Requiem for COPEI

As Copei —one of Venezuela's traditional Big Two political parties— faces outright extinction, we look back at the rise and fall (and fall and fall) of one of the institutional cornerstones of contemporary Venezuela.

Another weekend, another party “re-legitimaton” signature drive under the belt. With Acción Democrática, Voluntad Popular, Primero Justicia and Avanzada Progresista now off the hook, we turn our focus on one of the surefire casualties of the opposition purge. This past weekend saw the demise of one of Venezuela’s oldest political parties: Copei.

After a slow agony drawn out over more than a decade, Copei is dying an undignified death: one of the erstwhile pillars of Venezuela’s mid-century democracy ended up empty shell, unable to come close to rallying 0.5% of registered voters in 12 of Venezuela’s 24 states.

Even in the face of institutional extinction, the rump Copei remains fractured. At the beginning of the month, a group led by Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, Jose Curiel and Pedro Pablo Aguilar vowed the party would boycott the CNE-imposed re-validation drive, preferring to go clandestine. But the party couldn’t even agree on that, with other activists insisting on giving re-validation a try.

It’s all terribly sad.

Two generations ago, things were different. Copei was a party unlike any Venezuela had ever seen: conservative but not military, Christian but not reactionary, a party of the right that was power-oriented, mass-based and anti-authoritarian. Copei gave more conservative, church-oriented Venezuelans a political home that was unquestionably democratic: something they’d never had before. Without Copei, democracy in Venezuela just wouldn’t have functioned.

The party was founded by Rafael Caldera, one of the most talented Venezuelans of the twentieth century. Author of books, brilliant lawmaker, orator and statesman, Copei owed its coherence to its creator’s force of vision. Caldera’s outsized influence was its undoing, too. Copei never outgrew Caldera, though Caldera eventually did outgrow Copei.

While it lived, it grew to be second largest party of our republican era. It took Caldera to the presidency in 1968, playing a leading role in the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to its opponents, also elected, in Venezuela’s entire history. A decade later, it took Luis Herrera Campins to the presidency, too.

In 1971, a Copei government ended the Guerrilla war of the 1960s.

But perhaps those are the smallest of Copei’s achievements. What Copei really became was a school. It developed members, leaders and even politicians from other countries. It held workshops, created an endless pile of documents all destined to shape and enlarge the minds of young politicians on this thing they called Christian democracy. Many South American presidents and lawmakers were trained by Copei.

While in government, Copei carried out literacy programs, built housing, theaters and landmarks and were among the first proponents of participatory democracy. In 1971, a Copei government ended the Guerrilla war of the 1960s.

In time, Copei became a true nationwide institution, with activists in every last neighborhood, barrio, town, village and caserío in the country. Copei was a true mass party with a sprawling labour wing, thousands of youth activists, and genuine influence everywhere Venezuelans organized: professional guilds, universities, associations, unions and clubs of all shapes and sizes.

A Long Decline

The party’s decline was drawn out and sad. You could argue endlessly about when exactly the wheels started to fall off. 

Caldera’s enormously oversized ego created Copei, and destroyed it, too.

As early as 1988, when Eduardo Fernandez defeated him for the presidential election, Caldera neglected his party and refused to campaign wholeheartedly against Carlos Andres Perez. It was a sign of things to come.

Five years later, tragedy repeated itself as farce. Once again passed over for Copei’s presidential nomination, Caldera bolted from the party he had founded only to end up in the president’s chair for a second time at the head of a motley coalition of tiny leftwing parties: the chiripero

The 1993 debacle destroyed the party’s electoral viability for good. Caldera’s enormously oversized ego created Copei, and destroyed it, too.

The party would live to see one of its members head a branch of government once more, though: in 1999, a gangly, 26 year-old rookie diputado elected under the Copei banner became the last Speaker of the Venezuela’s Chamber of Deputies. His name? Henrique Capriles Radonski.

The Chávez years were not kind to Copei. While Acción Democrática, its longtime rival, found a wily leader like Henry Ramos Allup to at least keep it cohesive and relevant, Copei —always the smaller party— found itself locked in a never-ending series of damaging internal battles. Its membership dwindled. The kinds of young catholic moderates who were once Copei’s natural supporters turned to Primero Justicia, instead. Aurinegro is the new green.

Over a decade and a half, the party just emptied out.

In 2015, a Supreme Tribunal ruling intervened COPEI, designating an ad hoc board of directors. Immediately, the few remaining members rejected the new board arguing that any board proposed by the TSJ would be a board under PSUV’s tutelage.

The party staggered on, Zombie-like, shunned by everybody, until just this weekend.

The brand of politics Copei pioneered —Christian, moderate, democratic, civilian and multi-class— haven’t gone away.

But these are the administrative details of a death that was much longer in the making, and mostly at Rafael Caldera’s own hands. His obdurate refusal to retire, to give his full support to any other leader, to be anything but a hindrance and a road block to any other aspiring leader suffocated the party.

CNE’s decision will evict Copei green from Venezuela’s ballot, probably for good. A party that helped craft modern Venezuela will be no more. But the brand of politics Copei pioneered —Christian, moderate, democratic, civilian and multi-class— hasn’t gone away. After all, it’s 2017 and a Christian Democrat leads Venezuela’s legislative branch.