A Mistake The Venezuelan Opposition Shouldn't Repeat

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There is a fantastic moment at the end of Charlie Wilson’s War, where the late (and great) Philip Seymour Hoffman tells a story that nails the strategy of the Venezuelan opposition since 2002 spot on.

There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “how wonderful, the boy got a horse.” And the Zen master says, “we’ll see.” Two years later The boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everybody in the village says, “how terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t cause his legs messed up. and everyone in the village says, “How wonderful…”

You get the idea. Then, PHS, in his role as Gust Avrakotos, warns a womanizing US Senator, played by Tom Hanks, that it is oh so wonderful that they have managed to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, but the US has to make a huge effort ($$$$) to become friendly with the locals and not abandon them to their own fate. They had to see through what they had done there or it would backfire.

They didn’t, and history, not Hollywood, proved the point. Afghanistan went to hell and eventually the US ended up sunk in deep (shit) conflict with them.

In April 2002 Hugo Chavez was overthrown due to large protests that took place mainly in Caracas, and were supported by the middle class, PDVSA (¿?), and different organizations that included, on the same side, workers and employers. Chávez was driven out of office (Wonderful!). A couple of days later, Chávez was back, stronger than ever. Later, that same year PDVSA workers went on strike to put pressure on the government regarding 49 new laws that would drive the country to hell (Wonderful!). A couple of months later, Chávez fired thousands of those workers and regained control of the company. In 2007, Chavez proposed a referendum to reform the Constitution and radicalize the socialist revolution, thanks to the students, the opposition won (Wonderful!). Shortly thereafter Chavez was enabled to legislate and he included the subject of the reform in several laws. 2013, Chavez died (Wonderful!). Oh, he left Nicolas Maduro. But, Chavez died (Wonderful!). Oh, he left Diosdado Cabello. No, really, Chavez died (Wonderful!). Oh, he left the Castro brothers. Again, you get the idea.

***

There was a popular soap opera character in the nineties, Eudomar Santos, who embodied Venezuelan philosophy to its fullest. He used to say “as it comes, WE’LL SEE how it goes” (como vaya viniendo vamos viendo). Mr. Santos rode THAT horse. He planned for nothing, and hoped for the best. This is how the opposition has been playing things all these years. No see through plans.

***

The current situation has been compared to that of 2002. For better or worse (and I won’t make an assessment on whether we are in a better place now than we were then), both situations are not close to being similar. Most of the main elements are different, so we can hardly expect a similar outcome. This time around the protests have been organized by the students. Chavez is not a part of the equation. Back then, the protests took place because of the debacle that was to come. Now, the protests are taking place because the debacle that came. Chavez is not a part of the equation. The economy is down the toilet. There has been more repression by the authorities. The focus is not Caracas. And, of course, there is some sort of political cohesion in the opposition.

The only element which seems to repeat itself this time around (and, dammit!), is that the Venezuelan opposition stands right now on what seems to be an improvised scenario. If so, there is, of course, no way of predicting what is going to happen, nor a way of seeing through whatever happens.

***

There seems to be some sort of leadership crisis in the opposition, which may not necessarily be negative. It is positive that Leopoldo Lopez’s following has rocketed, his views represent those of a good chunk of the —middle class— opposition. It is also positive that Henrique Capriles is working on containing the situation, and using a moderate approach that appeals to another huge group. By regrouping their own followers, they will have an opportunity to bring together an opposition that lays divided (but not disbanded) and, perhaps, even manage to control the student protesters who seem to have gone haywire. One could only hope there is a macabre plan (or plans A, B, C, and D, at the least) behind this and it is not just improvisation. In the past, improvising has taken huge tolls on the opposition’s integrity and strength. If everything is left to chance, WE’LL SEE…

The end is nigh, pack a toothbrush.

[Disclaimer: I have reservations towards #LaSalida. Not in the exact same page as Juan (although pages in this story seem to change by the second as my own opinion has), but reservations nonetheless.]

1 COMMENT

  1. Raul… I just read this and a piece about how the world media is ignoring Venezuela. We haven’t. There are excerpts here on interviews with Maria Corina Machado and Diego Arria and have stayed on the story daily. http://www.buzzfeed.com/conzpreti/29-heartbreaking-images-from-the-protests-in-venezuela. Thought you’d want to know someone in NYC is paying attention. And while we don’t have the audience of the NY Times, people do pay attention to us, especially journalists, so we may influence others to wake up to what’s happening.
    Thanks,
    Antonio Mora

  2. It would be great if HCR and MCM/LL were using a good cop/bad cop tactic to deal with the government. But they are obviously not; at least, not intentionally. Yet…

    • Protests seem to have moved the government to adopt faster some measures on the economic front that they may not have taken otherwise. What do you think?

