No vetting allowed

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I want you on your best behaviour now...

The other night, the opposition’s presidential candidates held a debate.

While the format literally did not leave much room for debate, we all came away thinking it was a success. The candidates were reasonably polished and highly respectful of each other. The tone was civilized and mature, and their focus was solely on the main concerns of voters.

This is a problem.

We’ve griped before about the unity fetish, the conventional wisdom among opposition voters that any discord within our ranks is bad. We’ve discussed how this helps the front runner, hurts the wannabes, and leaves us all a bit bored.

But there’s something deeper at play here. A velvet-gloved primary means our candidate will not be properly vetted next year.

Think back to the US in 2008. That year, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton engaged in a bloody, brutal, long, expensive, no-holds-barred primary fight. In this epic battle, no stone was left unturned, no mud was left unhurled. In the end, the loser embraced the winner, who won the general and made her foreign minister.

The bruising primary fight made Barack Obama a better candidate for the general election. Anything the Republicans could do to him had already been thrown at him by Camp Hillary. The fact that he was still standing showed he could survive those attacks.

Fast forward to March 2012.

The general election campaign begins, and chavismo uncovers every rock, scouring the candidate’s past for anything, anything they can get their hands on.

Will we be assured that candidate Henrique Capriles will have the fortitude of character, the communicational skills, and the wherewithal to withstand the onslaught? What skeletons does candidate Pablo Pérez have in his closet? What details have we not uncovered about candidate Leopoldo López’s tenure as Chacao mayor?

These are the things a primary campaign is for. You test the candidates, you flesh things out, and you see who is left standing. You can tell that the process is working when only the fittest survives.

But the unity fetish makes this Darwinian process impossible. Instead, what we have is a cartel: a group of competitors who refuse to compete.

Imagine what Marialejandra López would think if Pablo Pérez started raising questions about Henrique Capriles’ rumored past addictions. How apoplectic would Teodoro Petkoff get if serious questions were raised about Pablo Pérez’s alleged drinking habits? And what would Leopoldistas say if, all of the sudden, someone in the MUD started asking serious questions about the reasons he was barred from holding public office?

You can be sure candidate Chávez will raise these issues and more. We’ll eventually find out how the candidate respond to them.

But by then, it may be too late.

(Quico’s furious rebuttal is in the first comment.)

1 COMMENT

  1. As much as I go for the whole Hackneyed-Gringo-Truisms-Are-Brilliant-Insights-in-the-Venezuelan-Context thing, I think you’re missing the point spectacularly here Juan:

    Venezuela doesn’t have a functional enough public sphere for a healthy gringo-style darwinian vetting process to take hold. Too many Venezuelans have no access to any media other than state media – which is in no way shy about twisting any and every perceived rift and pressing it into service for its preferred Mesa de Alacranes narrative.

    So picture a Bizarro U.S.A. where, in 2006, George W. Bush revoked the broadcast licenses of the most liberal of the four broadcast networks and bullied the other three into never, ever covering him critically. Imagine a Bizarro U.S.A. where George W. Bush had the constitution amended so he can run for re-election indefinitely, spending public money hand over fist to finance his campaign. Imagine a Bizarro U.S.A. where MSNBC was pushed off most cable systems and was unavailable to most people. Imagine a Bizarro U.S.A. where NPR and PBS were turfed out to the shrillest, craziest right-wing loons – “You’re Listening to Fresh Air with your Host Michael Savage” or “This is the PBS Newhour with Ann Coulter”.

    NOW imagine how the 2008 democratic primary fight would have gone down in those conditions!

    Listen, I think it sucks that our Public Sphere is so batshit crazy that serious vetting is just too risky for the MUD primary contenders. That really is lamentable. But it’s just a fact.

    I do think Pablo Pérez needs to differentiate himself from Capriles. But he needs to do that subtly, gingerly, without handing the government propaganda machine a massive gift. If he goes harshly negative, he’ll be handing the election to the government. Marialejandralopez wouldn’t forgive him…and neither would I.

