A Non-Debate On the Defense of the Constitution

What began as a polite exchange between traditional political enemies became a peek into what we can, and should expect from our politicians in the weeks to come.

Last Friday night a friend who works at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB) let me in on a secret: the likes of Rodríguez Torres, Capriles, Julio Borges and Eustoquio Contreras would all be sharing a stage on Sunday at a “Forum for the Defense of the Constitution.” It sounded like a dystopian version of one of those jokes beginning with “the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and the Boogeyman were sitting in a bar…”  My friend had to show me the event’s invitation just so I could believe him. I had to go see this for myself.

I arrived at UCAB’s Aula Magna at 9:15 a.m. sharp and there was already a huge line. Though the auditorium was at capacity, my friend got us in through the back door, and we were barely able to squeeze into a seat. UCAB’s Communications Director, Jaime Bello, introduced the guests and announced a strict 12-minute limit for each speech.

Father José Virtuoso, UCAB’s politically active rector, gave the opening remarks. He emphasized that we are witnessing a de facto state that could only be imposed through force, demagoguery and repression. He stated that the point of this symposium was to bring the defense of the 1999 Constitution to the forefront of the public debate, and to make it the epicenter of a broad political platform. In fact, the Venezuelan Bishops Conference – organizers of this event – intendended for this to be an unofficial launch for said platform, but that’s up to the politicians.  

Virtuoso is known for his progressive – ok, fine, leftist – political views. Only someone like him could have joined all those people sitting on that stage without flinching. They were organized in a sort of semicircle, from right to left (both physically and hopefully not ideologically), in the following order: MUD General Coordinator José Luis Cartaya, MUD Political Secretary Ángel Oropeza, Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles, AN Speaker Julio Borges, Voluntad Popular’s Freddy Guevara, Venezuelan Electoral Observatory Director Luis Lander, socialist dissident Nicmer Evans, former government loyalist and ombudswoman Gabriela Ramírez, chavista lawmaker Eustoquio Contreras, Former Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres, and chavista lawmaker (and husband of Luisa Ortega Díaz) Germán Ferrer. Cartaya, Oropeza, Evans and Ferrer were just there for show: they did not speak.

We are witnessing a de facto state that could only be imposed through force, demagoguery and repression.

Luis Lander was the first to address the crowd. He nicely framed the conversation that would ensue through a short, academic lecture on why the National Constituent Assembly is exclusionary, sectarian and illegitimate. He explained how the “presidential initiative” from articles 347 and 348 of the Constitution was deliberately misinterpreted by the Supreme Court, as a presidential prerogative to change the constitution at will. Going against those in the opposition that remain in the “electronic fraud” camp, he said: “we have sustained always that the Venezuelan electoral system is secure, if the proper external audits are carried out.” He went on to cite several irregularities that made everyone question the results.

Lawmaker Eustoquio Contreras followed. Contreras is technically a member of the Gran Polo Patriótico, an umbrella group of small chavista parties that has grown increasingly at odds with the monolithic behemoth that is PSUV. His party is called Vanguardia Bicentenaria Republicana. Last Tuesday, Contreras, Germán Ferrer, and alternate lawmaker IvoneTéllez publicly separated themselves from the Bloque de la Patria, the government caucus in parliament, and formed the dissident Bloque Parlamentario Socialista.

Contreras’s speech was perhaps the most apologetic of the chavista side. He began his remarks by admitting that “it is difficult nowadays to know where the right is and where the left is,” which is the kind of empty platitude that everyone is happy to applaud. As a typical socialist, he delved into his social theory of knowledge and referred to Thomas Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm shifts” to exemplify that we are at a point in time when the state is out of theoretical answers to Venezuela’s current problems… hence our crisis. His time was up when he started to bring his point home: that our current crisis is not institutional or of the people, “but of the country’s political leadership.” “We have worsened the crisis of representative democracy,” he went on to say. “We have a joint responsibility to solve the country’s problems, we can only come out of this together […]. There are no answers from public institutions because they are at their worst moment.” Referring to dialogue, he said that “conventional means are not working to solve the country’s problems, because the interests of the parties are at odds with the interests of the Republic, so the Republic is left without leaders.” He closed with a call to depolarize the country.