      • Good cop/Bad cop could bring a negotiated end to this crisis. It would be unpalatable for the Chavista base for the governement to shake hands with LL and hug him. But HCR or HF could be the ticket. The negotiated end could include some economic common sense, or opening up new spaces for MUD (parliament comissions, state media access, regional budgets)

        Another idea would be a dynamic of segmented leadership, where HCR appeals to a group and LL/MCM appeal to another may yield two highly motivated groups in communion, as opposed to a collective leadership where there’s both groups are dissapointed, and the lack of initiative we saw with Cadakazo while the views are reconciled. It does have the risk of stressing (if not jeopardizing) opposition unity.

        If the brings economic reforms sooner, it could be positive on both the economic and political front for the opposition. Politically, the chavista base would resent raising gas prices and updating controlled prices of goods. Economically, the country would be better off, and every unpopular measure Maduro embraces, is one less unpopular measure for a post-Chavista governement.

        • I don’t see a real negotiated end–the Castros, who manage Maduro and the radical Communist political side, won’t go for it; and Diosdado, who handles the military/force side, seems intransigent, maybe since, as the biggest crook of all, he potentially has a lot to lose (hopefully some time in the future).

          • I truly respect your views, as being one of the best-informed on the Venezuelan situation, but I don’t expect any substantive give-ups by the Government, even to temporarily quell the crisis–and, cosmetic changes simply won’t cut it, neither for the Oppo, nor for the economy.

          • Well thanks!

            I don’t think this crisis has reached its peak yet, and it’s too soon to call how things are going to play out.

            I HOPE we’ll have achieved something by the time this crisis begins to unfold -and it will have to be resolved- but it’s too soon to tell how things are going to play out. There’s just too many variables.

            I think, in the end, the economy is going determine the pace at which events will unfold, more than any action any side takes.

  3. Raoul, Wonderful reasoned article for a person who recently risked his life in Plaza Altamira, but with a happy ending, different from the recent student casualty, thank God. No, I personally don’t think it’s an intentional “bad cop, good cop” strategy, but the effect is the same, and it does not indicate a division in the MUD. The students, with no future to look forward to under current/near-future circumstances, simply had had enough, and the protests grew like Topsy ; Significantly, the protests are national, from a group who “should” have benefitted from the accomplishments of the “Revolution” (had they been real), since they literally grew up/became of age in it. and are even more downscale than 2002.Both Capriles and Lopez are right, and, no, the future is not predictable now, but one thing is certain: if there is no fight, there very possibly will be no right in the end.

  4. This reminds me of Chou En-Lai, who, when asked in 1972 by Henry Kissinger his view of the French Revolution, responded “It’s too soon to know.” But it also reminds me of Keynes comment that “In the long run, we are all dead.”

  5. Great quote from the movie-and the book. There were other voices saying the same thing about Afghanistan and were ignored. As for being in the news, it is getting better, but it seems to me it had been pretty much ignored until the tragic death of the young lady. It was pretty much squeezed in between the Ukaraine protest and the Olympics. The American attention is way too short to hold much more, unfortunately.

  6. We know the chaverment will not leave from protesting. What was lived in 2002 is a precedent they will repeat. But much has been gained:

    -The chaverment has shown itself to be a repressive dictatorship. The WHOLE WORLD sees this now. The longer they hold Leopoldo the more he looks like our own Venezuelan Mandela.

    -It cannot repress the country into peace.

    -There is a whole lot of people that are REALLY PISSED, and they have done squat to address their grievances. They sit on a volcano.

    -The chavistas that cannot escape to Miami with the eventual demise of the government are probably thinking of what are they going to do when being chavistas is a big liability. I suspect chavistas are going to half second thoughts, think about their future, which is probably grim. Some will bolt, others will radicalize.

    -The economy is in shambles, and they will certainly blame the revolt for the need of harsh economic measures in store, but ultimately this will strike hardest to the poor and “amor con hambre no dura”, which will be the terrible divorce of chaverment and ‘el cerro’. Can you imagine what will happen when they charge SOMETHING for gas after all that has happened?

