Right Guard?

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Reading my review of Randy Brewer’s book on  The New Republic, Alejandro Tarre demanded a right of reply.

Isaiah Berlin once wrote that, “as an intellectual discipline, it is boring to read our allies or those who coincide with our point of views. It’s more interesting to read our enemies, those who really put to test the solidity of our ideas. I’ve always been interested is finding out the weaknesses of my ideas so that I can correct them or abandon them.”

I often think of this when I read Caracas Chronicles. I consider Juan and Quico major allies. I agree so much with them that my mind becomes lazy and complacent. Unlike Berlin, though, I would never say reading Juan and Quico is “boring.” On the contrary: since I discovered them, I am pretty sure I’ve read everything they’ve written.

This little exchange, then, is the exception. Both our minds were put to work in this little exchange. Nothing Isaiah Berlin wrote can be taken lightly.

The exchange that follows is below:

Alejandro: Francisco, in your review I think you are too harsh to the opposition’s old guard, and to a lesser extent, too generous to the new guard.

As you know, you can find many valuable people within the old guard, and the new guard is not without its defects. We both agree that the opposition today is better than the opposition five years ago. The main reason behind this is that the opposition has adopted a democratic strategy of unity, institutional pressure and electoral participation. The old guard, with all its defects, has had an important role in this process of rectification. Teodoro Petkoff, for example, had a major role steering the opposition’s strategy in the right direction (and not only through Tal Cual). Ramón Guillermo Aveledo had a key role in the MUD’s successful effort to hammer out a single list of candidate for the legislative elections. Every single opposition party made concessions to achieve unity. Without the hard work of the old guard the opposition would have less deputies, governors, mayors. (Preferring primaries to the unitary pact should not blind us to the merits of the pact).

On the other hand, the new guard is not perfect. In fact, the new guard -together with the old- was involved in some of the catastrophic mistakes the opposition made during Chávez’s first term.

Which leads me to a second point. You draw a very neat line between the new and old guards. Pablo Pérez has strong ties to the old guard. I bet you Omar Barboza will be a key player in his campaign if he runs for president. If he wins, the old adecos dinosaurs of UNT would probably have a big influence in his government. María Corina Machado constantly seeks the advice of the old guard.

Members of the old guard have also “cut their political teeth organizing at the grassroots.” Whether you like or not César Pérez Vivas, Antonio Ledezma and Enrique Mendoza, you cannot deny they have base support. Without their efforts, our chances for a democratic transition in 2012 would be poorer.

One last point. Even if we assume that the ideal scenario is the new guard totally displacing the old dinosaurs, this is not going to happen before 2012. Whoever runs for president next year, should try to build bridges with the old guard. This, in my opinion, has been Leopoldo López’s biggest mistake. You have to bring this people in to increase your chances of winning against Chávez.

On our part, we should be careful about encouraging a divide between new and old politicians. The stakes are too high.

Francisco: On some level, your critique is obviously right: the split between Old Guard and New Guard I used to frame my discussion of Brewer-Carías’s book is undoubtedly simplisitic, a very rough approximation of a far messier reality. That, I’m afraid, is the nature of the beast when you’re writing for a foreign audience: within what are often very harsh word-count limits you have to give your reader some bearings, a rough-and-ready navigational chart to political waters they know little-to-nothing about. You need, in other words, to equip them with some heuristics to begin to make sense of a political scene they really don’t know anything about, and it’s in the nature of heuristics to be imprecise. When you’re limited to 1200 words, that’s inevitable.

The question isn’t whether this rough approximation will add to the understanding of Venezuelan affairs of a major Venezuelan politics junkie like Alejandro Tarre: even I’m not that optimistic! The question is whether it’s useful in deepening the sense of Venezuelan reality for someone who perhaps hasn’t heard anything about Venezuela since hearing that Chávez said the UN General Assembly podium smelled like sulphur.

I think it does. If there’s one thing that the Chávez government has been effective at it’s stigmatizing its opponents. The image of the 2002-2003 vintage opposition both inside Venezuela and out is simply awful. And for good reason. Now, Chávez has invested substantial resources getting the kinds of people who read The New Republic to believe that the opposition he has today is identical to the Carmona/Gonzalez Gonzalez/Patricia Poleo style reactionaries who led the Maximalist Gambit era. And that’s wildly misleading.

It’s true that framing that shift as matter of Old Guard vs. the New Guard is a rough and ready approximation at best. Some erstwhile reactionaries have indeed stepped away from some of the more barren reactionary postures, effectively becoming honorary members of the New Guard: after all, Antonio Ledezma works out of the Alcaldía Metropolitana these days, not the Comando Nacional de la Resistencia. Reality is, almost by definition, much more complicated than any heuristic you use to capture it.

