November 8, 2007

Be the reconciliation you preach

Katy says: The violence we are currently seeing on the streets of Venezuela should surprise no one. Last Sunday, Pres. Chavez ordered his followers to crack down on student protesters, and that is exactly what they are doing. To accomplish this goal, they are ensured a fresh supply of weapons and full immunity from all levels of the State.

Obviously, protesting in Venezuela is becoming an increasingly dangerous proposition. However, there is another imminent danger - that we fall into the same cycle of violence. Few things work better for chavismo than forcing our side to radicalize, and it seems as if the government is following the same script we have seen dozens of times before.

At this stage in the game, though, we need to be very careful with the message we convey. We are less than a month away from a crucial election, and adopting a radical position would simply turn away the moderate swing-voters that hold the key to winning.

I realize that right now might seem like the least appropriate moment to be talking about reconciliation, what with our young people getting shot at. However, it's in times like these when our true mettle is tested, when our true nature comes to the surface. It's important that people in the opposition as well as moderate chavistas see that our nature is peaceful, just like we say it is.

Of all groups, moderate chavistas who dislike the Constitutional reform figure as they key constituency right now. According to recent polls, these are people who are not yet convinced of voting against Chavez because they like some of the things the government does.

So while we contemplate with horror how students are attacked, let's keep our heads cool and remember a few key ideas:

1. We offer reconciliation and peace, chavismo offers violence. This idea may sound like a cliché, but it should be the core of our message, and this has practical implications. Restraint is the key here. If we defend ourselves using violence, we can no longer confidently say that we are for reconciliation. And if we are dishonest about reconciliation, we have very little message left. In other words, one of the single most important reasons in our arsenal to convince people to vote "No" hinges on taking it like flower-eating pacifists and turning the other cheek.

The developments so far are promising. Not only did UCV students yesterday show remarkable judgment in not responding to violence, they also canceled a march today to cool things off a bit. This prevents further skirmishes where we may have a lot to lose in the eyes of public opinion.

2. Recognize that some chavistas are honest idealists fighting real injustice. It is not enough to simply back off from responding to chavistas. We need to continue reaching out to moderate chavistas who are just as horrified as we are about the current events, who may oppose the reform but still feel they would not vote against it because it would amount to voting against Chavez.

In order to get their attention, we must recognize that many of these people are honest in their beliefs, and that we can live with, tolerate and even respect them. We must struggle to find common ground. For example, neither them nor us want to go back to what we had before. Both of us can agree there was, and still is, a tremendous amount of injustice and exclusion in our society. Until you believe these things, until you are able to see past the gunmen and discover the moderates, you cannot become an instrument of reconciliation, and any promises to be one will come off as dishonest.

3. Nobody who hates Chavez and chavistas can preach reconciliation honestly. I thought about this one for a while, but I believe it is true. If you hate, you cannot reconcile. The reason is simple: reconciliation will require in the future an arrangement where chavistas and us can coexist, where the possibility of civilized interactions between Chavez and our leaders is still possible. Yet hatred gets in the way of that, making it extremely difficult and unlikely.

Imagine for a moment a future where you are President and Chavez is no longer in office but still a relevant political figure. Is your first inclination to extract revenge for all that has happened? Is it your goal to wipe chavismo off the political face of the nation? Or do you seek to find a way to coexist with chavismo, its legacy and its followers without sacrificing your own ideas? Do you look for a middle ground, or would you see that as a betrayal to our cause?

I think everyone who participates in our struggle must ask themselves these questions. The answer to them will say a lot about how honest we are as agents of reconciliation, a key element in becoming a majority and saving our country.

Go the extra mile to be the peace that you preach, but don't take it from me, take it from one of my heroes.