Bitter Medicine

Quico says: Last night, the Recall Referendum season was finally closed. Rosales’ concession marked the end of the long, barren, surreal period in the wake of the recall debacle when the opposition single-mindedly repeated to itself that only chavista foul play stood between us and power. The passing of that illusion made for a bitter moment for many of us…but, hard though it is to accept, I’m confident in time we’ll come to realize last night was good for us.

For the last two and a half years too much of the opposition has seen too little reason to change its message, to rethink what we said or how we said it in order to court support from a broader set of people. After all, the thinking went, we were already the majority! The real task – the only truly relevant task – was to figure out a way to pressure the government into recognizing that basic, over-riding fact.

Last night, as Manuel Rosales conceded the election, that entire mode of thinking became unsustainable. Two and a half years after the Recall Referendum, the collective penny finally dropped: yes the government plays appallingly dirty, but the measure of the trouble we’re in is that that’s not even our biggest problem. We have to build a majority first – only then does it make sense to worry about defending it.

This is a painful realization for a lot of us; one we’ve been postponing for too long. Really it’s a debate we needed to have in the second half of 2004. If we had, the headlines this morning might read a lot different.

But it’s better we learn this lesson late than never: our movement can’t generate a serious challenge to Chavez until we accept that we cannot build a majority simply by repeating our own deeply held beliefs to poorer Venezuelans who have heard them a million times and never quite bought into them.

Because, when it comes down to it, for all the barrio marches and Mi Negra spots, Rosales’s discourse wasn’t really about resonating with poorer voters. Too often, Rosales simply took rhetoric that resonates with middle class people and repeated it in a barrio setting. This, it seems to me, is too often what passed for appealing to the poor.

On the eve of the election, for instance, Rosales was still framing the choice voters would face as one between democracy and “Castro-Communism” – a differentiation that, whatever its merits, public opinion researchers long ago realized riles up middle class antichavistas only and leaves barrio audiences pretty much cold.

Even a slogan like “Atrevete” – with its implication that only fear would prevent you from voting for Rosales – reflected a set of distinctly middle class concerns and anxieties. Because when it comes down to it, it’s the TasconListed middle class that fears Chavez. Politically uncommitted poorer voters – the key to any opposition candidate’s chances – consistently express distaste for the divisiveness of Chavez’s discourse and anger at his willingness to spend oil money abroad; very rarely do they express fear of him. As any number of focus groups, barrio interviews and just plain common sense shows, the predominant feeling towards Chavez among the poor is not fear but a heady mix of admiration and gratitude. Atrevete? Dare to chuck out the guy giving you cheap groceries and free doctors? What sense does that make?

The long shadow of the Recall Referendum prevented Rosales and much of the opposition movement from quite grasping these realities. Believing we were already a majority, we saw little reason to change and broaden our discourse in order to build bridges to other constituencies.

But there is a silver lining. If we learn the right lessons from them, last night’s results could become a kind of road map to power for us. We need to think outside the mental ghetto Globovision has built for us, understand the need to create a broad alliance of the middle class and the disaffected poor in order to counter Chavez. And we need to grasp clearly that we can’t build that alliance by force-feeding middle class concerns down disaffected poor throats.

It’s become almost a cliché, but it’s true: Venezuela does not end today. Quite the contrary: if we learn the lessons of last night, the opposition’s long march to power begins now.