But the point remains: when they sit down to read my review, most of TNR’s audience will have had no inkling at all about the dynamics that have transformed the Venezuelan opposition over the last six years. By the time they finish with it, they will have an immensely enriched sense of key elements of that story. That’s all I was aiming for, and I don’t think I did too bad.

Alejandro: After these two commentaries I think I can pinpoint, with laser precision, the nature of our disagreement. It’s clear we both agree on an underlying reality. We just disagree on the necessity to frame this reality by pitting the Old vs. New Guard. You think it’s a helpful approximation for a foreign audience. I think it is misleading.

1 COMMENT

  1. I agree with Alejandro, it is misleading. On the one hand it perpetuates the profiling of our reality as a simple banana-republic one: no complexities, two clearly marked fields. On the other hand, it sort of underestimates your TNR readership as a clump of simple-minded and uncritical followers whose only difference with the readers of Time Magazine is the extra syllable in the words they can read.
    Quico, I can see the point of your strategy, but for someone who chastises journalism in Venezuela for being obtuse, mushing the portrayal of our situation by throwing out anything good that Punto Fijo may have seems at best dissonant.

    • I never said I had one! Kik; and yes, TNR does not allow for The New Yorker- or The Atlantic-style articles, but there should be a way…

    • FT: I had no trouble understanding Fombona. May I suggest that you reread Isaiah Berlin’s comment, courtesy AT? Then re-read it again, given your difficulties in understanding contradictory ideas. Doing so will significantly reduce some of that glib factor, which you think is so cool, and the odd “remarkably ill-tempered screed”. Wait! Isn’t that how you characterized, without an example, Brewer-Carias book to the readers of The New Republic, when you fulfilled your responsibility to inform and guide their readers?

  2. A nice anecdote comes to mind.

    There I was, sitting on the back of a van, on route to the next rally, talking to Gustavo Lopez, aka “el hombre del maletin.” I remember expressing my frustration at the general neglect, of this and all other candidates/politicos, about effectively communicating our message to a foreign audience. Call it TNR, or any other, it matters little.

    Gustavo heard me, patiently. When I finish my rant, he said: “aquí lo que estamos es buscando votos compadre. A quién le importa lo que piensen esos coños, por alla en EEUU o Europa, acaso ellos votan aqui no joda? No sea toche, no se preocupe por esas mariqueras!”

    In a way, Gustavo Lopez is absolutely right. FT’s worries about what TNR readers may gather in 1200 words is entirely and utterly pointless. Trying to ingrate oneself with people that have no say in our affairs is beyond irrelevant, and framing the debate along meaningless lines that cast everything from the past as evil is to play by the Chavez book.

    So I am with my tocayo on this one.

    • Since when did providing analysis become “trying to ingrate oneself”?

      Alek, unless you’re also in favor of the Chavista ban on foreign contributions to NGOs, this attitude — who cares what they think? – is sort of a shallow response.

    • If and when Chavez falls, any opposition government will need friends abroad to help it confront the myriad of issues it will have to confront. It’s important for international public opinion to start looking at Venezuela’s opposition for what it is, not for what it appeared to be in 2002-2003.

      Gustavo Lopez is being very short-sighted.

    • I do agree with Alek that if your only goal is to get rid of Chávez, targeting foreign perceptions is pretty much the wrong way to go about it.

      But that’s a little bit like saying that if your goal is to read a book, buying a sandwich is entirely and utterly pointless. True, as far as the observation goes, but oddly out of place…in a post about sandwiches!

    • @ Lucia: providing analysis by taking a dump on the old guard, and tow chavista line in the meanwhile, is a very deep thing to do, isn’t it?

      @ Juan: that argument of your Juan, has left me speechless, por aquello de que nations don’t have friends only interests. Regardless of what the opposition does, the day Chavez is not around, Venezuela will have plenty of friend$$$.

      @ FT: I don’t think your post is about sandwiches at all, for you are also doing your utmost, in your own particular way, to get rid of Chavez. The way I see it, your swing at Brewer Carias’s book (for the record I couldn’t care less about the guy and know that he’s far from a saint), was an automatic tip of the hat to Chavez. Every time you get the chance to get in front of an audience, if that’s your input in the collective let’s-get-rid-of-chavez bandwagon, to bash those on your side, it’s a chance you’ve lost to communicate effectively what your side/you’re about. Framing your articles along chavista lines is not only silly but a disservice to yourself.

