July 31, 2004

If Chavez Wins

The comments section has had some not-very-enlightening debate on how the opposition may react in case Chavez wins. With my last post, I wanted to make clear that it's not only an opposition problem, since chavismo contains its own radical fringe that may not accept a defeat. However, the problem is altogether dicier for the opposition, which seems less psychologically prepared for a loss, and less clear on what comes next if we do lose.

So what would we do if Chavez wins, as he may well? What should we do? To answer these questions, it's worth thinking back to September 2002, when the slogan Elecciones Ya! was born. It's taken 23 months of agitation, four signature gathering drives, the paro, the reparos, Plaza Altamira, zopotocientos foros in the Ateneo de Caracas and an astonishing organizational drive by the Coordinadora Democratica and Sumate to turn that slogan into a reality. For years, literally, we've been working towards August 15th. After all that, a defeat would be a bitter, bitter pill indeed.

But why was it, at the end of 2002, that the opposition started to congeal around the idea of the "electoral solution" to the crisis? Because it was clear to us that when people voted for Chavez in 1998, 99 and 2000 they were not told they were voting for a personalist, autocratic system, that they thought they were voting for a democratic government and would not have voted for Chavez had they known that, after 2000, he would veer as sharply to the autocratic left as he did. We were sure that, given a chance, the voters would remedy that mistake.

We also knew, after April 11th, that any attempt to expel Chavez from power that was not peaceful and democratic would further worsen the nation's division. That it would bring a government that a huge chunk of the country would consider illegitimate and would, therefore, only lead to further instability. We understood that the goal was not merely to get rid of Chavez, but to get rid of Chavez well. Or, as I was writing way back in October 2002,

It's critical that Chávez is replaced through an election. Aside from all the valid idealistic reasons for demanding democratic decision-making, the fact is that he does retain the support of a third of the population. Much more relevantly, he maintains the fervent support of about 20% of the electorate, the so-called chavistas duros (hard-core chavistas) who see him more as a mystical figure than a politician. If Chávez is pushed out of office unconstitutionally, by force, these people will never accept the outcome. At best, they'd be a constant thorn on the side of the next government, at worst they could start a civil war. It worries me that the most radicalized opposition figures out there don't seem to realize how much of a problem this is, and continue to push for extra-constitutional means of getting rid of the guy. Making sure that 20% feels included - or at least doesn't feel openly violated - by the transition to the post-chavista era will probably be the most important task of the next government. Let's hope they don't screw it up.

Only an election offers the possibility of a peaceful, democratic, and constitutional outcome to the crisis that is recognized as legitimate by all, because only in an election can the entire body politic participate. In a situation as badly polarized as Venezuela's, only the opinion of the whole can convince the minority of the legitimacy of accepting the majority's decision.

Today, Venezuelans can no longer say Chavez is an unknown quantity. The regime's extremism, sectarianism and authoritarianism are plain for all to see. Two years ago, the opposition gambled that, given this choice, people would rush to throw out the bum. Today, polls put that in doubt. It seems imaginable, now, that a majority of Venezuelans actually wants this kind of fuzzy-autocracy, or is satisfied enough with Chavez not to see it as a problem. If they win, well, I'll be forced to say I don't understand their ideology or values at all. But I have to respect them.

And, of course, if the vote goes smoothly and the observers sign off on a Chavez win, the opposition will not really have any choice but to respect the results either. All its bargaining power, credibility, and ascendancy over the armed forces, the international community, etc. will be up in smoke. A real Waterloo. If the opposition loses and loses decisively, its reaction will, in a sense, be quite beside the point - the Coordinadora will have no choice but to accept the results...if not in words, in deeds.

This is the beauty of the democratic system, folks. Los politicos proponen y la gente dispone. This is how it's supposed to be - and barring a catastrophic technical failure, this is how it will be.

July 30, 2004

Ramon Machuca threatens to cut off oil supplies to the US if the "yes" side wins

From Union Radio

Leaders from the pro-chavez oil workers' union, Sentraset, threatened to cut off oil supplies to the US and start a national stoppage if "on next aug. 15th a new fraud is committed" and the "yes" side wins the referendum.


El 28, el 28, el 28...

