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.

 

31 COMMENTS

  1. Besides the good piece of history, the author is legitimazing this regime. First of all considering this “validaciòn” as a standard and not pointing out that this process was invented without any legal support just to keep the country without elections for more months without any reasoned explanation meanwhile the rulers keep in power without being contested.

    Last year we saw the same pattern, in order to demand a recall (revocatorio) which is a right (for the people when fed up of the president) established in the Constitution, the rulers kept creating new “steps” for months till the rulers decided to ban the recall after the people overcome all the almost unachievable steps. The result was the strenght of the rulers, and the lost of the people’s momentum after their victory in the deputies’ election.

    As such, considering that a party (Copei in this case) died without dignity meanwhile parties like Henry Falcon’s or Ramos Allup’s (obviously supported by the rulers) a victory of the people is far beyond the truth. Actually, both of those parties were helped by the rulers (more time, double number of machines, etc). And this happened when Leopoldo López (anyone still doubt he is the only real menace for the rulers?) Decided to go all in and collect the signatures, the rulers went in check and decided to keep alife different parties to avoid opening the path to a united people behind only one party and only one leader.

    Next step of the ruler: keep destroying the people: their real enemy. More people die or sick, more people flee or more people give up better for the rulers. Remember: the biggest and richest mine of gold (oil reserves) is all behind the soil of this ironically poor country.

    • The validation process is completely arbitrary and unfair. It contradicts the fundamental principles of democracy and it is just a mechanism for an authoritarian regime to undermine parties. But that discussion wasn’t the scope of the article. It is worth bringing it up.

  2. Thank you, Rodrigo, for this article. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate Caldera’s position even more, but find it personally tragic that the split between modernisers and Calderistas was so personal and so fraught. After all, most of the modernisers were once Calderistas. And Caldera had valid point being wary of personal corruption as a raison d’etre.

    Alas, the history of our second largest mass-party of the Party era has always been neglected. There are but a few books about them, less than a dozen.

    AD, obviously and fairly, led the historiographical pack for decades, Then Chavismo propelled a burgeoining editorial industry, but the far-left also occupied a lot of bookshelves. The Christian Democrats, a movement which ruled -not absolutely- for ten years (twenty, if you add the Puntofijo coalition and the Convergencia years), is barely registering a whimper: and that being the only movement to reach power without force, ever.

    There are a number of books (Combellas, Carnevalli, Suárez…), of course, some of them quite good, but the definite tome on their dynamics, growth and governments is yet to be written. Caldera even lacks one major biographer (Betancourt has three!).

    Serves us beatos well, I guess.

    • I would like to know about why do you favor Caldera’s position. Many of the people I talked to, scorned him. Again, for not supporting Fernandez, and for refusing to contest Alvarez Paz.

      From outside, I could understand the first one, but the second I find troubling and contradicting.

      • I’ve come to understand it better. Not to favour it. Back in 1993 I loathed Caldera, and I opposed his government as a brooding teenager.

        (I also disliked CAP, as a crook, but preferred democracy as a system)

        There is the matter, of course, a matter of personal scorn there: was Caldera mistreated in 1987’s Convention? Did he fear he would be subject to the same treatmen in ’93?

        And the points Caldera made about corruption and lack of empathy were similar to those made by Betancourt before he died. they both thought that the problem was not the Wlefare State, but rampant corruption (which came to be embodied in CAP, for good or ill). He did not make those points only after Chavez’ coup, but throughout the 1980s. Caldera seems more and more to have been right about the problems, but thought of the wrong remedies.

        To me, the real tragedy is that Fernandez -who had a sensible program- lost the 1988 election, and that modernisers and stalwarts were at odds. Could he have won with Caldera’s backing? I doubt it. CAP was a campaigning titan, an icon, and he played the part to return to “la Gran Venezuela”. It was disingenous.

        Did we give CAP the shaft for being a reformer? Perhaps, but that’s something else.

  3. “The party was founded by Rafael Caldera, one of the most talented Venezuelans of the twentieth century.”

    You lost me there.

  4. Great article Rodrigo. Caldera not only killed COPEI he killed the 4ta República/Punto Fijo model with the 4F speech to congress. He bears a big responsibility to our current predicament.