    • Alek, foreign affairs are not just a function of money and oil. Besides, if anything, an opposition government will be *less* inclined to use oil money as a diplomatic tool than the current one. Once we cut off all those co-dependent countries, we’re going to need all the friends we can get. There is a role for ideological affinity and/or personal chemistry in international relations.

    • Although Gustavo Lopez’s comments sound (and are in a way) short-sighted, they are also quite pragmatic. Everyone abroad, except for a few Hispanic Studies college professors, knows that Chavez is a bad person. He has been vilified abroad and rightly so, but people abroad don’t vote. The levers of power necessary to oust Chavez and elect an opposition government are in Venezuela, not in Washington or London or anywhere else. Although there is nothing wrong with informing a foreign audience about what is going on in Venezuela, the objectives one must achieve are within the country and until a significant majority of Venezuelans decide to cast their vote in favor of a non-PSUV candidate, it really doesn’t matter how well-informed foreign audiences are about Chavez’s misdeeds.

    • I think you guys are confused.

      It’s activists’ jobs to bring down the government. Journalists/commentators’ jobs are different: to deepen people’s understanding of reality.

      Gustavo López is right: if you’re an anti-Chávez activist, writing in The New Republic is about as much use as an ashtray on a motorcycle.

      I’m not (only) an anti-Chávez activist.

    • Well sure but when I’m writing in The New Republic I have a responsibility to my readers there to inform and guide them.

      This blog can be as subversive as we want to make them, but TNR pays me a fee to explain to their readers what’s happening in Venezuela.

    • Juan, I didn’t mean to say that the oppo will mis-spend oil money as Chavez has done. We don’t need to. There are going to be sooo many opportunities in Venezuela, and in Cuba, where the clownish dictators are ousted, that many people/companies/countries are going to be falling over themselves to get a piece of the action. My point is, we don’t need to get TNR readers to warm to us, by bashing the opposition, in order to guarantee the recovery of our country.

  3. I would this say about Tarre, only that perhaps he is more exhilarated by the ego boosting of a mutual admiration society than he is by facing his own errors or even the simple the debate of differing views.But I am happy to see he disagrees with you on this one.

    Some in the opposition have implicitly accepted the Chavista thesis that whatever shortcoming Chavez may have he is still an improvement on the old. Once you accept this any relationship with the old becomes radioactive, and undermines the UNITY of the opposition.This seems to one one of the main tactics of keeping Chavez in power.

    Whether or not something is misleading depends on the point of view of the reader.If the reader is able to go beyond the written word and reason for himself then or not? Chance has it that most will not, which means that your pitting of the old guard against the new will loom larger in their minds than perhaps a more objective view.

    The Old Guard and the New Guard are not as far apart as you would suggest they are.Both simultaneously exist, and not in a vacuum but in a reality so intertwined as to be virtually inseparable at some points .If you do not see that, then you are denying some or all of the following:

    1.the old is still a part of our present consciousness to the extent and ways that we incorporate it
    2. the new does not always mean better, the old is not always better
    3.the old is not always represented in a fully objective way, neither is the new
    4.the new has something of the untested and unknowable about it
    5the old has something untested and unknowable about it as well, because what worked or did not work when conditions were different, will work differently now , due to changes.

    It is not important to divide the old and new, it is quite harmful in fact.What is important is to evaluate each idea, person, place or things, as though we were seeing it for the first time.Anything else is a mistaken prejudice.

  4. Chavez has had twelve years and a really large megaphone — and his attacks on the old order found a receptive audience from the beginning (in fact, they fueled his rise to power). So the idea that you can ignore how voters feel about governments of the past doesn’t make much sense in the real world of winning votes, either.

    The younger candidates and parties in the opposition have struggled and continue to struggle with the need for “unity” and the need to emphasize their distance from the errors, if not the people, of the past. Not too easy to navigate.

    • Lucia you said:

      “Chavez has had twelve years and a really large megaphone — and his attacks on the old order found a receptive audience from the beginning (in fact, they fueled his rise to power).”

      Hatred as a political tool always had practitioners ;change the object of hatred and you can still fool them.The fact that Chavez used false hatred to rile people to his favor does not mean we should.If we use hatred at all we should use the truth only.

      There are better objects of hatred: corruption, lies, manipulations, etc ….we don’t need to divide people to use the power of hatred to convince!

      In fact dividing the opposition into young and old , good and bad is exactly the kind of false hatred than plays into lies and manipulation.

      True and beneficial hatred would attack the lack of freedom and respect that we receive under the Chavez government.

