Scene stealer

Watch your back, Chúo.
Which of these guys would you rather hang out with?

The near-universal praise Chúo Torrealba has received upon accepting to be the Secretary General of the opposition’s umbrella coalition is well deserved. Torrealba brings many assets to the table (pardon the pun): he is an empathetic community leader, a skilled communicator, a wickedly smart analyst, and most of important of all … a fellow blogger!

His up-by-the-bootstraps personal story is also universally Venezuelan. Torrealba is the son of impoverished campesinos who migrated to the big city looking for better opportunities, made sure everyone in a large family got an education and moved up in the world. In spite of this, Torrealba has not forgotten his roots, combining unusual street smarts with a cerebral approach to policy issues. This interview (in Spanish) is a must-read for anyone wishing to get a feel for Torrealba’s thinking.

It’s really hard not to like the guy. They used to say about George W. Bush that he managed to beat Al Gore because he passed the “beer” test – people voted for him because they would much rather sit down and have a beer with him than with Gore. Torrealba? Well … sharing a few beers with him must be a great experience. He brings a much needed sense of – why not say it? – fun to Venezuela’s public sphere.

That … could be a problem.

For all the qualities we see in Torrealba, they are not necessarily the qualities we need for the job he has signed up for, one that he said he wasn’t interested in just a few weeks ago.

Being secretary general of the MUD involves dealing with political parties and their notoriously evil, fickle bosses. It requires negotiating in good faith, and making sure that it’s the candidates who shine, not the backroom guys.

Torrealba is simply too good to work behind the curtains, in the shadows. Notice how most people who comment on his personal qualities talk about him … as if he were our next Presidential candidate! He “speaks to the street.” He “talks to the barrio.”

Having a good public persona is obviously a plus, but it could also run the risk of eclipsing some of our elected leaders. Put Torrealba next to, say, Antonio Ledezma, and who would you rather vote for? How about Torrealba vs. Eveling de Rosales? The more Chuo shines, the worse our actual political leaders look.

The other potential problem I see is that Torrealba’s star might be too bright for him to be an effective negotiator. It’s one thing for the parties to sit down with someone like Ramón Guillermo Aveledo who, for all his qualities, was not looking for the limelight and was not going to outshine the person on the other side of the table. It’s quite different to do this with someone with the star power that Torrealba seems to be accumulating.

Sometimes, in movies or in plays, secondary characters shine because the individuals who play them are a force of nature. They end up stealing every scene they are in, and sometimes they steal the entire piece. This can be good for a production, or it can make everything a mess. You don’t hire Ralph Fiennes to play Reynaldo in your little community version of Hamlet, no matter how good the choice might look on paper. He runs the risk of outshining the main players.

Ultimately, it may all work out. It might be good for our political leaders to have a little competition from the supposed bureaucrat who is in charge of handling them. And if Torrealba leaves them in the dust and emerges as the opposition’s political leader, so be it … we could certainly do much worse.

But, deep down, I wonder if the parties that selected Torrealba knew what they were signing up for.