October 9, 2007

How to debate when you agree

Katy says:

Dear Quico,

Sorry it's taken me so long to reply to your previous post, but I wanted to take my time before answering what, in essence, is a debate in which both parties agree. Fundamentally, we both agree on how frustrating it is to see our side caught up in a useless debate on whether or not to participate. As for the opposition media, we both agree that it does more harm than good. So what is there to debate?

Lots. Because where you see reason for despair, I see an opportunity to make us stronger, to make our positions more coherent, to test our tolerance.

I've been on the record before as saying that I don't think the elimination of Chavez's term limits is necessarily a bad thing. My approach to the current state of rigor mortis on our base electorate sort of points to that direction - namely, that until the Chávez phenomenon has run its course, we're better off not winning.

Don't get me wrong - obviously any legitimate opportunity to unseat Chavez should be taken and exploited to the max. However, all losses point to something, and in our case losses point to the flaws in our side. Until we learn the lessons from the bitter medicine that chavismo has supplied us with, we're better off in the opposition. The country isn't, but we are.

Take, for instance, April 13th, 2002. On that day, the opposition movement should have learned a few things. One of them is that Chavez has the honest, yet a bit fanatical, support of a large minority of the population. Another is that we should never rely on the military to solve our problems. And finally, we should have learned that unseating governments by unconstitutional means is the kiss of death which takes away legitimacy from all attempts to make our country a better, freer place to live. Can we honestly say we have learned these lessons? Some of us have, others of us have not.

In August of 2004 we learned another lesson. That day we should have learned that unity in the opposition is not a panacea, that the way the media paints a picture is not always the way the country is. We should have learned that the international community is not going to come and save us, and that we should never, ever trust Chavez's electoral authorities. Finally, we should have learned that there is a non-significant mass of people who chavismo has enfranchised, people who had never come out to vote but decided to do so for the first time because they honestly believe in the process.

I think we were certainly the victims of electoral shenanigans that day. I also think that it didn't make a difference in the final outcome, and that international observers knew about this and basically ok'ed a flawed referendum by assuming that this was a case of a broken clock actually getting the time right. Can we honestly say we have learned these lessons?

In December of 2005 we declined to participate in Congressional elections. That day we should have learned that you can't prove fraud if you don't force the other side to cheat. We should have also learned that massive abstention may backfire on us, and that perhaps the only side we end up punishing with our actions is our own. Have we learned all this?

I think that abstaining that day may have been a mistake, but it was the only politically viable option at the time given how the CNE was caught lying about the secrecy of the vote. I also think that people have a hard time believing this was the only reason parties decided to not participate.

In 2006, the lesson should have been that no matter how enthusiastic the crowds or how feverishly you campaign, you can't defeat an electoral behemoth like Chavez with a disorganized, improvised campaign. We don't need to think back much to remember that, during last year's World Cup, with the elections five months away, the opposition still didn't know who their candidate was going to be. We should have also learned that opinion polls, more often than not, get things right. Did we learn all this?

My point in writing this laundry list of mistakes made and things unrealized is not only to convey the idea that, until we learn these lessons, we won't get rid of Chavez. What I'm believing more and more these days is that until these lessons are learned, we don't deserve to get rid of Chavez.

I'm convinced that Chavez and chavismo have changed Venezuelan politics, yet Chavez seems to be the only politician who has understood this. The poor in Venezuela have long been neglected, a fact few people dispute these days. And Chavez has brought about a sense of empowerment in people previously disenfranchised. Whether this empowerment is real or not is beside the point - what matters is that they feel empowered.

I'm convinced that this thing that has been engendered will make people realize, sooner rather than later, that chavismo goes against the very surge of citizen power that it thinks it has brought about. I'm also convinced that, until chavismo runs out of financial weapons to feed its populist project, we're better off getting ready for the true battle.

It would have been unthinkable for a project like Chavez's to gain power in the middle of the 1970s. But during that time, the seeds of what we have now began to grow. Chavez and his minions were in hibernation, waiting for their time, and it came in the 1989-1992 period. Perhaps now is our time to hibernate as well, metaphorically speaking.

One of the lessons we still have not learned - and here I include you, Quico, first and foremost - is to appreciate our diversity. Yes, it is frustrating that we still have abstentionists in our camp. But until we learn to embrace that debate, until we learn to see that it's not, in your words, "fucking hopeless", we will never be electable. After all, how can we convince the country that we are the only way to reconciliation if we can't even tolerate the people in our side who think differently? Only when we learn to deal with the Marta Colomina's and Roberto Giusti's of our side, to the point of them being able to tolerate us, will we be ready to take the lead.

Quite frankly, as much as abstentionists may annoy me from time to time, I understand their point and I see where they are coming from. Abstention is a phenomenon, it is an integral part of the psyche of our electoral base in the same way that the Tupamaros are an integral part of the psyche of chavismo's base. But Chávez doesn't attack the Tupamaros, he sort of tolerates them, tries to rein them in. That is how you deal with the radicals on your side whose support you need.

(And for all my abstentionist friends out there - don't take it personally, but you *are* radical; we love you, but let's call a spade a spade)

I have said this before and I really believe it - I will outlive this. If chavismo defeats us ten, twenty or thirty more times, fine, it had to happen. Had Germany gotten rid of Hitler in 1938, the world would be a very different place, but perhaps Germany wouldn't be the civilized, modern country it is now, built on the rubble of its own people's madness. History has its pace, and we should learn to read it and not force it. In the meantime, the only productive thing we can do is participate as much as we can and develop our grassroots network. We've been given the wonderful gift of defeat - let's use it to wisen up.