#UnaMiradaDesdeAfuera: A rare misfire from @prodavinci

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venezuela-una-mirada-desde-afueraThis was a tough post to write. I love the work that ‘the folks at Prodavinci do, but man, their latest gimmick really rubbed me the wrong way.

Maybe it’s me. I dunno.

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the street protest that began a new cycle of political violence in Venezuela. To “commemorate” the date, Prodavinci invited four foreign intellectuals to opine on where things stand in our country, and where things are going, under the hashtag #UnaMiradaDesdeAfuera.

My first problem with this idea is to wonder why it’s necessary. Is there any use to know what four foreign intellectuals think about our country’s politics? Their analyses are bound to be of lesser depth than anything we can get from Venezuelans. Their views are always going to be partial.

Personally, I find it arrogant for a foreigner who doesn’t even live in Venezuela to accept an invitation to give a political opinion on that country … in that country’s media. It’s one thing when, say, Mario Vargas Llosa talks about Venezuela to a foreign news paper. When he does it to our own media, he gets away with it because he talks in general terms, and because he’s frickin’ Mario Vargas Llosa.

But the knowledge of Venezuela these gentlemen have strikes me as superficial.

I live in a country that is not my own, and I give political opinions regularly, but they are about my own country. Seldom do I venture to tell Chileans what they should be doing about their own country’s politics. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it a condescending and impolite gesture.

Second thing worth noting is that the four authors represent “progressive” (some would say downright leftist) points of view. Fernando Savater is a Spaniard who has founded a “progressive” political party. During the 1980s, Sergio Ramírez was Daniel Ortega’s Vice-President. Joaquín Villalobos is a former Salvadoran guerrilla leader. And Fernando Mires is a Chilean who played a role in the para-military wing of Salvador Allende’s government. Right off the bat, it is striking that none of them appear to have the credentials to defend the benefits of free markets or liberal democracies.

But, you know … open minds, people can change, and all that.

Now, I might be overly sensitive here. I’m no expert on who these people are, so my first impression is just that, an impression. Maybe they are not the biased leftists I take them to be. Maybe they are such bright luminaries that they deserve to give their opinion. Maybe my opposition-tinged glasses are not letting me appreciate serious analysis when I see it.

Knowing this, I put my smirk aside, and I read their pieces with an open mind.

Well, my first impression was right. I simply could not find many redeeming values in the pieces. As reader (and new friend, since we met twice this week) Carlos Mora says, an impression is equal to data plus opinion. Something … rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was the data. Maybe it was my opinion. Could it be that I’m projecting? Could it be that the problem is in my reading of the pieces and not in the pieces themselves? Sometimes a text can mean one thing to one person, and something else entirely to another.

Ramírez’s article is called “The Perfect Storm,” and in it he recounts overhearing a meeting of chavistas in early 2000, wanting to warn them about how “the movie” they were so enthusiastically participating in plays itself out – with shortages and chaos. Here’s a snippet,

“And as I listened people chanting ardorous bolivarian slogans at the other side of the wall, I was invaded by a confused feeling, one that mixed my memories of the moment the dam breaks, the raptorous waters are set free, and everything seems possible; my respect for the innocence with which those improvised militants, of diverse ages, share the dream they thought was fulfillable; and the voice inside of me that reminded me that I knew how that movie played out. Of course, I was not going to be arrogant enough to enter the hall where they held their seminar, or workshop, or whatever, but I did want to warn them what the ending was going to look like, because I had lived through it.”

Now, when you read that paragraph, you think:

  1. Ramírez learned the lessons of the failed Nicaraguan Revolution.
  2. Events from the early 2000s tell us nothing about Venezuela today.
  3. Ramírez is right about the “innocence” of chavistas.
  4. Ramírez is being too generous by respecting the supposed innocence of chavistas.

If you’re like me, you answered 4.

Ramírez appears to not have learned the right lessons from his experience. In his framework, he still seems to believe that class warfare, doing away with checks and balances, and restricting private property – parts of the chavista plank from the very beginning – all come from a good place. The problem seems to be, in his mind, that the policies that flow from these beliefs don’t work.

Ramírez fails to understand that the problem is not in the implementation or in the lack of results, but in the genesis. Chavismo, from its very beginning, was a movement that did away with the separation of powers and other core values of liberal democracies. It was never about giving people rights, but about claiming to give people rights. The model was always Cuba.

These “innocents” were basically buying into an ideology that submitted the individual to the rights of the collective, one that meshed democracy with the whims of a caudillo. It doesn’t work alright, and it has never worked … because, deep down, it is deeply inhuman.

In other words, these were no “innocents,” no matter what Ramírez says.

Savater’s brief text is called “In a democracy there is space for everyone.” It is basically a call for democratic tolerance in Venezuela as a necessary condition for whatever is to come. He says,

“I wish for Venezuela, a country that I love dearly and one for which I wish nothing but good things, a generation of democrats capable of presenting their arguments and accepting other people’s arguments, a democratic generation that takes pride in not always being right, but in recognizing that some people can also be right sometimes.”

Who is Savater talking about?

  1. Chavistas
  2. The opposition
  3. The opposition student movement
  4. All young people in Venezuela

I don’t know about you, but I voted for 3. Savater’s implication seems to be that democracy in Venezuela requires an opposition that is more tolerant and inclusive.

Since a large majority of the “new generation” is opposed to chavismo, Savater seems to be pleading for the people locked away in El Helicoide, being tortured in Ramo Verde, exiled, muzzled, or otherwise disenfranchised … to just become more tolerant of the ideas of folks such as Diosdado Cabello and Luisa Ortega Díaz.