    • I accept the premise that it’s a fact that people think vetting is too risky. Yes, the primary will probably play out that way. But should it? I’m still not convinced.

      The scenario you are painting is the exact scenario we will be faced with after February 12th. We would like to know how the candidate who is confronted with ugly allegations will perform under these conditions. And we want to know about this *before* the primary.

      • Well, better way: have him debate with the general public.
        Challenge the guy from La Hojilla to call Venevisión or Globo or whatever and state his question (knowingly he will try to cut the pieces he wants to show).

        • In a normal country this would be the job of the press.
          Dig out the dirt on all the candidates.

          Here it won’t happen. No one wants to give any ammunition to the thugs.

    • I think all the candidates have already demonstrated that they have thick skin against chavismos personal attacks. There is no need to demonstrate to have thick skin against personal attacks from each other.

      Aren’t they expected to demonstrate that they can have a healthy working relationship with each other? If anything, that is what is missing. They should show us that they can brainstorm together, counter each other’s proposals with ever improving ones. I want to hear how each one is planning to accomplish their promises, and I want to see that they are willing to learn from others, too, in making their plans even better and more complete.

      Ok, I want to see them propose UCT, but that’s a longshot… 🙂

      • Alek,

        Apparently your one trip with Rosales through Venezuela did not take you far away from the bloke.

        It is not so much “state media” as “they don’ and can’t follow regime-critical media”

        Less than 30% of Venezuela has cabel or Internet access or lives in Caracas or Valencia (where one can watch Globo without cable)

        Most D-E people outside Greater Caracas-Maiquetía do not have satellite dish.

        Try, please, to find an El Nacional/El Universal reader belonging to the C, D or E classes in the median city, such as Puerto Cabello, Punto Fijo, Maturín, Guacara, Calabozo.

        A lot of them can watch Venevisión.

        It doesn’t matter much what “audience figures” carried out in your dear Caracas mean.

  2. Yes, a velvet-glove primary has its risks; yet, as Gonzalo Barrios said, we are not Swiss (and for that matter nor are we talking of the US electoral habits either). The fact seems to be that there is a frail unity that has to be preserved if we want to get rid of that pox Chavecismo is. Polls indicate a trend working against the goverment, and you can see in their commentators that breaking the unity is a priority to stay in power.

    I realize that as a blogger you may be looking for a way to start a fire, and I do not see a good discussion being wrong, nevertheless…

  3. When a guy does this to himself I do not think you need to take his skeletons for a ride:

    PP has Rosales is the closet too and everybody knows it.

    MCM has the dont go to vote in the congress election that ended up being a disaster for the country.

    That leaves us with HCR as the one that we have to roast and see if he survives, but again, the guy went to jail and never wavered, he went out of jail a little ‘illuminated’ but all in all he did great and is still doing great, I believe that he is the best option we have.

    I guess that they should be a little more aggressive, but who really wants to follow Hugo the Thug into Miraflores and inherit a country so messed up? I guess some of them are running for the next elections, the ones after 2012.

    • WOW…JAU pana qué pasó?!?! You’re supposed to be the Honorary Chief of the Comecandela brigade! Chamo I thought you would be pissed off that Diego Arria wants only to send Chávez to The Hague instead of giving him the full Gaddafi treatment!!

      🙂

      When the JAUs of the world are breaking for Henrique the guy really is doing well…

      Welcome on board, man…we’re gonna need a bigger bandwagon…

      • HEHEHEHE Quico I have always been in Henrique’s bandwagon and I like MCM a lot too.
        However, when it comes to LL and PP… well, I prefer not to insult their followers….