The real threat to the integrity of the referendum is not the possibility of fraud. It's not ballot stuffing or triple voting or voting from beyond the grave. The real threat is that, like in May 2000, CNE just won't be ready to hold the vote in time.

2.5 weeks to go, and the voter registry has just now been finalized, including huge numbers of questionable address-changes and millions of somewhat mysterious new voters. The SBC people have still not been given the REP information they need to program the voting machines. The thumbprint readers may or may not be able to cope with the pressure put on them. Francisco Carrasquero rejects the possibility of manual voting if the automated systems fail.

Paranoia, as we all know, is free. But this type of strategy of systematic delay has become a bit of a trademark for this CNE. Ever since August 2003, every obstacle imaginable has been trotted out to delay the effective activation of people's rights under the constitution's Article 72. This is the CNE that turned a simple signature drive into a 8-month long telenovela, the same CNE that sat on the electoral registry for a year before suddenly "discovering" thousands of dead people on the rolls and stood by passively as dozens of reparos tables instituted an operacion morrocoy, that has never really tried to hide its disdain for the possibility of a presidential recall.

It escapes no one's attention that, if the election system fails catastrophically on Aug. 15th, Chavez will have to hold out less than a week before his grip on power is extended until 2006. It would be the mother of all political crises. But then, as you see Jorge Rodriguez's determination to deploy a fingerprint-logging system that CNE's own tests show will not work, it's impossible not to wonder about hidden agendas.

July 27, 2004

About English, Spanish, Rhetorics and Rhythm

(For Quico and Coral, in the middle of my insomnia).

Coral wrote:

"I agree with Quico. In the USA, the finest, most enduring, historical manifestos and speeches have been written in notably simple English. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was written in language a baby could understand".

An example: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". Would a baby uderstand an expression as "Four score and seven years ago"? Wouldn´t "87 years ago" be more to the point? It´s as if we started, in a good Spanish speech about the 23 de enero de 1958, by saying: "ocho lustros y seis años atrás"... Not very clear, but it sounds so much better than "hace 46 años"...

Another example: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation". That is a little bit complicated, to say the least. 

To translate both statements you would need to go back in time, looking for Rhetorical expressions inside the language you are trying to translate them into. No easy task. 

The problem, a basic problem, I think, is of rhythm. As Fiona Shaw pointed out in a brilliant show about Shakespeare for the BBC, Shakespeare took the common language, identified its rhythm, and turned it into poetry. That is what explains why, even if the Gettysburg Address is not exactly simple, it can reach out to everyone who read it in the Lincoln Memorial, without even reading it aloud... and please believe me, I had to go up to the Lincoln Memorial alone, to read it and weep by myself before facing my prosaic family (and that version of the Imperial Roman Campo di Marte which the Mall is, with all its monuments to dead soldiers...). 

Now read this. "But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground". Feel the rhythm! It´s there! It jumps at you as you read it, grabs you by the throat, and doesn´t let you go until you are choking!

On the other hand, Spanish has always been a "prosaic" language. It´s not easy, to put it bluntly, to achieve what Shakespeare did in "blank verse" without going into rhyme! To reach a shimmer of the rhythm of English, Spanish has to turn to long resounding phrases. The effect is not always fortunate, I´ll give you that. But you work with the language you ara forced to. No way Venezuelans could write an agreement in perfect, rhytmical English, and be understood by common readers. Given that most Venezuelans seldom read good literature is Spanish (for some cultural reasons we favour foreign literatures, and in translation, mind you, over good Spanish prose), it is unfair to ask from them a perfect, moving speech, inspiring, rhythmically conceived and, at the same time, simple and pristine.

But again, that is our language. We inherited from Spain, as Americans from Shakespeare, a specific rhetorical (Quixotical?) rhythm. As a baby can "comprehend", without understanding clearly, Lincoln´s  "eight score and seven year ago", a not so bright Venezuelan reader can understand, in a glass darkly, what the CD agreement meant. Spanish is less clear than English, maybe, it requires more words to say the same thing, but it has its own traditions, heights and chasms. To all those shortcomings every Spanish speaker is used. It´s his language, and those shortcomings fit him like a big, mildly uncomfortable coat (just as Shakesperian English fits most American readers).