    • firepigette — you give the impression of someone who believes that the governments of the past did a good job. Maybe you can afford to give that impression, but the opposition can’t.

  5. Hey Quico, are you telling me that in your 1200 word article it was impossible to introduce a sentence or two outlining that the reality was a bit more gray? Or perhaps some space for a disclaimer that – like everything – there were exceptions to the rule? I mean you DID allocate quite a lot of space to rant on Brewer-Carias. You couldn’t find an itty bitty bit of space to separate the Ledezmas from the Poleos?

    • LOL

      “I mean you DID allocate quite a lot of space to rant on Brewer-Carias. You couldn’t find an itty bitty bit of space to separate the Ledezmas from the Poleos?”

      Manichaeism redux,not that I am in any way fond of reducing arguments to this , but it seems there are many who do.

  6. What Alek said below is the crux of the matter:

    “Every time you get the chance to get in front of an audience, if that’s your input in the collective let’s-get-rid-of-chavez bandwagon, to bash those on your side, it’s a chance you’ve lost to communicate effectively what your side/you’re about. Framing your articles along chavista lines is not only silly but a disservice to yourself.”

    You have to remember that no ” truth” is perfect.You have to remember there will always be another story to tell, but at the same time,as we are living with the kind of evil that is Chavismo,in order to overcome it we have to take a CLEAR and unwavering stance, because it will take enormous efforts in UNITY to get rid of him.

    Up til now Quico, you have a mind that is highly divided,and dualistic.This takes away your power to convince, and shows a lack of clear ethical decision.

    • firepiguette,

      Thanks for pointing out Alek’s words. They are indeed the crux of the matter. Des Pudels Kern. All the more surprising coming from someone who will not miss an opportunity to say that the majority of Venezuelans “don’t give a shit”, that, for example, Brito’s sacrifice was in vain, because Venezuelans will never “give a shit”, and that he only participates in these forums as a cathartic exercise. In other words: What’s the point of the whole oppo thing?
      Now I’m really speechless.
      “Clear and unwavering” sounds good to me.

    • If the Majority had been like me Chavez would never have been voted in in the first place and we would have had three more presidents today not one.

  7. Lucia,

    “firepigette — you give the impression of someone who believes that the governments of the past did a good job.”

    This is just a strawman-type argument.There is no place where I said that past governments did a good job, and you did not address the argument I DID place to you.

    • 100% agreement with Loroferoz. Chavismo is very much 4th Republic, but more malignant a tumor.

      This myth about Venezuela being rich…just like that, El Dorado…we need to tackle that now.

  8. To this humble observer, the New Guard / Old Guard slider button / score is not about chronological age, past associates and political affiliations, or past participation in attempts to get rid of Hugo Chavez.

    The Chavez government is a caricature of the so-called 4th. Republic, a 4¼th. Republic perpetuating and continuing many of the former’s ways of doing things, means, economic (and other) falsehoods and myths, and public message.

    The real score, to this observer, is the distance that the evaluated politician/public figure puts between themselves (stated beliefs and actions) and those characteristics (beliefs and actual customs) of Venezuelan society, government and of course economy that got us into this mess and will keep us sinking indefinitely if not changed.

    Take Gerver Torres’ simple and effective compilation of Venezuelan mythology to be rid of immediately, for example, or other you might agree with. And see how far or how near said politician is to them. For example, the slider goes towards the “Old Guard” extreme if something to the effect of “Venezuela is a rich country… just bad redistribution” is heard, or if they propose something that is guaranteed to fail because it was tried in the past and failed, and they propose (again!) to do it exactly the same way as before.

    • There’s for example, the shape political organizations take. AD/COPEI was characterized by having tribes with chieftains, such that the tribes were named after the chieftains. The client system of the parties was built around these tribes.

      MVR/PSUV degenerated enough that they have one main chieftain, and the whole political movement is named after him, chavismo. The client system of PSUV is built around devotion and nearness to this one man.

      Opposition politicians can be evaluated in terms of their distance to such schemes.

  9. Argelia Ríos para Alek (y todos los demás)

    “A todos los venezolanos con aspiración de cambio les corresponde contribuir en la recreación de un ambiente de avalancha inexorable, de esperanza y certeza inquebrantables. Al poder debe quedarle bien claro que la sociedad democrática posee seguridad sobre su triunfo y que está dispuesta a hacerse respetar y a constituirse en una amenaza seria ante la eventualidad de un desconocimiento de su veredicto en las urnas.”

    I was looking for the words, and she just provided them.
    To be “clear and unwavering” is key for those who seek change in Venezuela. Let’s keep that in mind.

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