That last remark underscored one of the salient points of contention between the two sides represented on that stage: MUD does not agree with dissident chavistas when they insist that the country is polarized. MUD argues that the overwhelming majority of the country is against the government, while dissident chavistas argue that, although this may be true, the two poles (MUD and PSUV) are trying to represent two sides and neither are very good at it, so they should leave it to the rest.

Our current crisis is not institutional or of the people, “but of the country’s political leadership.” “We have worsened the crisis of representative democracy.”

Next up was Freddy Guevara – vice president of the National Assembly and national coordinator of Voluntad Popular while Leopoldo is in jail (or under house arrest, it varies depending on the day). With a clear voice, Guevara opened his speech by calling on the forum to evolve quickly into a “platform of joint actions.” “There’s a sense of historical responsibility that calls not for “Unity” (Unidad) – the traditional political alliance between opposition parties – but for UNION between those who have always opposed the regime, those who are chavistas, and all sectors of civil society, so that we can advance in the construction of a resistance agenda that allows us to rescue what’s left of our democracy in order to achieve change.”

The highlight of his speech was his laying out a course of action for the next week based on his expertise in the field of civil resistance: “What is a dictatorship but exactly how the regime has conceptualized its Constituent Assembly? An all powerful body, above all the institutions of the Republic, above all the people… This is what justifies our next step: a massive popular rebellion, we have to continue to apply articles 350 and 333 of the Constitution….”

He referred to yesterday’s military events in Valencia: “the last hours demonstrate that the crisis has reached the military barracks and this is something that truly worries us, along with the likely possibility of strong economic sanctions that nobody wants, but that are the consequence of the criminal behavior that the dictatorship has brought into our institutions.”

That last line got an audible response from the audience, but I quickly realized it had nothing to do with Freddy. Recently deposed Prosecutor General, Luisa Ortega Díaz, had made a surprise appearance at the forum, and entered the Aula Magna to a standing ovation. She was both solemn and ecstatic.

Freddy continued his speech and summoned another round of applause for Ortega (I got tired of the jalabolismo) when he said “what follows is to continue the application of articles 350 and 333: renouncing false authorities, which means that if the ANC tells people to walk on the right side of the street, we will walk on the left side, if they name Tarek William Saab as usurper prosecutor, we will stand by Luis Ortega Díaz as our rightful Fiscal General de la República, in the same way thatJulio Borges is the speaker of the National Assembly… This is not only the task of the National Assembly lawmakers, or of the young fighters who resist with their cardboard shields.” He warned that civil disobedience can only work if it is truly massive: “In the next week, every sector of society has to repudiate the power and authority of the Constituent Assembly…”

There’s a sense of historical responsibility that calls not for “Unity”… but for UNION between those who have always opposed the regime, those who are chavistas, and all sectors of civil society.

He asked rhetorically what we were willing to sacrifice in order to delegitimize and disobey the orders of the dictatorship. He hinted that if we are willing, we will soon be marching to Miraflores… not to lead a coup against Maduro, but to swear in a new President.

Surprise guest Luisa Ortega Díaz was added to the list of speakers and had her turn next. I have to say there wasn’t much new content in her speech – her very presence was enough of a novelty. As she fixed her microphone, she asked if she was too well endowed, “es que tengo mucho tamaño?”… a sexual innuendo which drew laughter from the crowd. She quickly added that the people of Venezuela were endowed with both stature and largesse. She was met with resounding applause when she stated that we are under a de facto power and that we no longer have a government to speak of.

Many in the audience were surely disappointed when she said that, aside from theoretical notions, governments are really there to “guarantee happiness for the people”… usual chavista demagoguery.

Ortega’s words could’ve been mistaken for a campaign speech. As if on the stump, she repeated over and over how there’s a de facto government that does not respond to the needs of the people, and how she does not recognize the decisions of the “Presidential Constituent Assembly,” as she called it, none the least of which was her being ousted from her post as Prosecutor General.

