Right Guard?

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.

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