Pragmatism: The Real "Como Sea"

Think the opposition can't overplay its hand, alienate its potential allies and waste yet one more chance to rally popular support against the government? Think again.

On Saturday, Quico wrote a second post predicting the demise of chavismo. In this version, the PSUV refuses to negotiate with a congressional majority elected democratically on 6D, acting as if it hadn’t just lost the popular vote. Repulsed by this display of despotism, the military, the bureaucracy, and the streets rush into the opposition’s open arms. Then, with MUD at the helm, the country sails off into the sunset as if these sixteen years never happened.

He has it wrong on two counts. The first is how the PSUV might respond to an opposition victory on 6D. The second, and, I think, more fundamental disagreement is over how the rest of the county might respond. In Quico’s rom com, the MUD is Cary Grant: Venezuela’s man all along! I’m concerned that the MUD might be more…Ralph Bellamy.

On the first point, Quico has written that, even if faced with an unambiguous choice between compromise and irrelevance, chavista politicians won’t negotiate—not in public, not in secret, not ever. They never have, and therefore they never will. But desperate times, desperate measures: mothers bench-press cars, climbers self-amputate with dull knives. An oppo supermajority would change PSUV incentives, and incentives, they tell me, shape behavior.

Moreover, the purest of the chavista ideologues—the wouldn’t-touch-escuálidos-with-a-ten-foot-pole types, from Hector Navarro to Ana Elisa Osorio and, of course, Giordani himself—bolted some time ago. With the hard line winnowed away, who’s left to be shocked by a pragmatic negotiation? El Pollo Carvajal, maybe?

On the other hand, Maduro has talked openly and in no uncertain terms of governing through a unión civico–militar if the opposition controls the AN. That sure sounds like digging in, doesn’t it?

We don’t know what chavista pols will do. What seems clearer to me is what the rest of the country will do, and this is the crux of my disagreement with Quico. For Quico, a big 6D victory means that the military, the bureaucracy, and the streets are done with chavismo, leaving the MUD as the lone and lucky suitor. For me, a 6D win is just an opening, a first date, a chance for the MUD to win everyone over, with chavismo—if not Maduro—as continued rival.

So, what does Venezuela want from oppo leaders? Flowers? Chocolates Franchesi?

the purest of the chavista ideologues—the wouldn’t-touch-escuálidos-with-a-ten-foot-pole types, from Hector Navarro to Ana Elisa Osorio and, of course, Giordani himselfbolted some time ago.

The MUD could do worse than look to Alejandro Velasco for its cupid. In his new book, Barrio Rising, Velasco argues that 23 de enero—and perhaps the Venezuelan barrios more generally—have a long history of mobilizing ante el gobierno, pero no anti-gobierno. This lovely phrase loses rhyme in the translation, but means, roughly, that popular demands have focused on fixing bad governance, not on trying to overthrow governments outright. It means that the barrios support criticism of elected leaders but not insurrection. Velasco substantiates this claim with examples from every decade since the 50s.

Oppo leaders have missed this point in the past. The ante el gobierno, no anti-gobierno distinction has flown right over their heads: witness the mistakes of 14A, the paro petrolero, the 2005 election boycott, #lasalida. Interpreting a 6D oppo victory as a once-and-for-all rejection of chavismo would make the same mistake, all over again.

There are some signs that the MUD may be catching on. Promoting Chuo Torrealba could be seen as a step away from salidismo. The head—or at least, the not-in-jail head—of Voluntad Popular, Freddy Guevara, appears more aligned with the MUD moderates than with VP’s extremist past.

But then there are other signs that salidismo is alive and well. Leopoldo Lopez wrote a letter saying that the future MUD diputados are committed to “liberating” Venezuela by instigating a “change in the corrupt leadership,” specifying that the MUD “cannot wait until the presidential elections of 2019” but instead will seek to replace Maduro “in the first semester of 2016.” Yep, “liberating” was Leopoldo’s verb of choice. And in case that wasn’t clear enough, there’s an animated video version of the letter, too.

The irony here is that a major opposition victory on 6D, paired with a blatant PSUV refusal to recognize the results (say, setting up a parallel Asamblea Revolucionaria, rejecting negotiations), might legitimize a revocatorio or calls for Maduro to step down—even by Velasco’s standard. But by crying “off with his head!” before the elections have even taken place, the MUD loses the leading lady. This message alienates almost everyone the opposition needs to turn a majority on 6D into a real political win.

Worse, it may alienate voters the opposition needs this Sunday.