  4. I partially agree with Nagel. Yes, A heated exchange is necessary to weed out the candidates that are not fit to run against the Blah-Blah Commander. On the other hand, I don’t think they have to call each other weirdo, drunk or incompetent to stand out. I’m pretty sure that HRC’s and PP’s approach in Miranda and Zulia have been different. LL has already said that he wants to get rid of CADIVI and HRC said it may take some time. Their goals are similar, but their approaches will be different. I think that will be obvious as the time goes by.
    We need to remember that it is a marathon, not a 100m-sprint. These guys have just put their toes in the water. I guess that the candidates already have a plan, but they need to see how people react to it before they start tinkering with it. After this first presentation, they will probably make some adjustments to their messages and personas.
    What some pundits call the “Arria effect” will probably play a role. Like FT mentioned in an early post, the radical opposition reacted well to his message. I’m starting to wonder whether the HRC’s Kumbayah or LL’s statesman-ish words will make sense in the current state of our country.
    Yes, the topics of the first presentation were very limited, but the desperate state of our democratic system must be addressed sooner than later.
    I believe moctavio and Nagel have already discussed how hard it’s going to be the post 10/07/12 scenario, and that’s something nobody is talking about. Probably it is a HUGE contradiction to call the system unfair and then play along and accept its rules, but that’s something that must be addressed sooner than later.

  5. Venezuela is indeed a special case…one needs to tread carefully here.

    I see is how we tend to always use Gringolandia as some kind of Protagoras scale.

    “The US is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not”

    It does not need be. Venezuelans, I think, are not so prudish and don’t bloody care so much about candidates’ sexual life or about how many times s/he goes to church. More importantly, though, is to show how to grill candidates on issues that really matter for a head of state. That was greatly missing. Now: where to look for examples?

    Why not look at – yeah, here comes Kepler – the real debates that take place in European systems? In Britain or Germany? Hell, even in Spain. Perhaps we can learn even from Colombia or Chile, even if I am not sure they have any kind of internal debate, it’s all between the final candidates as far as I know.

    But prior to that we need more people than those young students to start informing the general population about what a real debate is. The students made a first effort, but I suppose the implications were reduced when people started to fear the consequences of lavar trapitos privados al sol.

    Tragically, I don’t see that coming from journalists. Perhaps it has to do with the fact we have more reporteros faranduleros haciendo de analistas políticos than real journalists (see Globovision, Venevisión, not to mention the Chávez channels)

  6. I am with Quico on this one. Juan Cristobal misses the broader contrast here. It is the contrast between a culture of political civility where people of different views can get along and agree of loftier goals vs. a culture of “us against them”, throwing-rocks, slashing tires, and basically, burning down the house.

    I will gladly vote for any one of the MUD candidates, even the Zuliano guy :-).

  7. We might only need to assume that no candidate is perfect, and leave the vetting to extra-political forces -press, pundits, bloggers, Ibsen Martinez, twitter-frantic posters and whatnot- and VTV. The official media is already mudslinging, and they have for a long time. If you buy their dirt, you probably did not like the candidate in the first place.

    In a certain sense, such vetting has already had effects, in a free-market way: Ledezma and Fernandez were ousted because they were too old (and thus, did not gain any poll traction nor any significant donors or endorsements, and politely bowed out).

    Moreover, what you’ve called Unity “fetish” (man, do I HATE that) should stop the campaigns or the parties (not the grass-root’s militantes or the common followers) to harshly treat the candidate: HCR would need AD, UNT and Copei’s support, PP would need PJ. They cannot afford to harm each other. Why attack other candidate’s records, if they pose no credible threat and you do not want to alienate their support? Who has incentives to wage a dirty war?

    Is mudslinging the only possible way for HCR and PP to differentiate themselves form each other? No: there’s a matter of general image (and that’s why PP stresses the “family” angle, while HCR remarks his youth and general un-dinosauriness), and also the matter of policy (even though there’s a pact regarding the general program, and each of the candidates program drafters work closely with the MUD),

    Is mudslinging even ethical? I’ve heard many untrue things thrown at politicos (corruption charges, sexual orientation, gender, family status, nasty habits, bad relations, etc.) and while some are inconsequential, some are downright dangerous and unsettling: think of the sullied reputations, of the hate crimes and political assassinations that come form mudslinging. Think of the man that made sling mud the core of his political career: Hugo Chavez. Do you want that kind of destructive politics to infest our field?

