When South Africa’s ruling National Party decided to release Nelson Mandela in 1990, they did so under a lot of pressure, both at home and from abroad. But by releasing him, the National Party was not merely acquiescing to pressure to release a famous political prisoner. They, in effect, made him president-in-waiting. The white apartheid party chose the next president of South Africa.

In Venezuela, it’s an open secret that the government will try to choose the opposition’s next presidential candidate. They’ll try to choose someone they believe can be beaten, and that they see as relatively unthreatening if he does win. If only we had a Mandela in waiting.

After decades of human rights abuses, and as the increasingly unpopular ruling demographic minority, the National Party was cornered. During the 1980’s the party slowly came to grips with the inevitability of dismantling apartheid. By the 1990’s the regime realized if they couldn’t save apartheid, they might as well try to obtain guarantees through a negotiated transition. That transition had to be peaceful, and their freedom and safety guaranteed. They needed a way out, and someone to take their hand and lead them to safety.

Mandela was the perfect candidate for the National Party: after decades in prison, he had largely renounced the violent resistance he once had considered necessary, and was instead calling for peace and reconciliation. Mandela had the popularity and credibility to lead a transition, and had the political chops to unite the squabbling factions of the black majority that opposed the government.

After direct talks with the South African president and leader of the National Party, Mandela was released in early 1990 and granted full political rights. He had the recently legalized African National Congress waiting for him. Four tense years followed, with enormously detailed negotiations over how the transition would work. The National Party secured protections for former regime officials and for the white minority. Mandela ran for president in 1994 in an election were his victory was all but assured. He won with 63% of the vote.

Mandela was true to his word: there were no widespread persecution of whites, no mass confiscations, and politicians were mostly spared. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed, and many offenders with shocking amounts of blood on their hands were granted amnesty in return for full confessions. The National Party withered after a few years. Its politicians went on to form other parties, or retired peacefully. Life went on for them.

The kicker: chavismo seems unwilling to let a Mandela come into being.

South Africa’s transition offers many lessons for Venezuela. Venezuela’s ruling clique is analogous to the one the National Party found itself in: they could soon find themselves cornered, nervous, and looking for a way out.

The problem for chavismo is that there is no Mandela in sight. That’s a problem for the country, too. The kicker: chavismo seems unwilling to let a Mandela come into being.

Mandela had two things going for him: he was popular and skillful enough to command the opposition, and the ruling party trusted his commitment to a peaceful transition (even in this trust was far from complete). No one in the Venezuelan opposition passes those two tests.

There are only two politicians that could conceivably garner enough popular support to be able to command a bitterly divided opposition: Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo López. If you’re feeling charitable, we can throw the newly presidentiable Henry Ramos Allup in the group. The chavista elite has spent enormous resources over two decades whipping up hatred against all of them.

There’s one person whom the chavista elite might trust to protect them: Henri Falcón. For the last two years, he’s seemed more preoccupied with appeasing chavismo and remaining a viable alternative for soft chavista voters. But he has done so at the expense of his support among most opposition supporters, and so he fails the opposition support test. He’s likely to lose in a primary against virtually any possible candidate, and even if he wins with the help of a few select disqualifications from the government, he is as distrusted within the opposition as Capriles and López are within chavismo.

It doesn’t help that, given the type of campaign he’s running, it’s far from certain that Falcón plans to run in a MUD primary: if he splits from the coalition and runs as a third-party candidate, the rest of the opposition parties will see him as a continuation of the chavista regime under a different brand name.

If all of them are disqualified by the government, then the cupboard is really bare. From within MUD, you’re only left with politicians who, for the most part, fail both tests. Think of Carlos Ocariz, Manuel Rosales, Freddy Guevara, Julio Borges or María Corina Machado: they suffer from low popularity or are strongly distrusted by the government, or both. From chavismo’s ranks, Miguel Rodríguez Torres likes his chances, but he’s both unpopular and distrusted, with and by all.

It’s not only that there’s no obvious candidate for the Mandela role in Venezuela; the space for the role itself currently doesn’t exist. That role can only to be created by both sides. The government would have to stop persecuting opposition politicians, just like the National Party not only freed Mandela, but allowed him and his party to build a political movement and participate in the preparation of a transition.

