December 27, 2003

Radicales y comeflores

Most newspaper readers in the English speaking world know alarmingly little about Venezuela in general, so it's hardly a surprise that their notions about Venezuela's opposition movement remain vague and contradictory.

On the one hand, almost every newspaper article on Venezuela has some throw-away phrase about Venezuela's "diverse and disjointed opposition, a loose coalition of businessmen, labor unions, NGOs and political parties." At the same time, when I talk to Europeans about Venezuela, it's clear that they have a vague notion of the opposition as a kind of undifferentiated mass of nasty rich assholes, reactionary, heartless and antidemocratic.

I find that this basic misunderstanding of what the opposition is, how it's made up, and how it operates, makes it very hard to hold any kind of sophisticated conversation about Venezuela. Because it's true, the opposition is remarkably diverse, fragmented, and in some ways chaotic. There isn't one clear leader, and it isn't clear that any one leader could ever lead the whole of it. And it is true that a substantial part of the opposition is prey to all of the same vices that rendered Venezuelan democracy disfunctional from the mid 70s to 1998.

What is lost in the standard journalistic vision is the key current within the opposition, a current I consider myself a part of, with a long if untold history of citizen activism, democratic idealism, and an earnest desire for real, systemic change. This section of the opposition - which I call the Democratic Movement, to differentiate it from the anachronistic pols and the opportunists - is known in Venezuela as the "comeflores" - the flower-eaters, literally, for our moderate posture and our stress on basic democratic values like tolerance, open debate, and respect for those we disagree with.

This label - comeflor - actually started as a slur pointed by the radical wing of the opposition towards us. The radicales, like all radicals everywhere, think of us as pathetically naive idealists, cannon-fodder for the totalitarian designs of our opponents. As far as they can see, the logical response to a government like Chavez's is to prepare for war. For our part, we believe that the logical response to a government like Chavez's is to build the peace, one day at a time, one act of tolerance at a time.

Comeflorismo antecedes chavismo. Elias Santana was organizing neighborhood committees to empower communities to exercise their democratic rights long before anyone in the country knew who Hugo Chavez was. Andres Velasquez was unionizing steelworkers when Chavez was a cadet in the military academy. Teodoro Petkoff was leading the democratization of the country's leftist movements when Chavez was in High School. Chavista mythology not withstanding, the struggle to truly democratize Venezuela is both far older and far more ideologically coherent than chavismo could ever hope to be.

Me, I think we should own the label comeflores. Sure it was meant as a slur, but what a nice slur! The label places us squarely in the tradition of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of Mandela and of the Czech velvet revolutionaries and the anti-Milosevic movement in Serbia. Each of them faced an opponent more ruthless and brutal than Chavez, each faced an opponent with a far bigger body-count than our opponent has. Each understood that the time to start to build their democracies is right now, and the way to do so is to put into practice the ideals we seek to establish in the government.

Little by little, this view has gone from the naive fringe to the center of the opposition movement. People like Elias Santana, once seen as a hopeless dreamer, have been vindicated again and again by the turn of events. Santana - the closest thing we have to an MLK figure - is today perhaps the intellectual father of the opposition. His quiet activism has left a real trace in the way more and more Venezuelans see the struggle against Chavista autocracy. His endlessly, tediously repeated motto - "sin violencia, dentro del marco de la ley" (without violence, within the law) - has gone from fringe to center in less than two years. If the current crisis passes off without significant violence, the country will owe him and those who've taken on his message a huge debt of gratitude.

This is not to say that the shrill voices of reaction have been silenced. They haven't. They exist, and they are a threat. Every non-violent democratic movement has had to contend with a similar fringe. And the successful ones have defeated it through the strength and effectiveness of non-violent tactics. I believe Venezuelans can do the same.

So here's to Elias Santana, and Chuo Torrealba and Leonardo Carvajal and Teodoro Petkoff and Ruth Capriles and Luis Ugalde and Vladimiro Mujica all those who've worked tirelessly since 1998 to show Venezuela that it can re-join the community of free nations without a bloodbath. They haven't quite pulled it off yet. But they're closer than they've ever been, and they're getting closer each day. Ultimately, they are the country's best and only shot at a decent future. Should they fail, the country's choice will be between the authoritarianism of the left and the authoritarianism of the right.

They must not fail.

December 21, 2003

Perceptive as usual...

...Erica Stephan writes in to let me know I totally missed the point in my last entry...

