August 6, 2008

The Long View

Quico says: After a (too-long) hiatus, Lucia decided to write us a post. Hurrah!

Lucia says: Expressing optimism about Venezuela’s political opposition can be a lonely proposition. But we’ve finally reached a point where a little hope may be justified – perhaps for the first time since Chávez was elected. And it was the victory of the No! vote in December 2007 that made this moment possible.

But let’s start earlier, with Chávez’s ascent to power, which burnt the existing political system to the ground. Even for those horrified by Chávez, it was hard to weep for AD and COPEI. The clichés -- rotten, out-of-touch, selfish -- were well-earned.

Yet think for a moment about other countries with two-party systems: if those two parties were destroyed after decades of dominance, how long would it take for effective new political parties to rise from the ashes? Could forces (new and old) with long histories of antipathy create a coalition in the face of a common threat? Would that process look pretty?

Well, it certainly hasn’t been pretty in Venezuela. The process by which new parties have emerged, and reached tentative accommodations with older powers, has been painful and riddled with mistakes.

After the 1998 tsunami, the immediate power vacuum in opposition land was filled by those who had long sat at the table anyway – the media, the money, and the anti-Chávez unions – some of whom had noble intentions, none of whom wanted their comfy status quo threatened. And as young, new political actors and the remnants of the old order struggled to counter the power of Chavismo, there was no question that the people with access to the airwaves and the cash were in charge.

But most of these folks were unwilling to understand the new world in which they were operating. They wanted to use rhetoric and strategies that appealed to their base, ignored the strength of Chávez’s support, and – perhaps most crucially – left out the center, those who were wary of Chávez but just as wary of radical tactics, or of anyone/anything that reeked of the past.

This new opposition tried non-electoral strategies first, which conveniently did not require broad political consensus. Then, reluctantly, they turned back to the ballot box in the Recall Referendum. But still, they were ill-equipped to deal with a changed electorate – the opposition was unwilling to support the new and (at the time) very popular Misiones, but also unwilling to offer attractive alternatives. Unfortunately, no lessons were learned from this failure to court the Ni-Ni’s, because cries of fraud replaced the soul-searching that normally follows an electoral beating.

Years in the wilderness followed, with opposition elites either ambivalent about or downright hostile to further participation in elections. And when you don’t have elections, why, you don’t need the voters, do you? In this distorted universe, Marta Colomina and Alberto Federico Ravell mattered more than the millions of non-polarized voters out there looking for a fresh alternative.

For many long years, and especially as it pursued non-electoral strategies, the opposition has been captive to its most radical elements. They couldn’t even acknowledge the need to win new supporters -- for a long time, and for many opposition elites, just admitting that the opposition did not have already have majority support was tantamount to treason. Those opposition leaders who did understand reality, and accordingly wanted to court the center, were taunted as “comeflores” and considered too “weak” to lead. Those who tried both red meat for the elites and the activists along with the occasional focus on reconciliation or issues for the Ni-Ni’s found themselves with support from neither.

But the December victory changed everything. The opposition was (typically) divided about participating, if you recall – with the reactionaries (Súmate among them, sadly) making noises that sounded an awful lot like the pre-Asamblea elections withdrawal. The passionate students played a crucial role here, shaming them into taking part.

And then, lo and behold, victory.

A strange one, true, and it’s hard to claim that the CNE behaved honorably, but nonetheless, a victory – for Venezuela, and for those who always believed that even when the terrain for elections is lopsided and fraught with difficulty, it’s better to participate than to abstain.

Especially if, you know, you consider yourself a democrat.

Things have changed. Time was when it was an article of faith that accurate polling and contestable elections are impossible in Venezuela. Remember the fear factor? Now, opposition elites are relying on polls to select their own candidates! No longer can actual Venezuelan voters be left out of the equation.

For many of the candidates this year -- at least those who are running outside of opposition bastions -- this should prove to be a moderating influence. Freed from the energy-zapping abstention/participation debate, they can finally talk about the things voters care about. One hopes that, as the painful, lengthy, self-centered process of choosing unity candidates draws to a close, they will move quickly to do just that – new and growing discontent with the regime certainly provides plenty of fodder, and plenty of issues everyone except hard-core Chavistas can rally around.

So, the next time you’re engaging in the popular, lazy sport of opposition-bashing, spare a thought for the difficulties opposition politicians have faced. Not only have many of them started from scratch, not only are they politicians in a country with especial disdain for those in public life, not only do they face false charges and persecution, not only are they opposed by an unscrupulous, charismatic incumbent awash in oil profits – they’ve also had to ask, all too often: do we cater to those calling for blood, or to those who want unity and reconciliation? Do we appeal to voters and get demoted by the powers-that-be, or do we appeal to the opposition activists and alienate the Venezuelan middle?

It seems more and more that these questions are out of date. Finally, finally, the radicals have lost some of their power. And whatever happens come November, this can only be good.