Burning bridges leaves you an island

If there’s one thing we should’ve learned from watching Chávez tumble his way to a dictatorship, it’s that there’s a price to pay for the things you say. It seems that some in the opposition lack the strategic sense to know when to shut up.

I was thinking about this while reading the communiqué published by several hundred prominent opposition intellectuals and activists and sent to OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. While everything in it is true, and while the language has obviously been tersed down from what was probably a more indignant first draft, I think this document is a mistake. Frankly, it’s ruder and more condescending than it needs to be. It also fails to note the key point made in these reports: that current voting technology in Venezuela does not safeguard the secrecy of the vote.

When the OAS monitoring report came out, the Venezuelan government was furious about it. While the report considered the actual election process clean (rightly so – after all, there’s no need to cheat when there is only one party competing), it also pointed out the many irregularities that prompted opposition parties to withdraw, including the damning recognition that the technology currently in place in the Venezuelan system compromised the secrecy of the vote.

When Mr. Insulza talked about this in a summit in Bolivia, Chávez went after him like the rabid dog that he is. Insulza then made his best effort to tone down his rhetoric and cool down the government hotheads.

This communiqué is a response to an interview Insulza gave to the influential Chilean daily El Mercurio. I read the interview, and although I was disappointed that he didn’t give more weight to the numerous irregularities, it was clear to me that he was trying to get on the government’s good side in order to continue working on fixing the flaws the Mission witnessed.

It’s sad that so many in the opposition don’t understand that for the OAS to play any constructive role in Venezuela, its leadership must be seen as impartial by the government. If the government does not like the OAS negotiator, then it will simply not participate in any sort of constructive dialogue.

Let’s think of the opposite scenario: suppose that Insulza had publicly restated all the irregularities noted in the OAS document. Suppose, also, that Insulza had gone as far as saying that a Parliament without an opposition is not legitimate, and that therefore Venezuela must restore credibility by accepting the OAS Mission’s recommendations. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Chávez would have reacted virulently, denounced him as an agent of imperialism and started maneouvering to end his tenure in the OAS. It’s not far-fetched to believe Chávez has that kind of power, given how he’s become the hemisphere’s Santa Claus. So the opposition would be left with the support of a jobless Insulza, and that’s of no use to our cause.

The only way international bodies can be of any use in the establishment of democracy in Venezuela is if the current government does not see them as agents of the opposition. Sometimes that is going to require that the middle-man show Chávez some respect.

Denouncing this as treason or implying Insulza sold out to Chavez is an exercise in counter-productive reductionism, which will only deepen the opposition leadership’s amateurish image. What Insulza is doing is diplomacy at work. Let’s remember that Insulza managed to convince the British to let Pinochet go home, and he was the key architect in negotiating with Chile’s far right for the dismantling of the most un-democratic aspects of Chile’s constitution. He’s no chavista, and he knows what he’s doing. Now, can the opposition be a little more constructive and not get in its own way?