    I’m sure that if we had some really big skeleton in the closet, it would have appeared by now. Don’t you think?

    • Do not forget the fact that an important portion of the Venezuelan electorate is just sick tired of 13 years of mudslinging. They want their politicians to cease and desist the confrontation. We won’t win in October without that portion of people, the three centrist candidates are well aware of that fact. For that portion of people I thing the debate was an infusion of fresh air, something new, some of them have never experienced civility first hand.

      • This is key.

        Remember, the kids who will be voting for the first time in 2012 were 4 years old when Chávez was elected, just 8 years old at the time of 11A. They have no memory of any other way of doing politics other than insulting the shit out of your opponents. Think what that does to their understanding of what politics means. And think how they will have experienced the debate, against that backdrop…

  8. The way we can solve this is really if we had journalists… What we need is not mud sludging but grilling. You don’t have that in Venezuela

  9. Each time you use the “unity fetish” epithet, a cute baby seal dies harpooned by an ugly Japanese whaler. Jeeez…What an unfortunate phrase

  10. OK, I will cease and desist with the unity fetish term. But only because you’re asking nicely.

    Imagine the following scenario: there are rumours swirling around that candidate A was a coke-head a few years ago. The candidate has never properly answered the question. Nobody bothers asking him the question, but if they did, he could say he “did things in his past” that he regrets. Or he could deny. I dunno.

    Turns out there is a video of the candidate snorting a line of coke. Would you want that video to come out now … or on October 1st?

    Or candidate B is known to be corrupt, or a quinta columna Turns out there is a video of him receiving money from Fernandez Berruecos or some character of the sort. Or worse even, from Jose Vicente Rangel. When would you rather find out about the video: now? Or on October 1st?

    (BTW, these are completely hypothetical scenarios, don’t read into things)

    • I was about to start searching videos in youtube. Thanks for the clarification!
      By the way, my mom told me about candidate A being too much of a coke head. Of course, I am the kind of person that needs a little more than a rumor to get convinced and I also know that my mom is the complete opposite.
      Anyway, the rumor is out there, as there will be many more as always. I understand your point, but in this case, the enemy we’re against is absolutely ruthless and dirty and is just waiting for any negative detail to magnify it and publish it everywhere in the red media. If the candidates don’t support each other, they will immediately say that they are greedy and are there only for their personal interests, and not for “el pueblo”. They have tried to say this already and the candidates are proving them wrong with their conciliatory approach.
      I believe that, after February 12, they have to keep supporting the elected candidate, stay together all the way, and keep doing what they have been doing until October. It will be the only way to stay strong.

    • I find it very unlikely that such things will pop up then if they haven’t by now. I just doubt the self-restraint capacity of any of these fellas. Specially something big enough to really influence the outcome.

      This doesn’t mean that the probability is zero, but it is very low.

      • I agree: the government knows that this crop had the candidate that will challenge Chavez. The chance that some dark-horse appears, is unlikely.

        Le us remember the “Mesa de Alacranes”/Hojilla phone calls: everyone is wiretapeed to the ears, and yet the best mud they could find was of some lame regional dirigente asking for dough? They should have broadcast candidate A’s conversation with his coke dealer months ago?

        But no: only innuendo and traps.

    • Juan, the second accusation could be grave. Exchange Fernandez Barrueco for el Pelon Capriles y el primo Michu.

      As per the first (coke head, borracho, womanizer, etc.) I don’t think such allegations make or break politicos in our country.

