Divide and conquer

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Waiting for your solutions
Waiting for your solutions

(This is a guest post by longtime reader Sasha Ojeda Mendoza, a Dutch-Venezuelan political scientist and blogger based in Amsterdam. Take it away, Sasha.)

Entrenched politics and how to fail at self-reflection

There is a long-standing consensus that chavismo will eventually collapse under its own weight – the economic situation making this scenario more and more plausible. Still, waiting for a seemingly inevitable implosion is not much of a strategy. One of the mysteries of the past few months is what exactly the opposition is doing to proactively precipitate this process.

Everyone agrees that this administration is inefficient, corrupt, and that Venezuela is going through tough economic times. The shortages hold public life hostage to queuing in endless lines, but discontent – in the absence of clear alternatives – becomes compliance, conformity, survival. The opposition does not seem to speak to this weariness by offering an alternative.

An age of complaisance?

Complaisance seems unacceptable to many of us, and it directly opposes the legitimate outrage and indignation that the opposition thinks should be felt. But this outrage creates a deep chasm between us … and the people we think should be outraged.

In thinking about this disconnect, I remembered this article by my friends at Caracas Chronicles. When thinking about all the apologists and conformists, about the people who simply don’t have the energy to get fired up about this mess, it is tempting to ask ourselves: “are the people still on the other side worth convincing?”

Unconditionally, yes. “Do they share elemental values with us?” Does it really matter? It’s not like we can wish our differences away (even though, Chavismo would have you believe it is totally possible).

In the end, the issue of engaging swing voters is not really a question of negotiating “respect”, it’s about the recognition of opinions, sincere dialogue, and reconciliation. The problem is that the very legitimate anger about indifference has made way for a yearning to change the only variables we actually can’t – cultural ones, mostly. But we will never truly engage swing voters if we do not speak to them about what we stand for, what we see, and what we offer.

Most of the people that support this administration by lending their vote long for alternatives but do not trust the blind spot beyond the status quo. The line of thought is based on real materialistic needs of a people spoiled by a political culture of give-aways. What will a next government do for me? they seem to be asking when standing in line, arrechos with the government.

The answer is hard to come by because earnest policy alternatives are scarce. Pickings will be slim in any realistic long-term scenario, and opposition parties cannot keep avoiding the sore spot out of fear of scaring voters. It seems our opposition parties are either badgering an issue to death, or ignoring it. Both strategies can be easily overplayed.

I have given up on most politicians who have deadlocked themselves and their followers into confrontation-based politics by completely stepping into the Chavismo discourse, only existing in the constructed narrative, and failing to come up with any long term policy plans. A people that have gotten used to clientelism will be harder to convince, but politics that has no basis in policy is populism, which is the last thing anyone should want to challenge Chavismo with. The opposition needs to provide more substance than it has.

This raises an important question: is there a market for non-populist leadership in an authoritarian zero-sum state? Well, I believe there is. After all, if you can’t fight fire with fire, why would you be able to fight populism with populism? Everything else has failed.

It has been suggested that the opposition has been kept so busy trying to keep up with Chavismo it has never gotten to long term policy planning. It’s certainly outdone by way of the communicational hegemony, but the media that is available to the opposition is only used for venting. There is also little follow-up on long term political debates. But that is as much because chavismo has forced us as it is because of the opposition’s unwillingness to engage in serious policy debates.

Take last Thursday’s decreed laws. Good chance you had completely forgotten about the Enabling Law, but don’t feel bad – apparently the entire opposition forgot too. It is hardly the first time it’s happened, so why did the opposition not use the opportunity to build momentum?

Democracy

Venezuela does not have a political alternative to Chavismo in the sense that there are no clear policy proposals to choose from. Neither the opposition parties nor the opposing minority as a whole has been able to formulate clear policy alternatives to challenge the current establishment. This has become a much more pressing problem now that the majority of the ruling party has become so small. It is quite obvious that the opposition cannot formulate policy alternatives because the MUD is not a policy-based political party, it is a convenient coalition of political parties.

Functional, effective democracies depend on accountable political parties, leaders or social movements who represent the interests of the electorate and project these needs and aspirations into realistic policy proposals. Political outrage in Western democracies usually revolves around budgets and social spending. Accountability is a big deal when governments run on tax money, but in Venezuela the government’s budget is 96% oil money. When it’s not the taxpayer’s buck that’s being gambled, accountability is less of an issue.

