The humble mayor

“The street gives you strength. It pressures the other guy.”

As he says this, David Smolansky is looking at me as if I’m an idiot.

I’ve just asked him why he thinks “the street” is so important. Haven’t we been out in the streets for the better part of fifteen years now? What have we accomplished? Is it not possible that Venezuelan politicians use “the street” as shorthand?

He keeps insisting. “The street also gives you credibility in the media.” As he is saying this, the slit in his Slavic eyes gets paper thin.

I double down.

“But … in other countries, politics is not always done from the street. Sometimes, small gatherings are better to reach the public and establish a narrative.”

No, he insists, without the pressure from the street you can’t get anything done in Venezuela.

Even though he is repeating what to me sounds like a tautology, I know I’ve got him thinking.

————–

I am sharing a pizza with Smolansky, the mayor of the Caracas suburb of El Hatillo. Outside, the temperature is below freezing. Venezuela and its chaos seem worlds away.

During our dinner, David shared with me his story – from erstwhile student leader to becoming one of the nation’s youngest mayors.

His journey began as a journalism student, way back in 2007. When RCTV was shut down, David was one of the leaders of the movement that, in his words, “gave the government its only electoral defeat to date.”

“I remember the feeling of powerlessness over RCTV. As journalism students, we felt an urgent need to act.”

One of their first events was “Acostados por la vida,” a protest spurred by the murder of the Faddoul brothers. Students would lie down in the streets as dead bodies, their silhouettes marked against the pavement resembling victims. The event created a stir.

After this, the students were at the forefront of the protest movement, with each innovative step gaining more and more credibility. One day they were protesting in the Metro or on street corners. The other day they were painting their palms in white.

Chávez was caught off guard.

“One of Hugo Chávez’s few political mistakes was to label us as rich kids. He said that nobody would listen to us, that the hills were not going to come down because of our protests. He completely underestimated the student movement that year.”

The opposition won that year, in spite of Jorge Rodríguez not wanting to concede. David remembers that General Raúl Baduel spoke to the students during the tense hours after the polls closed, and he was a significant factor in convincing chavismo to concede. He thinks this perceived betrayal to the cause is the reason why Baduel sits in prison to this day.

After the success of 2007, the students were euphoric, but they came crashing down quickly. “I remember the reception we got in the UCAB Aula Magna … We were heroes. Thousands of students were applauding our efforts. But the next day, I was sitting down for a test.”

As David tells it, the student movement was gripped by a strong sense of “what now?” Politicians did not know what to do with them, and they could not really capitalize on their success. They had to move on with their lives.

Still, when Hugo Chávez surprisingly called for a new referendum in late 2008 to approve, among other things, indefinite reelection, established politicians turned to the student movement once again to spearhead the campaign. The government was not caught off guard this time. “That campaign, with all its dirty tricks, with the unfairness of its timing, was the most unfair election we have participated in. Worse than any other.”

David recalls this with more than a hint of bitterness. “Regional elections had just ended, and political parties were exhausted, depleted. Many of the leaders from 2007 had moved on, but I was younger, and I was still in school. It fell on me and a few others to try and defeat the government. This time, we were not successful, in part because Chávez said that anyone could be “indefinitely reelected.” This gave a powerful incentive to many in the opposition to not support the opposition’s campaign. Chávez threw them a bone.”

It fell on Smolansky to announce to the country that we had been defeated. Nobody from political parties reached out to him. The only one … was Leopoldo López.

Smolansky speaks warmly about Leopoldo, and it’s not surprising. I ask him to tell me something about Leopoldo that few people know. Smolansky stops to think.

“He’s a very unemotional guy sometimes. When you’re in a meeting with him, it’s mostly business. But the one time I have seen him get choked up … was when his daughter was born. I think fatherhood, and now jail, have changed him. Softened him even.”

“In spite of what’s written about him, he’s a team player. Leopoldo really likes it when you talk straight to him. He doesn’t hold grudges, and he turns the page quickly. I really miss talking to him and getting his feedback about my work in the Alcaldía.

What about Capriles?

David strikes a diplomatic tone, yet the undertow of past battles with his mentor’s rival is clearly visible. “He’s an incredibly hard worker, a very disciplined politician. He is also somebody who knows his own weaknesses, who understands himself very well. That is a rare quality.”

I ask him how he views his role inside the opposition.

“I have great relations with Aveledo and his team. The way I see it, I can serve as a bridge between the MUD and Voluntad Popular.” (A few weeks later, Capriles met with Smolansky and the rest of the VP team as part of the rapprochement between the two factions)

The conversation is getting long and I ask him what he thinks is the most valuable quality a Venezuelan politician should have.

He pauses, and thinks.

“Humility.”

Whoa … a Venezuelan politician speaking of humility?

“There is so much I have yet to learn. Even in this conference, I’m learning so much. I’m learning from talking to you tonight.”

“I learned the value of humility early on. In 2007, many of us students let success get to our head. Imagine, being the big guy on campus, defeating chavismo… Then, 2009 came. After our defeat, nobody at the UCAB was there to receive us, nobody was there. That sort of thing keeps you grounded.”

“In politics, it’s important to know your limitations. One day you’re the toast of the town, the next day you’re nobody. It’s not easy, but you need to see yourself in other people, to acknowledge your rival, your ally, your team. That is the one thing that will give you the strength to face up to these enormous responsibilities.”

———

Saint Teresa of Ávila once said that humility means “traveling in truth.” Humility is a virtue because it is grounded in truth. The humble sees himself as he is, warts and all, and does not imagine himself as something other than what he really is – a flawed person, somebody who is eventually going to die and few will remember, someone who needs redeeming.

In spite of his successes, Smolansky struck me as a person who tries to live in truth, an accessible public servant who doesn’t see himself in a different light just because he’s succeeded in the cutthroat world of opposition politics.

As the country faces a crossroad –  who are we? where do we want to go? how do we get there? are we willing to make the sacrifices needed to amend the path? – it is reassuring to find politicians who seemingly value this rarest of qualities.

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