Her advice for MUD was twofold: She cautioned National Assembly lawmakers not to abandon the Legislative Palace and the the opposition in general that Tibisay Lucena was clearly on a path to cancel regional elections if the opposition participated, and to hold them if the opposition didn’t.

That the ANC is being sold as a replacement of the National Assembly is an insult to the people’s intelligence.

After Ortega came Gabriela Ramírez, Former Ombuds(wo)man and chavista legislator. She began by highlighting the lack of women in prominent roles as one of the reasons for our country’s inability to reach consensus, a problem that was difficult to hide given who’d been invited to sit on the stage that day. But her speech went downhill from there: she drew on a metaphor about how women should rescue our “motherly instincts” as a means of overcoming the crisis, explaining how political leaders should look to demobilized bases to recover from low morale because “our children force us to get back up…” She spoke of the sacrifices women have to make when they obey their instincts, “hearing the voice of the people,” referring specifically to Luisa Ortega Díaz and the Constitution as a mother, because “my favorite child is always the one that is excluded, sick or feels sad… the Constitution is the same.” These kinds of rhetorical devices held the audience’s attention, but were pretty ridiculous and much devoid of substance.

She also informed the audience that jailed violinist Wuilly Arteaga is the first civilian to be charged by the new TSJ appointed Vice-Prosecutor General, Katherine Harrington, that he is still wearing the same clothes as the day he was apprehended, and that his mother has yet to be able to see him in person.

She closed her speech by admitting how hard it was for her to be there, sitting next to political adversaries. Contradicting Contreras’ previous remarks, she said that the origin of the left vs. right clash harkened back to when the Right wanted separation of powers and veto power for the King, while the Left wanted separation of powers and the sovereignty of the people. She went on to explain how, finally nowadays, all sides want separation of powers and agree that the people are the sovereign. It was a bold and defiant way to close out her address, a deliberate move that changed the mood of the speeches from then on out.

Then it was Julio Borges’s turn at the microphone, Speaker of the National Assembly and Primero Justicia national coordinator. He started out by referring to the military rebellion ongoing in Valencia: “As speaker of the AN, we demand to know the truth about what happened. The behavior of the Armed Forces reflects the sentiments of a country that calls for change.” He spoke about the dwindling protest movement, which he considered to be full of “ups and downs and jumps, […], but what really matters is that we have carried on regardless, that we have not wavered.” According to Borges, what comes next is “to continue the same fight that we began 130 days ago. A lot of people feel that the installation of the ANC is a knife to the heart, but we see it differently. Each step by the ANC weakens the regime.”

… Tibisay Lucena is clearly on a path to cancel regional elections if the opposition participates, and to hold them if the opposition doesn’t.

He did not offer much strategy on what comes next: “we must now give substance and bear witness to the words ‘to resist.’ We must remain firm and organized, on the streets,” and work in tandem with the international community. The speech was saved at the end, when Borges told an anecdote from when the Pope and Lech Walessa met during the darkest moment of the Polish liberation from communist rule. “I forbid you to do three things,” the Pope said to Walessa: “to hate, to kill, and to give up.” Borges gave some good advice, asking the crowd to keep those words in our hearts.

Then came Miguel Rodríguez Torres – retired Mayor General of the Army, Chávez’s first director of SEBIN and former Maduro Minister of the Interior.

He called on political leaders to go back to “statesmanship,” so that Venezuela can cease to be a failed state. By statesmanship, he apparently meant planning ahead for what seems a sure presidential bid : “Whomever still insists on imposing a quick path out of this crisis will leave us sad and disappointed […] Fear can be a good thing or a bad thing,” he said. “Fear forces you to plan ahead to break with uncertainty. Maduro has an expiration date and we must plan from a superior place of unity for what lies ahead of that.” 

