Seeing the MUD from Colombia

Why Colombians struggle to make heads or tails of Venezuela's strange, diverse opposition coalition.

My friends and family back in Bogotá are well aware of my weird obsession keen interest in Venezuela and its politics, so when I visit it is often a topic of conversation. My last trip happened right after the 6D election when interest was particularly high. I found that everyone I talked to knew that the opposition had won and had won big, many of them aware of the 112 diputados and that it was some sort of magic number. This wasn’t too surprising as Venezuela is a favourite item for Colombian media and news channels, going all the way back to the Chávez-Uribe confrontation days.

What struck me was that the people I talked to had only a vague idea of what the opposition is beyond being, well, the opposition. Comparing political ideologies across borders is tricky even in the best of circumstances, and we are far from those, but it’s safe to say that the bulk of la MUD is less right-wing than President Santos. It turns out my relatively safe assumption was a complete surprise to those I talked to. For example, my good friend Carlos who leans right and supports Uribe was dismayed to find out that the Venezuelan opposition, who he supports, is leftier than Santos, whom he dislikes.

My sense was that Colombians, in general, perceive the Venezuelan opposition as somehow right wing and as a relatively homogeneous group. We know this is the image that chavismo and its media likes to portray, with “la derecha” or even “la ultraderecha” used constantly to refer to la MUD and its allies.

Perhaps that’s why the Colombian left has been using a similar rhetoric. Adding to this, Uribistas often make a point of their support for the opposition, so it would make sense that they also had an interest in showing them as right-wing. In the end, the push from the left and the pull from the right would result in creating the image of a homogeneously right-wing MUD. Pretty interesting, huh?

Too bad that’s wrong. Or at least much more complicated than that. I first realized my hypothesis wasn’t holding too much one day I was talking to my friend Nicolás, who is a law student, a community activist and far from an Uribe supporter. We were talking over beers in one of Bogotá’s popular faux-English pubs when the conversation drifted to Venezuela and my thoughts on how the opposition was seen. Just like my other friend, he had never thought la MUD being to the left of Santos, but not because la MUD was especially right wing, but rather he had never thought of “placing” it anywhere in his political compass.

I decided to take another strategy and just ask directly to friends and family what they thought was the opposition’s ideology. The most representative answer was my dad’s quite eloquent “eso es un sancocho”.

But how do Colombian politicians on the left talk about the Venezuelan opposition?

First, do realize that Chavismo has long been unpopular in Colombia, both El Comandante himself and Maduro even more so.

Clara López is a key figure in the mainstream Colombian left and she did recur to Telesur-style language of “right-wing coupsters” to talk about the opposition, but it was about  Carmona, who actually staged a right-wing coup. He has been all but forgotten here so I’m skeptical this had much impact. In this later tweet she makes a distinction between a violent, anti-democratic opposition and a legitimate one.

Senator Jorge Robledo is the left’s leader in Congress and fierce critic of  “the right” and “neoliberalism”. He did criticize Santos’ meeting with Capriles but focused on Santos, not one word on Capriles.

It’s different with Piedad Córdoba, chavismo’s close ally, who called some members of la MUD “parapolíticos”, implying they’re associates of Álvaro Uribe. Despite Uribe’s popularity, there are many who strongly oppose him, which could make la MUD less appealing as an alternative to chavismo. She is well known but also widely disliked, limiting the impact of her views.

The Venezuelan opposition has made huge efforts to attract support internationally, often focusing on political figures, but a key part is also understanding how it is perceived by people in the countries of the region.