The opposition needs to man up, be honest, and formulate policies that dismiss rentista tradition and push people to work to crank up production soon. Dismissing an actual sustainable attitude because the current government undermines democracy has not gained it much ground.

The opposition has made it clear elections will be the way out. If so, is it wise to simply wait for the government to slowly rot in order to take the win? How will we justify this? Will we sell the idea of keeping a fantasy alive, where we just switch administrations, keep everything else, and everyone lives happily ever after?

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1 COMMENT

  1. Sasha, great article. On this issue: “Venezuela does not have a political alternative to Chavismo in the sense that there are no clear policy proposals to choose from.”

    Policy proposals there are. There may not be clear. To be honest I don’t think that’s what the opposition has been missing to cross that “cultural chasm”. What it is missing is a conceptual map. One that explains why there is prevailing suffering and what’s their idea of justice, of society.

    • Thanks Rodrigo. There are proposals but none that actually challenge Chavismo as a whole. Chavismo as an ideology, if you can call it that, covers every aspect of society, justice (however cringeworthy) – it has a vision of society even – and the many tiny steps it takes to get there. The opposition needs to address the
      uncertainties it has intentionally/tactically left unrequited. You could call it a conceptual map, totally safer than calling it a constitution hehehe

      • Kudos Sasha.

        This was clearly seen in the outlining differences between Chavez´s Government Plan (Plan de la Patria) and Capriles´s Government Plan, during the September presidential elections in 2012. People mocked the whole “save the whole galaxy I’m Buzz Lightyear” part, however when compared, Chavistas do have a plan set with certain policies, meanwhile the opposition does not.

        When discussing this issue with someone inside the Unity’s Round Table, the response I received from that person was that “people don’t pay too much attention to those plans”. therefore, reaffirming such statement as “politics that has no basis in policy is populism.”

  2. MUD is in a similar situation as the government: No body likes the current state of inaction, yet it is probably the least undesirable one. Leopoldo has been scolded for being too bold, Capriles has been critiziced for being soft and Falcon is “oportunista” for trying to approach the government. Basically anything the MUD does will alienate some of the member parties.

    And just like the government, the opposition has no f**king idea what to do when it’s not an election year. MUD is probably low on funding, they have very little media coverage, people are reluctant to protest when they spend hours standing in line, more so now that they can be arbitrarily arrested.

    My prediction is that at least until the next parliamentary elections the opposition will keep doing what they have so far: They will try to appoint one CNE board member at the AN, keep protesting internationally about political prisioners, maybe have another session of dialogue if the government asks for it and prepare for the parliamentary elections.

  3. excelente!
    IMO at least the opposition should be stating what is not sustainable or convenient to the national interests in chavistas world view and policies.

  4. Hi there! I found Ms. Ojeda’s article very interesting and tried to articulate some comments but they came out rather long by this blog’s standards… For those of you who may be interested inreading them, pls go to the following link in Sendspace: https://www.sendspace.com/file/7nmnky. Thank you very much for your time.

    • Thank you for taking the time Edmundo! BTW. Sasha is fine)

      Your story kind of asymptotically challenges what I tried to appeal to but never really gets to the core of the argument. “But for now, the only plan that justifies full efforts and enthusiasm is to take over the government. All else comes afterwards.” THIS is exactly what I’m opposing to. This you don’t seem to grasp. Taking a win by waiting it out in the trenches is exactly what I’m saying is the wrong way to go and its most definitely goes against the democratic idea the opposition has been claiming to stand for.