From "Erica Stephan" Date Sat, 20 Dec 2003 9:03 PM
To "Francisco Toro"
Subject Re: Why am I blogging?

for the record, I don't think your latest entry really addressed what for me is the key venezuelan question these days: Realistically, if an opposition candidate were elected president, would that regime be any better than Chavez's as far as respecting the equality of all persons before the law? Would that regime treat "deposed" chavistas with scrupulous fairness, would it change the constitution - if it did so - respecting a truly democratic process, would it give substance to the Chavez-era programs to help the poor like schools and credit schemes rather than tossing them out as retrograde populism? Would it institute land reform that worked? If your answer is yes, you've got some convincing to do, since the dominant voices in the opposition seem - to my amateur eye at least - seem mostly interested in booting Chavez at any cost. And if your answer is no, why should people interested in democracy support a recall effort?

FT sez:

In a sense, of course you are right. I can't guarantee that the post-Chavez era will come any closer to realizing the vision I set out than the pre-Chavez era. Certainly, any number of opposition dinosaurios give little room for hope. From Rafael Marin to Medina Gomez to Antonio Ledezma to Salas Romer himself, the opposition is full of "leaders" who don't really seem to get it at all, in my view. So the uncomfortable bed-mates problem is a real one, of course it is.

However, for every Rafael Marin in the opposition we have a Teodoro Petkoff, for every Ledezma we have an Elias Santana, or a Jesus Torrealba, or an Andres Velasquez, or a Manuel Cova. The opposition obviously has something of a split personality, yes, but one side of that split is made up of people of impecable democratic credentials, of considered views, of a deep commitment to tolerance.

Other than Greg Wilpert, I challenge you or anyone else to come up with a corresponding list of Chavistas who are willing to stick their necks out for the basic principles of the rule of law and the republican form of government. It will be a short list, an exceedingly short list, for the simple reason that all those who at one point dared to question anything that Chavez has said or done - from Jorge Olavarria to Pablo Medina to Javier Elechiguerra - were all promptly kicked out of the chavista movement, banished for what amount to thought-crimes against the carismatic leader's total control of his movement.

I do think that the opposition has changed, and continues to change and evolve. It's been a steep learning curve. In April 2002, at the time of the coup, the movement was barely five months old. We had no historical guides, no rule-book, no pre-fabricated idea about how to proceed against a democratically elected autocrat. And we made lots of mistakes, all of us, in thinking that Chavez's constant flouting of the constitution somehow excused us doing the same.

Two horrendous political train wrecks later, we're the wiser for it. The coup and the 2002-2003 general strike were, everyone now understands, truly disastrous failures, not only of tactics but of principles. It has taken a lot of time and debate and internal wrangles and angry diatribes for the opposition to come to understand that you can't protest the flouting of the law by flouting the law.

But today, the movement is closer to understanding that than it ever has been. The recall strategy in itself - scrupulously constitutional and carefully monitored by both sides, international observers, and CNE - is a powerful symbol in itself of this change in mentality. Teodoro Petkoff writes beautifully about this (Read Tal Cual, I beg you!) The fast-tracks and shortcuts and extraconstitutional hanky-panky strategies are really out of favor now, and the opposition's new maturity has been demonstrated again and again in its handling of the flood of chavista provocations on the days preceeding, during, and following the signature gathering drive. My point is that people do change, and so do political movements. They evolve, they learn, slowly, collectively, they do learn. In my view, this is the single most heartening sign in Venezuelan politics today.

Can the movement backslide? Of course it can. Do I have a crystal ball that allows me to guarantee that it will do the things you ask of it? I don't, and I can't. All I can do is guarantee that if it does backslide, I will be lining up behind Teodoro and Manuel Cova and Andres Velasquez and Elias Santana and Chuo Torrealba to fight for the same principles that we have all been fighting for since we started looking at the world in political terms.

What the opposition offers is a possibility for moving forward, a chance to solve a 173 year old problem. Chavismo, through its actions, has demonstrated again and again that it cannot, will not, and does not want to cut the gordian knot of arbitrary state power. If, like me, you think that solving that problem is really the key to solving all the rest of Venezuela's problems, then I think it's imperative to support the opposition, this opposition, warts and all, all the while keeping the eye firmly on the ball, reiterating again and again the point of this entire exercise.

With the opposition, success is far from guaranteed. But with Chavez, failure is guaranteed.