Mandela recognized that his rivals would eventually need a savior, and positioned himself to take on that role.

Given this space, the role of Mandela could be taken on by an opposition politician with enough political capital to absorb the cost of assuring chavismo of a personal and political future. He or she would also have to somewhat moderate the opposition’s public stance against the government, and show that it can control the most radical elements of the coalition that are calling for trials and reparations. It’s unlikely, after all, that the National Party would have chosen Mandela if he had been calling for confiscations without compensation of white-owned land, as the current South African president is doing.

The role calls for once-in-a-generation political skills. Mandela recognized that his rivals would eventually need a savior, and positioned himself to take on that role by renouncing the violence and retribution others in the black movement were calling for, and established himself as the best alternative for the government. And, astoundingly, he did so while maintaining control of his party, and strong support from the vast majority of a voting base that had been abused for five decades by the rivals he promised to protect.

This balancing act is enormously difficult. So far, it has proven beyond the capabilities of opposition politicians in Venezuela. But who knows? Maybe Mandelas are not born. Maybe they are created by the occasion.

13 COMMENTS

  1. I disagree about one thing: The government isn’t cornered and looking for a way out. Yet. They still have plenty of time.

    But the basic premise is right: Chavismo would very much like to pick the oppo candidate, and since they won’t be able to do so, they can try and not hold elections at all.

  2. It would be useful to note that Mandela was at the head of a party which unleashed grievous terrosism upon the supporters of apartheid and the regime, instead of trying to live that fallacy that he just offered the worst heads in the regime complete impunity for their crimes and that people “held hands through the dialogue”, they weren’t just making bailoterapias to have their faces broken by the apartheid supporters every time.

    Falcón destroyed all of his credibility among the opposition by openly supporting the fake dialogue and using the disgusting blackmail of “either you talk or you get killed”, not counting the times he supported the idea of letting the regime rule until 2019, regardless of how many murders that would mean.

    There are no radicals among the opposition, that’s only a label to marginalize and try to ignore any argument from people that has any measure of common sense, it’s a lie that all the heads of the apartheid regime walked free to continue their lives with everything they stole and without paying for their crimes, you simply can’t let off someone as Alsaime who might want to assemble a terrorist movement to slaughter thousands of civilians in order to destabilize the government, or someone as Iris Varela who is responsible for dozens of murders from her policy of empowering the criminals within prisons.

    Mario Silva assured in the first days of 2016 that “chavismo was ousted after 6D, so they were getting ready for the resistance war”, which means, simply put, murdering people on the streets, plundering and destroying properties until the government crumbled and handed them the power back, exactly what the farc has done in Colombia, by the way, and with “leaders” such as Capriles, Ramos Allup or Ocariz that are willing to throw everything away to serve as rugs for chavismo it was very like to happen.

    You can negotiate with some of the lower fishes in order to undermine chavismo’s power structure, but the higher heads simply can’t be let go, they must pay for what they have done.

    Or else we will have the same sewage that runs in Nicaragua, where the pedophile aims to rule that country until he dies of old age.

    Every leader that wants to actually change the regime has been systematically either censored (MCM for example) or incarcerated (LL), the others are either infiltrators or simply sold themselves out to support the regime, because they don’t even want to discredit chavismo or expose the truth about them (Which would be the obligatory step to achieve the so called elections route)

  3. I agree with José M. Chavismo is holding up pretty well, they are not cornered at all.

    What are the signs that say they are desperate for a way out?

  4. Good piece, lots to think about here. I would add that there have been many transitions from dictatorship to democracy, and sometimes the opposition is best served by a transitional, unthreatening figure. That was true in the transition from fascist in Spain and Portugal, and arguably, Greece.

    Chavismo will collapse once it is detached from the oil revenue umbilical cord, and a second set of elections after transition, and under a transitional government, can lead to a more normally-democratic outcome, not mortgaged as now by the fear of retribution of those in power por ahora.

