Part of the curse weighing down on my generation of Venezuelan exiles is that it’s impossible to watch political reality now without constantly running into parallels too uncanny to go unremarked. Over the last two days, as Americans sat stunned watching the sordid, stomach-churning spectacle of a U.S. President claiming an election had been stolen from him on the basis of no evidence of any kind, Venezuelans were back fighting the old déjà vu, this time not of Donald Trump as proto-Chávez but something weirder: Donald Trump as a 2004 Venezuelan opposition politician.
For me, the last two days were an echo. It was history repeating itself as that strange mash-up of tragedy and farce that is what the 2020 brand is all about.
All of a sudden, I was right there watching Globovisión at 2 in the morning on August 16th, 2004.
Like millions of Venezuelans, I sat stunned as the National Electoral Council announced that President Hugo Chávez would easily survive the attempt to recall him from office via referendum. The opposition, which had undergone a long, traumatic series of petitions and re-petitions, signature drives and reafirmazos for over a year just to get the referendum to take place, was shell shocked.
Nobody had prepared us for this possibility. It wasn’t in the cards. The only explanation that seemed to make any sense was… fraud, actually.
The idea that the election had been stolen from us passed from wild conspiracy theory into hardened opposition dogma directly, never actually stopping at the stage of “hypothesis to be confirmed.”
And that’s exactly what the opposition alleged, beginning with a shrill, shouty speech by former Bolívar state governor Andrés Velásquez from Plaza Caracas. Screaming in frustration, Velásquez alleged a fraud he had no evidence of any kind for. To many in the opposition, this disastrous lack of evidence didn’t matter. Our emotional truth was that we had to win. Not winning was intolerable. To many in the opposition grassroots, the idea that the election had been stolen from us passed from wild conspiracy theory into hardened opposition dogma directly, never actually stopping at the stage of “hypothesis to be confirmed.”
Now, no historical parallel is ever quite neat, and this one isn’t either. In 2004, the losing side was out of power, not in office. Polls for years running up to the vote had shown Chávez losing, despite some late, ambiguous movement in Chávez’s favor we all did our best to ignore. Still, for Chávez to win was a genuine polling surprise in a way Trump’s loss was simply not.
And yet, what came next in both cases was a blunder of historic circumstances.
Claiming fraud in a democracy is grave business, and claiming fraud without clear and conclusive evidence is politically suicidal. Any eight-year-old in a schoolyard knows that blaming a loss on some vague charge of cheating is the mark of a sore loser, and people hate sore losers.
In Venezuela, Andrés Velásquez’s frazzled charges of fraud during a late-night press conference on behalf of the soon-to-be-extinct Coordinadora Democrática was a blunder that did as much as any other to consolidate chavismo’s grip on power.
It was a blunder because it seemed to prove Chávez’s characterization of our entire movement: a bunch of crybabies, willing to do anything for power, with only a paper-thin attachment to democratic norms and rules.
It was a blunder because it seemed to prove Chávez’s characterization of our entire movement: a bunch of crybabies, willing to do anything for power.
It was a blunder because it badly demobilized the opposition, which went into a kind of nihilistic crouch, understandably unwilling to participate any longer in elections that our own leaders were telling us were rigged.
It was a blunder because it paved the way for the calamitous election boycott of 2005, when we simply handed over control of the National Assembly to chavismo uncontested, passing up what might have been our last best chance to use the ballot box to stop Venezuela’s actual slide into dictatorship.
It was a blunder because it sapped Venezuelans’ belief in democratic mechanisms for years and years on end, becoming a huge gift to a properly autocratic government.
Of course, no parallel is ever quite neat, and certainly the U.S. is not Venezuela. But there is enough here to sense that Donald Trump is making a similar kind of catastrophic blunder.
In the MAGAroots and in the darker nether reaches of QAnon conspiracyland, it’s easy to imagine this trauma leading Trump’s supporters to give up on elections as a means of achieving their political ends. There’s already talk of some of his most diehard supporters boycotting the special elections that would decide control of the Senate in January.
It could be a very long time before the poisonous distrust in institutions this kind of attitude engenders to dissipate. And if you’re a Democrat and you think “Republicans handing me control of power for years? I should be so lucky!” Well—you have another thing coming. People who give up on peaceful means of seeking power more often give up on the “peaceful means” than on the “seeking power.”
Is the nihilism involved in giving up on elections that no one is actually rigging insanely self-destructive? For sure.
“That could never happen here,” you whisper?
Those are not words a Venezuelan is ever going to be comfortable with.
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