“Our Conflict Comes From Not Having a Civilized, Modern Life.”

Political scientist Guillermo Aveledo Coll sees a society more open to negotiation and an opportunity in Barbados, than the groups fighting to rule over it

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

A Spanish version of this piece was originally published in Cinco8.

Guillermo Aveledo Coll is one of my generation’s best observers of Venezuelan reality. He has a degree in political science from the UCV, he’s dean of the School of Law and Political Studies at UNIMET, and comes from a long line of caraqueño scholars that has already given us quite a few thinkers. His knowledge about Venezuela’s political and institutional past, as deep as his perspective of our present, comes not only from being an academic still living in Venezuela, with everything so close and  fresh, that overwhelming reality crushing those enduring ithe also has to distill it to his students and readers. As professor and politician Ramón Guillermo Aveledo’s son, Guillermo has seen up close what it means to be in the political opposition in Venezuela, during the chavista era and before it. 

I asked him to talk about the nature of resistance against every idea of negotiation between political opponents, even when there doesn’t seem to be a better way to put this unbearable present behind us, in which Maduro’s regime ni lava ni presta la batea (it neither rules nor allows anyone else to rule.) A resistance that’s stronger on social media than on the streets, according to recent surveys, such as the one carried out by Datanálisis, revealing that the electoral solution is the most favored among Venezuelans. 

Let’s start by talking about realities that might seem obvious, but apparently aren’t to many people. First: a political transition can’t begin in Venezuela, towards a democracy or at least a more flexible dictatorship that makes our country more functional, without a negotiation. Marines won’t remove Maduro and Guaidó and his allies don’t seem able to break the military alliance keeping Maduro in power. So, there’s either a negotiation or nothing but the preservation of the status quo, unbearable for everyone except Maduro and his circle. Do you agree?

I not only agree, I think that the great political options are, for the better rather than the worst, rallying behind this idea, along with grassroots organizations and the Catholic church. We have a history of pacts (Santa Ana, Coche, Puntofijo) that under chavismo has been dismissed, but that was essential for progress after a violent, iniquitous history. This is an unavoidable conclusion, far from perfect, but then again I’m afraid of ideas of perfection that gives you direction, but may also be impossible to execute.

The great political options are, for the better rather than the worst, rallying behind this idea, along with grassroots organizations and the Catholic church.

So, based on the fact that we can’t advance without a negotiation, let’s explore the sources resisting the very notion. How do you evaluate that resistance, from the chavista side? Who can bet on numantine resistance, on not moving an inch?

Chavismo’s greatest problem surrounding the negotiation stems from the fact that, beyond the corrupt and incompetent practices that have defined it, in their vision of the country, of our history, it’s sectarian. Everything existing before the Bolivarian Revolution, for five centuries of being what we are, is, according to their ideology—because they do have one—despicable. It’s corruption and violence, and there’s no compromising with that. Those pacts I mentioned before weren’t (for this chavista vision) exemplary moments, but treason. So, making a pact means going back not only on Chávez’s legacy or socialism, but on a century-long historical battle, where present hardships aren’t explained with their own mistakes, but external causes. Is there a moderate sector in chavismo? We assume there is, but this world is opaque. There are people who directly sabotage the efforts—Cabello, the most evident—, but there are also those who are moderate depending on the occasion, on the situation. Isn’t that the Executive’s situation and the situation for his negotiators? From having the need to having conviction about moderation, there’s a step, an enormous leap of faith. It’s saying: “This thing we’ve been thinking for years isn’t as good as we thought.”

And now let’s talk about resistance, that horror for negotiating within the opposition. What’s the point, why do they oppose the very idea of considering it? Do María Corina Machado & Co. really think a military coalition will invade Venezuela?

Maybe they do. Maybe they expect it, tragically, because we have to admit that an important part of Machado’s political career has been devoted to having an internal change, with variating efficiency, with higher or lower possibilities. Assuming that there’s no other way out but an intervention is a dramatic conviction that can’t be taken lightly if it comes from a serious political actor. But I see the opposition from two perspectives: One, in moderate, center politics, there’s no way for her option to achieve power (at least power within the opposition). I say this assuming that her ideological option, and her own option of power, isn’t only legitimate, but also isn’t undesirable from the start (and that, if I have to choose one, I’d clearly choose it over chavismo). 