  5. It’s hard for me, and I’m sure for many here, to stablish parallels between chavismo and apartheid; it is inequitable to compare the capricious and fabricated attachment to the image of one man, to the complex network of events that resulted in the raise of apartheid. Apartheid, as horrible and shameful as it was, was a verifiable legitimate problem; you could track its origin and link it with a colonial past, this evolved into an structural issue, and you could rationalize its solution within the frame of the civil rights movement. A racist society is a sick society, and its sickness is structural.

    The conflict between Venezuelans was created basically from the blue, it was born of legitimate social discontent, but this discontent was used, deliberately, as a spark to start a big fire. We deal with universal principles here, but the origin of the problem is more vulgar, there are clear traces of criminality which I believe informs the type of justice the country needs in order to heal. We are clear that Venezuelans institutions cannot administer or manage the transition, another thing we have to thank chavismo for, and because of it we will need of the intervention of the international community. Is it possible, I think it is, and the conversations that have been taking in in the OAS with representatives of Venezuelan ONG’s put us in a more productive path than that of keeping trapped in the circle with politicians incapable of rising the occasion.

  6. Cuba is desperate to have the friendship of the US to the extent it can help them survive economically , they have been very cautious about not rousing Trumps anger …..that’s their top priority , they know they cant count on no ones help once Venezuelas oil support crumpled ……(Russia and China have already given their regrets) , they are not going to incur in Trump´s anger if he wants something done about Venezuela which is what people whose support he needs from inside the Republican party demand of him …for example Senator Rubio.

    The regime´s engine is running on the selective use of force , fear and fraud with bellows of lots of hot air but already its very weakened financial props are getting more frail every day and its hard to challenge ALL Venezuelans expectation to have an election held before the end of the current presidential period …., Im not one of predictions but am quite sure that the regime bigwigs are far from comfortable ……!!

    In an election people will not just vote for an oppo candidate they will massively vote AGAINST any regime candidate so even if ideally you want a strong oppo candidate , it doenst have to be an ideal one, ,although it must gather the support of the main opposition figures to maintain an united front …!!

    Ive met lots of people who are not particular about who gets to be the oppo candidate , who will vote for a cockroach if that will rid them of this much hated regime….., Once one is chosen , if the process is not too traumatic , he/shewill become heroic and wonderful in the eyes of most oppo followers just because he she is the OPPO CANDIDATE…..

    I worry a bit more about who might make an adequate president because of the team of people that accompany him and because then he wil have to start running a presidential campaign from day one to stay ahead of the inevitable dissapointments that will follow from the failure of any new oppo govt to meet all expectations ..!!

  7. I do not see ALL Venezuelans expecting an election before the end of the current Presidential period. I see the majority masses cowering/waiting in lines to buy subsidized foodstuffs, and now waiting 12 hours, and more, to get their Carnet De La Patria. Meanwhile, a few political parties are rejoicing in their recent several hundred thousand voter “legitimization” ordered by the CNE, which will likely disallow a large number of those votes, as in the RR, and may, as Carreno stated, declare virtually all Oppo parties illegal for not having achieved the required minimum number of votes, if they so desire.,..

    • Quite right maybe not ALL but a great mayority of the people will expect elections if only because they’ve been held regularly for the last 60 years so that people see them as an essential part of the social compact and because the regime has not dared state it will stop them altogether making it seem rather as if there are reasons to delay them somewhat .

      Of course the temptation is there now that they know that they will almost certainly lose them but they have yet to muster the courage to declare that there will be no more elections , that would be the equivalent to a military coup d etat and would really convert the country into a pariah (without the resources to maintain itself financially) , forget the Chinese and the Russians, they would be more isolated than Cuba when Castro made it a communist state.Dont know that those expectations are realistic or not ….nor that if they are disappointed an inmediate explosion of mass protests would erupt , but you are mistaken to think that people wont care and will look with indifference to the cancellation of all future elections !!

      Chavez gloried in how he had constant elections and never lost one of them , that was one of the signature achievements of his political career and now they will be stopped on some flimsy excuse ?? It could happen but it will not go down well …it would be an act of desperation and if not now , sometime later will have its consequences !!

  8. I have to confess that I stopped reading at “the government will try to choose the opposition’s next presidential candidate”. I must be drunk what is your excuse?

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