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.

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