  11. We can get sidetracked quite easily into arguing for weeding out the candidates with forceful grilling etc, and this works in some countries but cannot work in the politically fragile yet volatile Venezuela.The only hope of repressing Chavismo is through strong OPPO Unity that is not broken by inner destructiveness.We cannot weaken our vessel of attack.It would be so easy to do so considering the opposition is divided into right and left and old and young.Its Unity was long in coming and an easy target for Chavez.

    Let us not be our own worst enemy please!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • I believe that all candidates are aware of the importance of unity. However, there’s still room for disagrement. One clear example was Arria. The guy politely showed that he agrees with some proposals made by the other candidates, but he was able to show his unconformity with the way they understand the current situation.
      Why can a journalist question the oil policy proposed by LL just like FT has done here in the blog? Why shouldn’t someone ask HRC why he considers that CADIVI should stay put for a while? Or ask MCM were does that 12.000-drug-trafficking gangs number come from? Or what are they going to do with the medicos comunitarios?
      I know that ANY of this guys is a better alternative that the blah-blah commander, but shouldn’t we try to get the best candidate/future president we can? Isn’t that the point of doing the primary and the debates?

  12. I’m with Quico on this one. Venezuela is a special circumstance. To be seen squabbling in public would remind people of the type of opposition politics that got allowed Chavez to get to power in the first place. They need to present a civil and mature image to a public that is wary about about simply exchanging one set of crooks for another set.

  13. The defeat of the Sandinistas by Violetta Chamorro was achieved by relentless unity and an absolute refusal to throw mud at other democrats. It may have made the electoral season less interesting to journalists, but in the end, she won 55% to Ortega’s 41%.

    Ronald Reagan famously refused to “speak ill of other Republicans” in his successful primary, and eventually, general election victories.

    Unity is more important than a winnowing process that injures too many and potentially sidelines their supporters out of ill will.

  14. Juan,

    I agree with you that there is a real risk that we could end up choosing a presidential candidate that will not be able to withstand the Chavista smear campaign. I am also very concerned about the fortitude of character of HCR, whether he has what it takes to tackle Chavez head on. Other primary candidates, say PP, could allude to this when trying to sell his own case, without necessarily attacking the unity principle. But this strategy could backfire big time.

    I have no big illusions about the purity of any of these five candidates however. They’re Venezuelan politicians after all. Regardless of how more or less adeco they may seem at first sight–which I think is one reason why most people here dont like PP–everybody has a rabo’e paja. Everybody has a strong financial backer, everybody has made dirty deals at one point in their career. Everybody has said stupid stuff on the phone. There is always going to be something for chavistas to pick on, regardless of who wins the primary.

    • Rafa,

      The reason I thought about this post was by looking at what’s going on with Herman Cain. A few weeks ago, Herman Cain was an interesting outsider in the Republican party. But then, women started coming forward with allegations that, in the context of American politics, were serious. His response? Uh … ah … I don’t remember … bla bla bla. Completely botched that one. His lead is gone, because people started seeing him in a different light. Leadership under pressure is something voters are drawn to.

      Compare that with Bill Clinton’s dealings with similar allegations during *his* primary. He used the opportunity to show himself as fearless, forceful, and by attacking the issue head on.

      All I’m saying is that the response to these issues says a lot about the candidates, at least to me. We’re not seeing any of that in this process.

      • Juan,
        But what if these guys haven’t shagged in anything but boring circumstances?
        In any case: most Venezuelans – thanks God – would just roll their eyes when they hear the person asking the question…unless it is really something like X raped someone.

        What we need is grilling on issues of content, something I hardly see even in the USA, with their biparty system.

  15. Consider this: November 14, 2011 was a first in many, many years that reason and civil discourse prevailed among politicians, in a public forum. No mean feat. I was satisfied with the ‘unveiling’ of pre-candidates, behind their propaganda masks. I was also satisfied with the softball questions lobbed by selected students, as I was with the calm stickhandling by a mature moderator. Outside minor technical glitches, there were no problems with the presentation. I suspect that it delivered exactly what the MUD wanted: piano, piano si va lontano.