  5. What troubles me is how easily you pronounce COPEI death and produce instanly an obituary, instead of questioning the validation process itself, as if that process were legit or fair. I mean, it never seizes to amaze me the way we accept what is happening and then comment on it like a bloody football match.
    I am not a COPEI fan, but I don’ t think it is dead because I, as a citizen, don’ t accept any decision the CNE makes at this point. The fact that the parties accept it, is beyond my understanding as a normal citizen. For a citizen like me, the moment the parties decided to play this rigged game, they lost me completely. There is no longer a reconciliation possible between the parties and the citizenship, I think, because the parties are making it impossible. I mean, I would never vote again for those parties after what they have done, and I would never return to a country ruled by them, because I no longer think they can make any difference. People support them because they have no choice, it is a support based on a negative emotion and not on a possitive one. They are exhausting themselves. I know they are not betting on me, I know that their bet is on the dominated, slavish, chavista base, which they think they can exploit,but nonetheless, it is disgusting. The transition, as far I see it, is already in crisis. They have a political crisis and they are not even in power.Not a good sign.

    • Dude…if you think the thing that killed Copei was this weekend, you got some hardcore, mision-robinson-level reading comprehension problems

      • So, the validation was ok? Is that what you are saying? “Since COPEI is unpopular, then, good riddance”. I don’ t know if I have reading comprehension problemas, maybe I have,but it seems to me that you are just justifying a dictatorship and the way it works. Because the point is not how popular or unpopular COPEI is, the point is how we let ourselves be dominated and how we lose our rights.

        Maybe I would prefer to be a part of a very minoritary party, a party that I know will never win, but that represents me better than any other. It seems that it is okay to take away that right from me, and that now I am forced to vote for parties I don’ t give a damm about.
        Seriously, everyday you people hit a new low.

    • Copei could theoretically rise from this. That as much has been said by Mr. Enriquez and others.

      But it will be hard.

      And not because of formalities…

      • It is not a formality but a disruption of democratic order. If, for you, the validation process is legit, then you can’ t consider yourself a democrat. I mean, you can call yourself a democrat, but only like Maduro calls himself a democrat.
        The question is not how popular COPEI is or not, but how some people are losing their rights. COPEI should have the right to participate. Maybe I would like to vote for a small party, even though I know that party will never win.

  6. I think that the regime handed the oppo parties a favour when it called for this totally unnecessary revalidation because people responded to the abuse by enthusiastically reviving their commitment to what the democratic process means to all of us , now the oppo parties are much energized by having to meet this absurd but spirit raising challenge….!!

    • This might also backfire on the regime. By getting rid of a lot of the smaller parties, it will hopefully consolidate the remaining opposition parties, which will stand a better chance of defeating the current regime

  7. I still think the goal of this “revalidation” is the illegalization of all opposition parties, I wouldn’t discard the possibility that they’ll just say that the signatures recolected are invalid and then they’ll say mud is not a party, and since apparently you can’t run for president without a party, the regime can go into the 2018 presidential election uncontested

    • The validation is just another way to restrict our political liberties and the parties decided that it was ok to let them do that and went for it.
      Now it is even more difficult for citizens to organize themselves and to form new parties. That is what it was all about. They have increased their control over us, over our minds and beliefs.
      I don’t like MUD, I don ‘t think it represents me anymore, so I would like to vote eventually for a third option. Well, they just made sure there that there is not a third option available. Just as they made sure we don’t have unions, etc. They are, like always,dealing with all the threats in advance.
      You see, they are not like us, they think ahead. Of course right now there is no third option, but maybe later…who knows? If they let us think and organize ourselves.. So they made sure it is nearly impossible for the citizens outside their control, outside their sphere of influence to organize.
      Now they will simply focus on keeping the MUD under control and honestly I don’t think they will have a hard time doing that.

      • that is a valid point, this is a defacto prohibition of new parties, but still I’m sure the only option they have to retain power after 2018 is to stand alone for elections, they’ll find a way to ban any opposition

  8. Rafael Caldera and his son kept coming up as the behind the scenes authors of the 11A fiasco. The backstabbing of Baduel followed by Carmona. I used to ask those involved (under Isaac Perez Recao) WTF happened and who was behind this and Caldera is the name that I got. If true, Caldera fucked up royally many times and got away with it.