      You quoted the article “Functional, effective democracies depend on accountable political parties, leaders or social movements who represent the interests of the electorate and these needs and aspirations into realistic policy proposals.” this sentence is the quite clear aspiration (of democracy) of the opposition. If it’s not, maybe stop using that word altogether, democracy doesn’t mean what the oppo thinks it means then. Praising A (full democracy) but meaning B, B being an extension of what you added here “// The biggest problem is precisely that Venezuela is NOT AN EFFECTIVE DEMOCRACY”. Admitting that Venezuela is not a democracy and therefore implying the oppo cannot strive for it- is kind of weird, no? You’re saying that because Venezuela isn’t currently a functioning democracy (or a functioning anything) there is no reason to actively work toward it because voters are not used to it mostly because Venezuela is not a functioning democracy. Does circular reasoning ring a bell? The opposition doesn’t have to work towards what their using as an ideal picture of the future because we know populism works now. I’m trying to bridge that large gap between the aspiration of an advanced democracy and the ‘lets wait it out and we’ll win by a small margin’-attitude. I’m saying it’s not enough to win. At least not by a narrow margin and wanting drastic changes in a society based on just as illegitimate results as the past government, in other words, based on another tyranny of the majority. It’s not enough if we want to keep pretending to include everyone. I do realize most of us feel that a win is enough. But we must also come to terms with the fact that 50% still voted for the PSUV just a little more than a year ago. It might not feel that way but many will do it next year as well. If the opposition wins the elections with a tiny margin we are not out of harms way. It will not a victory for democracy, in any way, it will merely demonstrate that Chavismo failed… And I feel it’s worth posing the question – how certain are we that it will collapse under its own weight? And if we are certain – is that scenario how recovery can start? Will people believe Chavismo is still possible if competent people lead it? Was Chavismo the problem or just corruption and if the latter, how is anything going to change if everything else stays in place. I’m calling for an extensive reflection, asking for at least a look into what the opposition’s scenarios would be. How will money be allocated? What will be done to deal with government organizations and how will the oil dependency be cut back, on what terms, etc.? This means indeed coming with counter budget plans based on whatever you have to go on (not just implying your government would do it the right way. How is that even relevant at all?), and countering measures with policy plans for the same issues (as the MUD or from the individual parties) therefore attacking the government on content.

  5. Big problem is that on the side of Chavismo there are mostly rethorical , magic fixes , Melodramatic very simplified renderings of reality and lots of rabble rousing rants . People have been fed those delusions for years . On the opposition side there is a more difficult to understand , more challenging view of things and a realization that lots of what it has to say will not be understood or will be misconstrued by people who wont be able to get it or who have been primed not to get it !! Policies can be formulated and advertised but the fear is that because so many people on the Chavista side lack any capacity to understand and judge what is said to them it will misfire and produce an adverse reaction. Opposition policies will be hurtful in the short or mid term even if fruitful on the longer term and many people wont want to accept that.

    So meeting the challenge may mean dividing the discourse into two versions , one fully fleshed out one for those who are capable of understanding in full what it in front of any new govt to get venezuela out of the morass its in and into a long difficult road towards recovery and growth . the other a simplified dolled up version of the former that ordinary people can follow and simpathyze with !!

    There is a MUD program which was prepared for the last election but which few people read or really even remmeber , its still there , could that be a start for modelling a message to use to atract people towards an opposition view of things at this time ?? worth a thought.

  6. You have done an excellent job of framing the problem. But, the solution to the problem is not obvious. The leadership of the Opposition (because it too is divided) has failed to produce a “vision” that people can rally behind.

    In a recent article in CC, someone pointed out that because the government’s revenues come from oil rents, and not from taxes or domestic production, for the Chavista government, the population of Venezuela is actually only an unneeded irritation. They consume but do not produce. The Chavistas in power would be much more comfortable if half the population of the country were to flee or die. Chavismo’s weakness is that however silly and impractical their original ideology was, they have lost sight of it. The author of it is dead, and the people in now charge never believed in it to begin with.

    There are good reasons for the Opposition to to not be able to formulate a consistent vision for the future. But, there is no reason for them not being more effective in attacking and undermining the regime.

    • That bit about rents and taxes you mentioned is exactly what I meant with accountability being an issue when a gov. runs on tax money – rentism problematizing that mechanism. The solution isn’t obvious but the problem isn’t all that obvious either… I rarely see someone problematizing anything beyond “Chavistas ruined everything”. People usually accept that they don’t have solutions because it’s very realistic and understandable to say Chavistas are too powerful to really challenge. My whole point is, letting the government rot isn’t enough. We are all sooo invested in the zero-sum reality of power that no one stops to think there is a pretty big hole to step into… A huge power vacuum grows with every inch Chavismo shrinks. There is a huge space to be filled by anyone rallying for the socialism voters have been enticed with. How is that not a genuine concern that forces the opposition to do more than just ride things out (because fuck alternatives, we’re (still) the only ones)?

      • Hi Sasha. Thanks for your response. For me, it is easy to design functional political agenda based upon:

        1. Decentralization of power and running all local and state governments with tax rents not dependent upon the federal government.