    I also suspect that January’s presentation will be edgier, with the candidates differentiating themselves, even if slightly, ahead of the primaries. It would be a mistake at this juncture in history to have journalists grill and smoke out the pre-candidates.

    The MUD knows what it’s doing.

  16. You people still have your heads up your asses. Have any of the candidates (not to mention, the bloggers) made actual *contact* with the masses of poor and lower middle class Venezuelans who are Chavez’s voto duro? In the last five years? In all of your lives? You are still playing to the “truism” that liberal electoral democracy is what everyone wants, that is EXACTLY what Chavismo has reversed. What guarantees the people who have actually benefitted from Chavez’s policies, that they will not be reversed? The missions are unsustainable, you say, but for all your suffering and bickering, you never needed them. Jesus fucking christ, I agree with most of your gripes with Chavez, but your head is still up your ass.

    And no, despite my fake email, I am not Chavista.

    • I think, over time, we have become convinced that some chavistas are just too chavista, and have shifted our focus to trying to convince the more relaxed, almost nini, “Chavez is a good man but he’s sorrounded by the corrupt” crowd.

  17. The vetting argument really only applies to Diegito. The other four have already participated in elections during the Chavez era. Particularly in the case of HCR and PP, if there was anything in their closet, Chavistas would have dragged it out to the spotlight during the elections for governors.

    Making a parallel to Primary elections in the US is completely off base. The Republican and Democratic parties are extremely solid institutions that can easily withstand bloody battles between aspiring candidates. The MUD is an extremely fragile coalition of rival parties and this isn’t the first time this blog has proposed actions that could harm the coalition. Expelling Ramos Allup for example! I don’t particularly like the guy, but AD is an important partner in this venture.

    I was thinking exactly the opposite: organizing the debates in a format where they can appear as a team presenting the unity government plan being prepared by the MUD.

  18. Meh, Chavez has fucked up enough that, possibly, the Venezuelan electorate will repeat the last election results or improve them in your favor, and elect a representative of the MUD or whatever you wanna call it. But, if defeating Chavez is your only goal, still I must say, head up ass!!!

    What he has done for South American and Latin American unity is no small feat, and until you get your comfortable upper class ass out into the real world, living the real dangers of Chavismo or non-Chavismo, you will not understand. Lo que ocurre aqui es mas grande, señores!! Lo digo con respeto, y lo digo con mucho fundamento, aunque admito que aqui no lo demuestro. Listen to Calle 13!

  19. …Pas’ó won…

    About the “Vetting” thing … I am not a subscriber to the “Unity Fetish”, as Quico calls it, I believe that precisely, one of the things that has got us where we are is the need for Bolshevik-style Pensamiento Unico on the part of the current administration. And that is not new, our grandparents and parents, the sons and daughters of the Fixed Point Pact (suena a teoría cuántica así, verdad?), also had a common enemy, a Bogeyman so to speak, which made all other shortcomings bearable, in the form of Pérez Jiménez’s regime. So to reproduce it on the oppo side, for the sake of the immediate win, could be construed as akin to acknowledging that the guys currently in power are right, that the only way to ascend to power and rule Venezuela is to acquiesce, to suppress dissent… Which is close to saying that we are not ready to rule ourselves by democratic means. This is a very, very personal view, and if my escuálida mamá were to learn of this, she’ll disown me.

    On the other side, though, I believe that modern US’ style politics are NOT a model for anything anybody might want to have as politics in his own country! C’,mon gente, do we really want a country where politicians need to get down and dirty with candidates’ personal stuff? I mean, do we really want the equivalent of “birthers” in our future political landscape? That is where no-holds-barred, mud-flinging politics can get us and the gods know we have had a tad more than we need of that in the last years.

    I believe politics should be mostly about politics, about message and above all about facts, about effectiveness. Nobody is perfect, and even for Superman, dig deep enough and you’ll find Kriptonite for him…

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