  9. I will always loathe him because he brought us Chavismo. Not because he freed Chavez but because his “Convergence” movement was the last attempt of the civil society to clean the mess left behind CAP and the Punto Fijismo. He did not take the opportunity with the seriousness he should have and he played with Cubans to put Chavez back in circulation.

    His lack of vision did not allow him to fully understand the dire situation Venezuela was in. He understood what was needed to get elected but he did not deliver at the end. He could have understood by looking at his own election platform (free Chavez, clean the mess, help the people, bring a coalition government with the left) or even the people that got to vote. He was a weak old president and the last captain on a sinking ship. He was (as always) more focus on keeping the status quo than getting into structural changes to combat the corruption that was represented by his sons.

    His only legacy is that he was the last oligarch president, the last “old money” president represented by the Pietris or the last Punto Fijo president. That is assuming he was even a president in the last few years and not a ceremonial figure on a country managed by “El Pimenton”.

    He was educated but not “talented”, there is big difference there.

    PS: Copei was not so “not militaristic”, they were and the fought the guerrilla in the late 60’s and 70’s a lot more than any other party. Fast forward the brought the F-16s and the first missile frigates.

  10. Who started the destruction of COPEI was Rafael Caldera in 1993. He was one of the worst types of politicians, who put his vanity above the country.

    • agreed, he only cared about himself, not the country or even the party, that’s what I hate the most in a politician, in that regard AD had an slightly more serious and institutional leadership than Copei

  11. The more you make people jump thru loops to maintain their resistance alive the more fiercely commited they become , its like waving a red cape before a bull, quite a few parties are expendable , those followers whose party doesnt get revalidated will just transfer their alligeance to another party which has been validated , the oppo feeling is so strong in its hatred of the regime that they wont care to vote for another party or group that represents the opposition to the hated regime ……so say a lot of people of my aquaintance ……. for most oppo followers its fighting the regime first and finding a political party to represent themt later . MPJ tried it many years ago , he outlawed the AD party while leaving URD still in the running , what happened is that all AD votes went straight to vote for the URD candidates…..!!

    Thats why I think that the regime has done the oppo a favour by creating these artificial obstacles to the next elections , the oppo spirits were a bit run down , now by stoking their anger and giving them an inmmediate goal to pursue they are helping removilize the oppo mass again.

    If copey is a viable party organization not getting revalidated wont matter first opportunity to validate its presence it will do so again , MPJ outlawed
    AD party for 10 years and after he was toppled it was born again even stronger than it was before…….!!

  12. A lot of people are missing the point here. This whole “validation” is part of a circus. Last year the “validation” to ask for a recall only ended with the ban of the MUD, and the same opp leaders calling “victories” every time the people overcome a step in that process.

    Where are the elections? these are in the Constitution, right? So if something that is granted by the Constitution is not allowed by the rulers, why anything else would be granted?

    You are MISSING the point.

  13. The big problem for the oppo is to movilize people who being discouraged by what happened last year , although seething inside, have become apathic …the call to register in order to validate their parties is making people movilize again , which is something needed , even if the voting doesnt inmmediately follow. !!

  14. Rafael Caldera isn’t “one of the most talented Venezuelans of the twentieth century”. RC is one of the reasons behind the end of the democratic regime established in 1958. RC is also, the first real demagogue president in Vzla’s modern history. I was a child in 1983, but I can remember that last spot of RC’s presidential campaign, showing him in Sorte Mountain in Yaracuy state, in order to “protect and help him” winning that election. He didn’t. Jaime Lusinchi won. We all know it. RC found an oxygen balloon for his political carreer as a senator, with the Caracazo on February 1989. He criticized the measures included in the IMF agreement, but not to propose different or alternative measures (something a real statesman would do), but to become the “spokesman” of the people suffering the program. In 1996, under his second term, he started the Second Agreement Vzla signed with the IMF. We all know that, too. His failures as presidential candidate clearly outnumber his 2 presidential victories. RC first election was against AD’s Rómulo Gallegos. And against Rómulo Betancourt, and Raúl Leoni and Jaime Lusinchi. And his first victory in 1968, was a byproduct of AD’s split and the creation of Luis Beltrán Prieto Figueroa’s “Movimiento Electoral del Pueblo” (MEP). Basically, RC was a second class politician in Vzla’s history. Luis Herrera Campins even with his facts and figures, as a politician, was much better than RC.

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