venezuelans hate Chavez.

Mitre, like so many of us, can't believe in the 6 million chavista votes because he never saw the movement that mobilized them. That's hardly surprising, since the opposition media never showed it to him, and he certainly assumes that everything on Channel 8 is a lie.

The Patrulleros de Florentino were more or less ignored in the opposition media, but the reality is that in the days before the referendum, the country's barrios were comprehensibly canvassed, organized and mobilized by a small army of highly motivated chavista volunteers. In other words, while the opposition wasn't looking, Chavismo did what it had been promising to do for years but had never quite managed to pull off: it became a genuine, organized mass movement.

Faced with the real possibility of seeing Chavez replaced in power by the opposition, millions of his supporters worked their hearts out for him. Some of my contacts in Caracas warned me of this in the days before the vote, "the opposition has no idea what's happening in the barrios. It's amazing! Normal people in the barrios are taking this fight and making it their own. Comando Maisanta is just as clueless as they've always been, but you should see it, it's the people, the patrulleros on the street that are doing it. They have maps, they have voter rolls, they're doing it all on their own. The opposition is going to lose and they're not going to know what hit them."

Mitre can't see that movement. It was hidden from him. He can't understand a world where more people vote for Chavez now than were voting for him four years ago. It seems non-sensical to him. But he can't see it because he inhabits just one of Venezuela's two realities and has lost any contact with, any insight into the other. So he takes it as a matter of dogma that chavismo cannot have grown since 2000. And nothing could be worse for the opposition's future prospects than accepting as dogma ideas that are just plain wrong.

IV: Opposition Big Bang Now!
Sooner or later we'll have to put our wide-ranging, amply justified outrage at Chavez to one side and question the shortcomings on our side that brought us to this sad juncture. It is not Chavez's fault that we've acquiesced to being led by an organization like the CD - slow, unimaginative, bureaucratically clumsy, riven by hidden power struggles, rudderless, unable to plan, unable to take responsibility for mistakes, unable to lead, fundamentally ineffective. It is not Chavez's fault that we've allowed a constellation of IVth Republic dinosaurs to appoint themselves "opposition leaders", and we've gone along with it. It's not Chavez's fault that nobody in the CD leadership can make a speech without sounding like an AD secretary general circa 1985. (They may not be AD party members today, but culturally, they're adecos.) It is not Chavez's fault that our leaders don't know how to talk to normal Venezuelans.

My feeling is that for once in the history of humanity, the government is actually giving us good advice right now - and stubborn bastards we are, we're refusing to take it precisely because it's the government issuing it. But MariPili is right: it's time for the rank-and-file members of the opposition to work up some anger at the way our leaders have behaved and demand that they go get better acquainted with their pianos. To stay wedded to the current CD leadership and the current CD organizational structure is to guarantee a long, painful string of failures into the future.

We deserve better leadership than we're getting, folks. And unless we demand it, there's no chance we'll get it.

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