        2. All oil rents to be spent on defraying the current debt and building national infrastructure.

        3. Privatization of all industry to the extent practical.

        4. Liberalization of laws to promote domestic and foreign investment.

        5. Reforms of all government functions to create accountability, improve services, and eliminate corruption.

        The problem is that a healthy recovery is going to take a decade or more. Someone in the Opposition needs to start delivering the bad news that for Venezuelans, life is going to suck for a quite a while. But, that if they stick with the program, their kids will have a better future. Somehow, I just don’t see Venezuelans rallying to a “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears” speech, even though it is exactly what is needed. Which Venezuelans want to be told that they are lazy, consumeristic bums and that they are going to have to learn how to work for a living? For most of a generation, the key to success in Venezuela has been figuring out how to game the system better than the next guy. They are going to have to apply the same energy and creativity to producing goods and services. But, is that message going to get votes?

        Somehow, I don’t think the lesson is going to take hold until Venezuelans have suffered more than they already have.

  7. I’ll copy here a quote from a forum user that was discussing strategies that could be used by the opposition:

    ” Una cosa es que la gran mayoria del pueblo raso esté en contra del Régimen y no voten por eso. Otra es que quieran sacar al Régimen del poder por la via violenta. Eso tampoco lo quieren

    Porqué no lo quieren ?

    Uno tiene no más que ponerse en los zapatos de los pobres. Una caida del Régimen no les va a solucionar ninguno de sus problemas que tampoco se los solucionan, sino que se los agrava el Régimen. Pero hay una pieza clave que opera en el consciente o el subconsciente de ese mismo pueblo

    “Qué va a ser de mi si la oposición tomara el poder”

    Esa pregunta tiene respuestas tétricas tanto si la salida fuera electoral, cosa que es imposible y lo saben. Como si la salida es por la fuerza

    En ambas salidas saben de sobra, de caletre que las declaraciones desde la oposición hecha gobierno serán del tipo:

    a ) “Hay que hablarle claro al pueblo” –léase: Apriéten ese culo–

    b ) “Hay que procurar un pacto social que permita lograr superar la gigantesca crisis que hemos heredado” –léase: Apriéten ese culo, bien duro–

    c ) “El pueblo es suficientemente inteligente para entender …” –léase: Apriéten ese culo, bien duro, durito–

    Si la salida es electoral: Sabe el pueblo de sobra que el chavismo no va a ser lo que ha sido esta oposición MUD de cobardes, colaboracionistas, mendigones, enchuados, conchupantes, cohabitacionistas. El PSUV se fortalecerá como la primera fuerza política desde la oposición y acabará en dos patadas con un Gobierno que o obedece las líneas del PSUV o se verá retirado del poder al próximo revocatorio sino antes. Y mientras tanto el pais incendiado por los 4 costados mientas el gobierno receta paquetazos.

    Si la salida es por la fuerza: La percepción es que serán masacrados económicamente sin tener nada que los defienda porque la OPOSICION íntegra pasó a ser Poder o colaboracionista, y el PSUV partió en estampida, o presos o muertos ”

    Promising chavistas any other thing different from the useless populism and “father state” taking care of all your expenses without having to lift a finger translates for them as “tighten that ass”

    But so far, we’ve seen the idiocy of trying to fight chavista populism with more populism.

  8. Venezuelans have an extended historically reference of IMPROVISATION or/and to have a hidden agenda, generally attached to their own personal interests, with no supra-national needs and musts within their priorities. On top of that this new Venezuelans have showed an oblivious attitude in detriment to the country’s needs. The lacking of conscious awareness, their unmindful acts simply and regretfully confirm this sad and perversive aspect. Unfortunately it seems that the main alternative to fight such pervasive virus embedded in people’s attitudes will be a colossal ‘coup de grace’ to the “invaders”. This can only be obtained, at least it seems this way, via a deathblow to their core. Violently ? Uhmmmm? Don’t think so….Anyhow, all these puppets controlled by the ‘invaders’ are ALL expendables, ALL of them, and this is something that haven’t realized yet, or maybe yes? Is the opposition involved in this deathblow attack? Definitely it seems so, with their behind the stage maneuvering, but we can’t simply wait for the worst times forever….Anyhow, patience and endurance will be pivotal to keep this strategy alive and kicking, beside playing a close hand and to keep NOT showing all your cards.

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