Talk about tone-deaf.

Joaquín Villalobos decrees in his article, “Better a bad agreement than a good fight,” that chavismo has changed Venezuela for good, and that all parties need to accept this new reality. But in making his analysis, he conflates the two sides in a completely irresponsible way. He says,

“Compared to other cases, we could say that Venezuela is in a phase where verbal violence still prevails over actual dead bodies. The country is living in a pre-conflict situation, which can derive in an actual confrontation any moment. As in any street fight, verbal violence precedes physical violence. Venezuelans have shown great resistance to killing themselves in spite of the extreme polarization they are suffering through. Nevertheless, the “Caracazo” and the failed coups of 1992 and 2002 show that this can change suddenly. The country is living through a tie between the bolivarian regime’s economic failure and the opposition’s political failure. When there is a tie, what is crucial is not who is right, but how the country can be reunited. Being right in a profoundly divided country is worth next to nothing.”

What jumps out at you as wrong from that paragraph?

  1. The country is in a tie.
  2. The country is not in actual conflict.
  3. The country’s polarization is something Venezuelans “are suffering.”
  4. All of the above.

Yup – I think it’s 4.

The country is in a tie, the same way that the terrorists in Guantánamo Bay are “tied” with the Americans holding them.

Venezuela, according to Villalobos, is a country where people say mean things to you but no actual violence islikely to occur.

And polarization is just something we all suffer from. Kind of like the weather. Nobody is responsible for it – no siree.

Finally, we get to hear from someone who has become the darling of many in Caracas’ intellectual circles, Fernando Mires.

Mires’ text is called “Venezuela: From The Exit to The Change.” It is a long description of La Salida and what has come afterwards (Mires really needs an editor, btw). He points out La Salida’s mistakes, many of them correct, and calls for the vindication of Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, Henrique Capriles, and Chúo Torrealba. He says,

“The MUD, the opposition in general, lived through one of the worst crises in its history right after La Salida failed. The more radical groups, for reasons that could be explained by psychic (sic) methods (self-aggression), attacked Henrique Capriles and Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, Executive Secretary of the MUD. From various columns they have been offended and insulted more than any government representative.

Aveledo, the maximum warrior for unity, could not take the pressure against him, and he had to resign. It seemed at the time that a systematic labor of years was going to come crashing to the floor. The regime was, according to public opinion, in its lowest levels, but the MUD, ataccked by two fires, was not in any condition to capitalize on the general discontent.

Nevertheless, when the government and the ultra radicals were rejoicing, almost leaving the MUD out for dead, a true miracle appeared. In the end of September, Chúo Torrealba was named executive secretary of the MUD.

Mires’ text is basically one long vindication of the people who were against La Salida. Aveledo, Capriles, and especially Torrealba are the heroes, the main people responsible for the opposition’s current status as the leading political force in the country.

Now, perhaps I’m being too arrogant, but I think Mires gets a bunch of things wrong in his analysis.

Aveledo had to resign not because of some dirty campaign against him, but because authorities inside the MUD had to be renewed. He had been helming the coalition for a long time, and had significant successes at it, but the last few months of his tenure had been bad ones. There was Roberta-gate, and more importantly, there was a clear disconnect between himself and part of the MUD, that which Mires disdainfully calls “the radicals.”

Capriles, on the other hand, deserved much of the criticism launched his way. I admit a lot of it got out of hand,  but he gave as good as he got.

Capriles routinely blasted the students dying in the streets of Venezuela and the political prisoners rotting in our jails as mistaken radicals. His lack of empathy for people’s problems and for the reasons people were out on the streets was evident in quite a few interviews, most of them given to foreign media. And lest you think that lack of unity was the fault of the radicals, Mires should ask himself this: why is it that Aveledo and Capriles routinely ignored the voices representing these factions? What role does Maria Corina Machado play inside the MUD? Why did Leopoldo López himself complain to me in December of 2013, a few months before being jailed, that his party was basically not invited to MUD meetings?

Mires’ one-sided take on the opposition’s travails is tragic, but his claim that the opposition’s improved fortunes at the moment are due to Torrealba’s appointment are almost risible. The opposition is gaining the upper hand on the government in spite of itself, not because of it. The severe economic crisis people are living through is much more important than anything Torrealba has done. And, by the way, one of Torrealba’s main goals was to explain how candidates for the National Assembly were going to be picked, and lead the process to see this through. So far, there is absolutely no sign he is succeeding in this.

He then goes on to argue that, since both sides are equal, they need to sit down and talk.

There is a text that has been making the rounds by … a Venezuelan! It’s called Cinco Sótanos Contra el Sol, and it’s writen by playwright Leonardo Padrón. In it, Padrón discusses the infamous “basement” in Venezuela’s secret police headquarters, five floors below ground, where several student leaders are being held and tortured. It is a riveting read.

When foreigners write about Venezuela, many times they fail to grasp the nuances that are making our political life unbearable, nuances such as those captured by the Padrón piece. The incessant corruption, the deep penetration of drug trafficking, the human rights violations, the supression of independent media, the bone-headed economic policies, the assaults on human dignity that price controls and rationing represent … none of these things seem to matter to these authors. All they care about is keeping score, promoting “dialogue,” and pontificating about some fake moral equivalence between chavismo and those who oppose it.

On this blog, we’ve been huge fans of Prodavinci, and we remain so. But these four pieces left me shaking my head in disbelief. Was it just me? Am I reading things in them that are not really there?