So, please, dear gals and guys, start by understanding that a language is a way to conceive the world (Borges wrote some line I would find for you as soon as possible, it´s over 5:00 a.m. and I´m simply spent), not just a vehicle to transmit ideas or an arbitrary repertoire of symbols. As a speaker of that language, you are forced into its limits, unless you have the power of a poet like Shakespeare to break or extend them. Granted no one on the CD is a Shakespeare, a Cervantes or even a Cadenas, try to value what they have done. Do as you do with Lincoln and Jefferson: go to meet them half-way. Do your part.         


July 26, 2004

The Style is the Message

or, Despair over an opposition that doesn't seem to have learned anything at all...

From the National Accord for Social Justice and Democratic Peace:

La reconciliación es más que un acto político: es la expresión concreta de la unidad nacional en torno a un proyecto de nación. Por ello el centro de la acción del gobierno de unidad nacional que proponemos estará en la atención privilegiada de los sectores cuya integración a la sociedad ha sido obstaculizada por un inaceptable proceso de exclusión. Especial impulso se le dará a la aplicación de una política social que le permita a la gente desarrollar sus capacidades para incorporarse al trabajo productivo. Generación de empleo y seguridad social y ciudadana son indispensables para la paz. Para ello es imperativo la recuperación y expansión del sector productivo del país, tanto público como privado.

"Reconciliation is more than a political act: it is the concrete expression of national unity around a national project. Therefore the center of the action of the government of national unity that we propose shall be in the privileged attention to the sectors whose integration into society has been obstructed by an unacceptable process of exclusion. Special emphasis shall be given to the application of social policies that allow people to develop their capabilities to incorporate themselves into a productive working life. Generating employment and social and citizen security is indispensible to peace. To this end, the recouperation and expansion of the country's productive sector, both public and private, is imperative."

I have two things to say about this paragraph and the Accord in general.

1-I agree deeply with the content.
2-It doesn't matter that the content is right, because these days in Venezuela, the style is the message.

Go back to the original Spanish. Read it for style rather than substance. Notice the profussion of palabras domingueras, the convoluted sentence structure. Try to imagine you live in a barrio and dropped out of school in the fifth grade. Could you understand it? Is this document accessible to you?

The sad thing about the opposition's elitism is how unconscious opposition leaders are of it. Again and again they've tried to write synthetic accords to communicate with the poor, again and again they produce a document that's about the poor but, probably, incomprehensible to most poor people.

I hate to say it, but reading the document I was grasped by this bizarre urge to vote No, by this deep sense of anger at realizing how far out of the pot opposition leaders are pissing, how detached from the popular mind they are, how much they unwittingly confirm the chavista attacks against them. Six years on, the opposition still hasn't grasped even the basics of why Chavez has had such success in communicating with the poor majority. Six years on, the opposition still finds it vaguely embarrassing to put out a document written in Spanish that everyone can understand. Six years on, opposition leaders still haven't realized that you can't convince someone who doesn't understand the language you use, still hasn't realized that the majority of voters did not go to university. Six years on, the opposition still hasn't found a voice most people can understand.

I read this accord and, frankly, it makes me scared. It makes me scared not just because it suggests the opposition could lose - but also because of what might happen if it wins.

The opposition vows to fight social exclusion, but it does so using a language that excludes the socially excluded.

This is the drama at the center of the opposition's Communication Gap - six years on, we still haven't realized that excluded Venezuelans resent their symbolic (/linguistic) exclusion as much as their economic exclusion. They resent having to listen to politicos who use words they can't understand as much as they resent not having enough to eat. And they will continue to vote for Chavez in their millions not because he has mitigated their economic exclusion (which he hasn't), but because he has ended their symbolic exclusion - their exclusion from being able to understand the language of power (/of the powerful).

Because Chavez talks to them, not about them. Because he works hard to speak in a way everyone can understand, in a way that makes everyone feel part of the audience, that makes everyone feel aludido.

Six years on, the leaders on our side still haven't learned the trick. Still they conceive of politics as a kind of game played by the elite and for the elite - or at least a game played using a language and a style accessible only to the elite. A document like this excludes the poor at the most basic level - at the level of making it impossible for them to even understand what the hell the opposition is even talking about, the meaning of the words and sentences we use.

And then, then we're baffled when chavistas say we want to go back to the old way of doing things.

It pains me to write it, folks, but on a symbolic level, they're on to something big.