The Day After

If you were hoping that high abstention would “delegitimate” the government internationally, today’s foreign newspapers make for some depressing reading. Chavismo’s lead in the polls is the key reason cited for the Opposition pullout. The general consensus is that, faced with the prospect of humiliating defeat, the Opposition withdrew in a childish hissy-fit. Our concerns about CNE partiality, illegality, etc. etc. are given passing mention in articles focusing on the Oppo harakiri. Whether professional diplomats and others paid to track these things more closely will come away with a different perception is an open question – but hyperbolic Oppo predictions that “the world will have to open its eyes to the real nature of the regime” will have been sorely disappointed.

This is really not so surprising, considering the polling context. Choosing to abstain when you’re ahead sends a strong signal to the world – just ask Alejandro Toledo. But choosing to abstain when you’re getting clocked in the polls looks far too much like the weasel way out of a bind. This may be unfair – anyone following Venezuelan politics closely over the last few years knows exactly how opaque and partisan CNE has been – but then, politics is about effectiveness, not fairness. The opposition would understand this if it wasn’t so obdurate about swallowing its own hype.

Just to be clear, I don’t mean to criticize the Opposition’s decision to abstain – a decision I share. But I do mean to bring a level of sanity to the overblown expectations some had harbored that abstaining would somehow radically overhaul international perceptions of the Chavez government. Sumate’s line, that December 4th marks a critical inflection point in Venezuelan history, seems aggressively optimistic to me. The only real difference, as far as I can tell, is that chavismo will no longer need to amend the National Assembly rules of order every two weeks to do exactly what it wants.

If anything, overall international perceptions hardened yesterday. Setting aside the right and left-wing fringes – and lets face it: Carlos Alberto Montaner and Thor Halvorssen aren’t really any more influential than Ignacio Ramonet and Larry Birns – the way the world perceives the political dynamic in Venezuela is that we have a charismatic (if erratic and authoritarian) leftist in power facing a comically immature, by-and-large reactionary Opposition with a tin-ear for politics and a purely defensive stance. Nothing the world saw yesterday goes against the grain of this conventional wisdom.

That’s the bed the Opposition leadership made for us, and now we get to lie in it.

Fact is, there are no shortcuts. There is no way to change foreign perceptions until we start winning the political argument in Venezuela. I think this can be done. There are plenty of chavista weaknesses a smart, disciplined, optimistic, forward-looking, savvy opposition could exploit. Chavez may be popular, but his government isn’t. Even in the middle of an oil boom, polls show high levels of dissatisfaction with its performance. Chavistas resent its corruption as much as we do, or more. The internal contradictions in the Chavez organization have been simmering for years, and are bound to boil over sooner or later. Popular enthusiasm for the project can’t be sustained beyond sporadic spending sprees. People want an alternative.

Those of us who reject Chavez have a year to build that alternative. Now that the Oppo old guard has purged itself from parliament, we have a unique chance to do so freed from the dead-weight of Fourth Republic associations. Vamos a dale…