You mean there’s no way for that part of the opposition that aligns ideologically with center politics to achieve power?

No, I mean that the most radical opposition will hardly win a majority. That’s why they try to filter the competition, morally at least. The second perspective within the opposition, and there are very eloquent spokespeople for this, rests on their conviction that nothing in chavismo is worth saving, it’s morally and politically lost. And that’s not an unpopular idea: the general ambiguity facing this whole process proves it. 

So, this opposition, as chavismo, can’t fathom negotiating with something they consider to be absolutely negative, pernicious, and therefore, according to this opposition, something that should disappear forever as a political actor. Right?

I think that those opposing moderationMachado and othershave been clear when they say that they don’t think chavismo should continue, and that if it does, nothing will change even if they open up, and even if they do, it wouldn’t be enough. 

Assuming that there’s no other way out but an intervention is a dramatic conviction that can’t be taken lightly if it comes from a serious political actor.

My feeling about the entirety of Venezuelan society and our political culture, that time has only confirmed, is that we don’t know how to solve conflicts without violence. We either avoid conflict or we solve it with machetes. We look down on negotiating, even when our experience, from here and there, tells us that with very few exceptions, democracies are built from the start by negotiating. Is this cultural, thinking that negotiating is surrendering?

Negotiating has a bad rep, ironically, because of our double tendency to strength and viveza: we’d be Tío Tigre, the bully, and Tío Conejo, the trickster. We think that if we negotiate, it’s either to be somebody’s fool or to make someone our fool. I don’t know if that’s a terrible trait, though. What I do see is that our effective violence—that doesn’t solve anything, but strengthens the inequity—has been normalized and the fact that we haven’t gone through an actual war isn’t all that clear (because of the distance between political violence in civil wars and the optimistic view on poorly studied rebellions.) It’s not the same as crime or the violent way of life at the edge of civility. It’s not like protests and repression, and I don’t mean just in magnitude. Even those who advocate a solution without negotiations—with only a few exceptions—state their alternative as “legitimate violence,” like a fulminating phase that’s not that bloody. I’m skeptic towards that belief, but this may be my conservatism winning. I’d rather we seriously ponder about the severity of things. 

Another matter is that, if you look at the surveys, most Venezuelans still think, as they have for years, that this must be solved peacefully and through elections. The idea of an American invasion exists on Twitter and certain Venezuelan and diaspora sectors more than among common folks living in the country, making queues and struggling to survive. There’s a gap between social media and reality, like two different public opinions. How do you feel, and what’s the feeling among your people or at college?

Although I could appeal to the masses, I won’t because they could change their mind and minorities aren’t always wrong. But I don’t feel that in ordinary society there’s a push towards redemptive violence. There’s exhaustion towards these alternatives, maybe because of the previous failures of maximalism, or the fraud of socialist redemption. So, it’s the moment for realism, for sense. What do I perceive? That there’s an incredible will for change, but also a notion that this change must be gradual, even if it contradicts the moral indignation about the damage caused to society. And this indignation exists, rightfully, even if it won’t turn into power. This indignation and this prudence, dismisses the possibility of us being tío-Tigre-tío-Conejo.

How do you imagine a transition, or governability in a transition, in these conditions?

Beyond imagination (and I have everything from nightmares to dreams) when we talk about transition we have to mention realities that are not at all uplifting. Something’s gotta give, transitions aren’t unilateral, but they also imply change. And it’s not only about appeasing conflicts, it’s also solving them.  And, what’s Venezuela’s essential conflict? The May 2018 elections? The ongoing coup against the National Assembly? Not recognizing the revolution? No. The greatest Venezuelan conflict is that we have no civilized, modern life. Regarding our human development indexes, in practice, we have residual modernity, that is there because something was there before. But it’s faint. And we assume that Venezuelans, by birthright, should live in an open, prosperous society, under a system of liberties, have a voice in public matters, with security and tranquility, all of that, but we have to understand that our reality screams otherwise. So, I have to convince those who hinder these general aspirations to stop doing it. Convince them that their own sense of patriotism and progress is at risk if we don’t change towards a more open society, especially those who claim to defend the majority. Who can believe, really, that the most vulnerable sectors of society are okay today? I’m not saying better or worse, just plain old okay. Nobody! 