  7. There’s one importante thing here… The good cop/bad cop would defenitely work in a country where the President actually wanted to fix the situation; but the truth is, he doesn’t. What Maduro wants is what Raul Castro wants, which is what everybody else who has a little bit of grey matter does not want: comunism forever installed in Venezuela. What the opposition is doing right now (and I mean the people, not the politicians) may not be right, but I’m afraid that there won’t be a way out unless they keep on doing it, and if so, unless there are more casualties.

  8. Great post; love the reference to Charlie Wilson’s War 🙂

    The fact that there is no strategy for After the Protests strikes me as a grave irresponsibility, one I’m happy to lay at the feet of Leopoldo and Maria Corina.

    To step back for a second — I disagree with those (including some of this blog’s illustrious voices) who are saying Everything Has Changed.

    In the past, the fundamental dynamics have not worked in our favor…so we’re hoping this wave of protests ushers in a new set of dynamics.

    Wouldn’t that be nice?

    But in fact, the central challenges remain the same — and these protests have made conditions worse for meeting those challenges.

    Our job, as I see it, is to persuade a big chunk of those who don’t currently support us that we can govern more effectively, manage the economy more sanely, reduce social tensions and generally make life better. That we care about their lives, and know how to make them better.

    That was an uphill sell as long as the oil money was flowing so freely. Even so, the opposition has eked out some important electoral victories in years past.

    The deteriorating economy, the shortages, the runaway inflation — with all those chickens coming home to roost, it would seem the time was finally right to convince the country that Chavismo-without-Chavez is never going to deliver, and worse, is in danger of driving the whole country into the ground.

    And then we started burning stuff down.

    Not. Very. Persuasive.

    All this…it amounts to a primal scream, not a strategy.

    Don’t get me wrong — I think the students are incredible — brave, and fierce, and completely justified in their anger.

    But I think they have been badly served by the opposition, who should have seen this coming, and channeled all that energy and courage and derring-do into a strong but peaceful force for change.

    But Capriles didn’t move quickly enough, and I get the feeling Leopoldo and Maria Corina didn’t look at the students and see potential activists they could work with to build a new, effective anti-authoritarian movement — they saw a way to change the dynamic within the opposition.

    Is Lopez brave? Sure. But brave isn’t the same thing as smart. (And in any case, he’s not as brave as those students, whose lack of fame and spotlight makes them much, much more vulnerable to violence and abuse. And somehow…somehow…with Leopoldo, it’s always about him. Remember those television ads, with him leaping over desks?)

    The situation has strong parallels to 2005, when Leopoldo and Maria Corina (as the head of Sumate, no less!) were in favor of boycotting the legislative elections.

    That decision, too, was born from a desire to simply express ourselves, our (legitimate) anger over unfair conditions.

    And it did not have its desired effect — not even close. Chavistas were able to say that the boycott was of a piece with the strike and the coup — just another tactic from non-democrats. And many — in Venezuela, and abroad — agreed.

    Now, once again, we’re choosing to express ourselves rather than persuade others.

    Talking about the economy — it’s not as telegenic as guarimbas, I’ll grant that.

    But what have we really achieved? Spaces for public discourse are closing. People who may have been willing — finally! — to listen may be less receptive, less likely to see us as the grown-ups who can fix stuff.

    And the bottom line is that whether you want a constitutional or an extra-constitutional exit, you’re going to need more of the country — a lot more — to support you.

    So — now that Leopoldo has achieved his photo-op — what’s next?

    P.S. Destabilizing Maduro is not the same thing as destabilizing Chavismo.

    (My apologies for the length of this rant…)

  9. In politics there are decisions or activities which are planned , calculated , the result of tactical reflexion and discussion but there are also a lot of activities and decisions which arise spontaneously from unplanned collective behaviours and or which are opportunistic and or involve an element of gambling and gaming, playing to exploit changing conditions as they arise . In following those gambles you take some hits and throw some punches . that normal politics, specially in countries such as Venezuela were routine democratic processes are severely manipulated and curtailed by an all powerfull sectarian govt. You do well to have a game plan but you cant stick to it too closely when conditions are in flux . Have these protests hurt the government more than it has strenghtened it , thats the question to ask .!! .

  10. Guys, it is easy to criticize the opposition. But remember that every revolution is a unique set of circumstances, never to be repeated. And the actors in it are all amateurs making it up as they go along.

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