Remember the days of colossal opposition marches and spontaneous citizen participation in political rallies? The memory feels distant, doesn’t it? Yesterday morning, Venezuela’s Opposition Roundtable, MUD, made a meek attempt at reactivating its grassroots, with a 19 de abril Town Hall Meeting to launch its drive for a recall referendum. It was more successful than you might think.

MUD was at pains to avoid raising expectations too high, lest one of its first rallies this year prove an embarrassing flop. They were playing defensively, calling their main event in Caracas for a limited space next to Parque Miranda that would look full even if quite a small number of people showed up.

On the positive side, the so-called Cabildo Abierto por el Cambio Democrático, (open town-hall meeting for democratic change), marked a frank departure from the MUD’s tired autopilot format for mass gatherings that we’ve all come to resent. You know what I’m talking about: a pointless and poorly coordinated march somewhere in the East of Caracas that ends up with a gathering in front of a stage where various politicians take turns making generic, non-actionable speeches, watered down for the sake of Unity. It bores me to tears even having to describe this, and kudos to MUD for trying to go beyond that tired old format.

Sadly, this new format was neither deliberate nor the product of some MUD operative’s sudden bout of creative genius. It was the strained conclusion to a tortuous week of backroom negotiating; one more by-default consensus reached among disparate factions of a fragile political coalition under the pressure of a ticking clock.

In fact, yesterday’s event almost didn’t happen due to the by-now familiar intra-MUD disagreements.

 
Trying to square that circle, MUD ended up with a hodgepodge of an event, ni chicha ni limonada, half-heartedly promoted by parties based on a confusing premise.

If you follow Venezuelan politics, you already know that the new wave opposition parties within the MUD remain at odds over tactics. While Primero Justicia (PJ) has traditionally favored an incremental  “winning hearts and minds” approach to building public support, Voluntad Popular (VP) has been adamant in calling for a more militant approach that places much more stress on street protests and a concerted public mobilization as necessary conditions for bringing about regime change. AD and UNT, meanwhile, seem committed to neither view, and instead shift between them for tactical advantage.

Last week saw the PJ/VP rift played out all over again. VP drew a line in the sand by insisting on a blunt display of citizen pressure such as a march to the Supreme Tribunal or the National Electoral Council, Primero Justicia and other MUD parties wanted a less confrontational, more didactic initiative, fearing what would happen to MUD’s image if they called a big march and nobody showed up.

Needless to say, nobody wants to be seen as the party that broke consensus. But because differences are real, that means that unity is always around an alternative at least one party isn’t genuinely committed to. Trying to square that circle, MUD ended up with a hodgepodge of an event, ni chicha ni limonada, half-heartedly promoted by parties based on a confusing premise.

The Cabildo Abierto was held in a closed-off warehouse adjacent to a public park, un galpón, basically. You’d struggle to fit more than maybe 1,000 people in there, which seemed very much the point. Running logistics at such a small venue isn’t that hard, but nobody seems to have bothered: attendees weren’t told how or where to enter the premises. Outside the building, Un Nuevo Tiempo activists collected signatures on clipboards, but quiz them as I might, the guys doing the gathering couldn’t articulate exactly what they were for. People were eager to sign anyway.

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VP, which plainly lost the behind-the-scenes squabble, didn’t exactly kill itself trying to mobilize people to the scene, and neither did AD. Disgruntled VP and Acción Democrática activists huddled near the exits, leaving room for the donut and chupi chupi vendors to sell their wares to sweaty clients who’d given up on getting inside. There was a spillover crowd, but that’s not exactly a feat, given how small the space was. From the spillover outside you could hear chants of “calle! calle!” while political leaders took the stage inside the dingy venue to talk to a crowd made up mostly of yellow-shirted Primero Justicia party members and Capriliebers. I was, however, happily surprised to see VP leader Freddy Guevara sitting on the stage, along with a diverse array of party leaders and civil society celebrities. I was even happier when I heard him give this candid speech:

 
For some reason, MUD refuses to allow a minimum of transparency into its inner workings, as though its activist base would blanche at the sight of politicians having an earnest discussion on a subject of general interest.

For the MUD as well as its supporters, the need to take back the streets is palpable: opposition voters have grown weary of the leadership’s underwhelming response to post-6D obstructionism, even as the need for a change in regime becomes ever more of a life-or-death proposition. MUD supporters have proven they’ll heed a call to action, and that they’re hungry for direction in the meantime.

MUD leaders live in fear of being thought disunited, and go to great lengths to try not to air differences in public. Yet they plainly have very different “theories of change” – mental models for what it is you have to do to get rid of this regime. The idea of having that debate openly doesn’t seem to occur to anyone.

Maybe it ought to, though, if for no other reason than to keep its activists engaged. The MUD has everything to gain and very little to lose by leveling with its grassroots about the difficulties they face. It’s not like those guys are going to be dissuaded from engaging if they’re made to feel part of the debate.

But, for some reason, though, MUD refuses to allow a minimum of transparency into its inner workings, as though its activist base would recoil at the sight of politicians having an earnest discussion on a subject of general interest. But those disagreements and tensions are real, and a MUD that seems to be able to agree only on the need to hide them continues to squander its legitimacy. MUD has continued to settle for series of timid, diluted actions everyone can see are not the result of the Unity constantly touted, but rather the result of an obsessive concern with hiding the underlying lack of consensus. This hobbles the roundtable’s ability to act as a credible vehicle for channeling public discontent, to say nothing of their effective threat to PSUV’s hold on power.

So why has MUD failed so big at such a simple task? It’s a classic case of chicken and egg: People are demobilized because MUD events lack substance, and the MUD doesn’t convene events because people are demobilized. And that’s why, for all the attempts to downplay expectations, yesterday’s Cabildo Abierto mattered so much.

Standing in that steamy huddle, I was not hopeful. Everything seemed to spell major shitshow fail for the event. At best, I thought, what started as a lowest-common-denominator excuse for appeasing critics of inaction, might become a very catalyst that will force MUD into genuine self-criticism.

Then the few speakers took to the mic. VP’s Freddy spoke of the need for street mobilizations and peaceful protests. Henrique Capriles spoke of what the next steps for invoking a referendum are, and where we are in getting there. No contradictions, no underhanded jabs, simple, straightforward, informative.

And for the first time since I can remember, an actual call to action was made, and met with resounding applause. It was made by the least likely of speakers: MUD Secretary General, Chúo Torrealba, and explicitly directed at the opposition parties’ leaders. His words were clear and unequivocal:

Your vocation towards unity is not optional. If you do not fall into line, the people will hold you accountable. Unity is a mandate you have been given, not a favor you owe your electorate. This is not the moment for this or that leadership, this or that candidacy, this or that regime-change strategy. It is the moment of the people pressuring for change.

And with that, the MUD was finally held to its word, within the confines of a muggy, poorly ventilated depot, and despite the morbid fears of its political leaders. Here’s hoping that Chúo’s speech can reverberate among a frustrated but well-meaning electorate, and solve the opposition’s false dilemma once and for all.

Regime change needs people on the streets, and people will take the streets if you give them substance. So give them substance, and they will deliver…and solve our Unity problem along the way.

 

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