Negotiating has a bad rep, ironically, because of our double tendency to strength and viveza: we’d be Tío Tigre, the bully, and Tío Conejo, the trickster.

The transition, besides, would start with at least temporal, unavoidable impunity, necessary for a regime change.

History is full of examples where, except for a very small group, the elites settled the transitional changes. And this implied, in the sector that pushed for change, the need for postponing justice. Let’s think about 1958: General Pérez Jiménez and his circle leave, secret police Seguridad Nacional is dismantled. But sectors of the bourgeoisie, the church and Armed Forces that benefited from the dictatorship remained. I know that many find in chavismo’s crimes a difference not only in magnitude but in their very essence, different from those times, but they must look at it as a global experience. 

More in detail, how do we make a transition towards democracy if moderate leaders are butchered because of these principles and succumb to internal competition? It’s Guaidó’s case and it was also, in different circumstances, your father’s case when he was MUD coordinator.

Moderates have also been ambivalent. Years ago I was talking to a friend of mine, a priest, after the 2015 elections, and I wondered, with such discipline and peace, what more credentials could we present for our wish of true, peaceful change? He answered that the problem we had from the opposition is that we also walked the semi-loyal route like a calculation, waiting to irreversibly deploy our power. Because of that, a system that was already unequal and abusive turned even more authoritarian. Was it possible to convince those who have power that we don’t want to destroy everything they’ve done? As they’ve done terrible things, it’s hard to defend anything. But it’s something we did have, in defense of the imperfect and limited Constitution of 1999. If the leadership is convinced about this, really, it must convince its opponents, or step away from them. Even more, if they think that tragedy is unavoidable, act in consequence, seriously and severely. This also gives you the moral authority to make demands, because those who don’t believe in change, let’s say the most reactionary revolutionaries, use this ambiguity to sow doubt, divide and humiliate. And the State-PSUV has a degree of responsibility in that, immeasurable against any other political actor. Chavismo should be the first one to show moderation and its instinct has stopped it from doing so. 

Another topic is building consensus about what the country should do, consensus between those who govern and society itself. What to do with oil, with the Armed Forces, foreign relations, etc. Thousands of things, priorities that in Chile, for example, were shared by the center-left and the center-right, that resulted in a successful transition. Do you think it’s possible for us, or that it will be possible if it currently isn’t?

Yes. It’s not easy, because we’re stuck in the ideological goal, but the potential agreement could be overwhelming if looked at in a certain way. There’s a series of ideas that travel through us: one, that sovereignty resides in the people (who’s the people and how that sovereignty is exercised?); Can that be framed into our different ideas of freedom? Two, that society will be better as it’s more inclusive and prosperous and this matches our different ideas about equality. While that’s possible, we could count on oil to promote both goals (inclusion and prosperity) even if that’s a window about to close. Our priorities, if we assume that the Venezuelan conflict has the unfulfillment of our aspirations to liberty and equality at its root, are the civilizational shortcomings that I mentioned before. Services and infrastructure, rule of law, economic stability, identity… Those six or seven problems we all know, as Alberto Adriani said in 1936. 

Our priorities are the civilizational shortcomings that I mentioned before. Services and infrastructure, rule of law, economic stability, identity.

Our leadership shouldn’t care, when it’s time to solve this crisis, who’s to blame, but which problems to solve first. Use the narrative you want, but allow work to have value, make things work and life bearable. And basic consensus is required in three main points: inclusion politics (because our society is poorly organized,) strong institutions (because we’re subject to discretionality and inefficiency) and a social pact that respects those, that makes us all partners and beneficiaries of that. About the technical aspect, we are not short on ideas for measures. Plan País could also be assumed from an official perspective, but it also requires abandoning certain sacred truths. Negotiation is an opportunity. There may be many more, if we let this one slide, but starting from scratch will always be harder.