He went on to lament how Venezuela is mired in a spiritual crisis and that we must learn forgiveness, which is not the same thing as impunity. Otherwise, “the guarimberos will enter Miraflores and those in Miraflores will become guarimberos.” It was impossible to hear him talk and not think on how convenient forgiveness would be for him.

Finally, as if he had the moral authority to do so, Rodriguez Torres went on a diatribe about leadership. “We need a courageous and responsible leadership. A leader does not throw stones at the National Guard, a brave leader knows when to step back and how to put aside personal interests.” So much for that.

The last speaker was Miranda Governor, former Presidential candidate, and sometimes MUD outcast Henrique Capriles. He immediately began by scolding the crowd about the regional elections debate. “Are we going to stay stuck on this discussion or move on to other ones?!” Then he went on all-out crowd pleasing mode, declaring that “we must quit thinking that building bridges means keeping a serious face (¿?). The he really hammed it up “Why are we afraid of a kiss?” he turned to Gabriela Ramírez, adding “on the cheek, I know your husband is here,” he smiled. He continued his appeal to unity and understanding: “we shouldn’t be afraid to take pictures [with our former adversaries] or to sit next to each other.”

Jailed violinist Wuilly Arteaga is the first civilian to be charged by the new TSJ appointed Vice-Prosecutor General, Katherine Harrington.

A Capriles speech would not be complete without a reminder of his victories, playing to his strengths: “Many years ago, we set out to build a new popular majority. We have finally achieved this: the people will now join us in our projects and in our plans.” It felt like most of the time, Capriles was talking towards the left side of the stage, and to Rodriguez Torres in particular.

In terms of performance, Capriles gets points for being frank; Freddy, for laying out his doctrine of nonviolent resistance clearly and lucidly, and making a good case for its relevance to this particular political moment. Luisa Ortega gets credit just for showing up, for being gracious and candid in her advice to MUD. Eustoquio Contreras gets a passing grade for his opening remarks, Rodríguez Torres, I guess, deserves kudos for not hiding his presidential intentions. Gabriela Ramírez and Julio Borges get failing grades, I expected way more from both.

It’s sad that we are not used to these kinds of events. The audience was overly deferential to the “left” side and overly critical to the “right” side. The audience craved and rewarded every gesture of unity between the participants. At the same time, people valued when leaders talked frankly and visibly rejected whenever they euphemized or beat around the bush. The takeaway for all politicians? Being honest and acknowledging differences, rather than sugarcoating or ignoring the issues, gets you further ahead.

Moving forward, I believe we have three immediate challenges to tackle. Firstly, we must find a common position on the regional elections; second, we need to agree on common tactics on how to apply articles 350 and 333 of the Constitution, and how to disobey and disregard the Constituent Assembly. This protest movement has formally belonged to MUD, but it needs to broaden and be joined by anti-ANC chavistas in order to gain momentum again. Finally, we must address National Assembly appointments of National Electoral Council (CNE) authorities by working alongside our new allies: the Bloque Parlamentario Socialista.

All in all, I felt better about Venezuela’s prospects at the end of the event than I did at the beginning. The speakers did not give us a recipe for how to solve our crisis. They did all show willingness to listen to each other, to regard each other as counterparts in future political endeavors, something which I found very heartening indeed. Because the event was just a series of individual 12-minute speeches, interactions between speakers were reduced to a minimum. Any direct reference made by one speaker about another was kept courteous and polite. It was a good first step, but we need to have an actual debate in which leaders can tackle touchy subjects, asks questions of each other, and interact with their audience. Only then will we find out whether these politicians have anything else in common, other than upholding the Constitution of 1999 and the need to restore the Republic and our democracy. It cannot be staged as a presidential debate because it won’t be: we are far away from anything resembling Presidential elections. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a big, honest conversation. We need to get used to these things: it’s part of rescuing what politics is really about.

Isabella Picón

Isa studied at UWC Adriatic (Duino, Italy) from 2006 to 2008 and graduated from Northwestern University in 2012, when she returned to Venezuela. She is a Venezuelan political scientist, activist and current president of Avemundo/UWC Venezuela.