Venezuela Has No Opposition Left

The passivity around the stolen election in Barinas shows how political parties are no more than electoral committees, empty of meaning, and completely cut out the society they pretend to represent

Photo: The New York Times

The soul refuses those who want war because they confuse it with struggle,
but also those who renounce struggle, because they confuse it with war.
Gilles Deleuze

We just learned that the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) decided the opposition candidate for the governorship of Barinas, Freddy Superlano, was barred from running for office after he was clearly winning the vote, and ordered to repeat the election in January. The fact that this wasn’t a surprise, and the opposition’s passive reaction, speaks volumes about the current state of Venezuelan politics.

Chavismo could have easily conceded the defeat in Barinas, the state where Chávez was born. Like Manuel Rosales’s victory in Zulia, it would’ve been a good argument for them to say Venezuela has a functional democracy, while allowing the opposition to win posts with little power and influence. But chavismo didn’t admit it lost, maybe because, in symbolic terms, Barinas isn’t like Zulia: it wasn’t ruled by the opposition and it’s the cradle of the movement.

But what did the pro-voting opposition conclude from the recent events in Barinas? That votes mean nothing if there are no conditions to back them up? That calling people to vote means also calling people to defend said votes? That politics is way more than some rules, protocols, and institutional paperwork? That democracy is something more than the Carreño handbook of etiquette, which defines how well-educated people should behave? 

No. They concluded that “anytime we can vote, we must vote and that “participating in elections, even in the worst conditions (internal and external), will always get those who rule through fear and violence in trouble,” etc. 

Voting in Venezuela is the subject of a tiresome debate between suffrage and abstention, within a very limited conception of democracy. This seems to be related to the fact that the opposition is organized in “physiologic parties”—as they are called in Brazil—whose purpose is to obtain posts to capture oil revenue. These parties are made up of professional politicians whose personal and collective project is to occupy those posts and use them to appoint people in their entourage.

What just happened in Barinas confirmed that, more than an opposition, Venezuela has fetichists of the vote and fetichists of the coup d’état. Our opposition is divided into two groups: those who want power, as in other parts of the continent, to distribute those posts and resources with the ruling party, and those who, desperate for their inability to get that power, believe that a military intervention could turn things to their favor. 

So they can only see a crossroads on the horizon, that could be defined in old-school Venezuela as “voto o plomo.” In English, “vote or lead.” One road leads to doing the only thing most politicians know how to do: run for office and convince people they have to vote (voto). The other road leads to doing that, just after Maduro is toppled by force (plomo). And reducing politics to voting or “caerse a plomo” (shooting each other) means to define it by its extremes, instead of considering the whole spectrum that exists between one road and the other.

The Dismissal of Revolt

Being the opposition—especially in an authoritarian context—isn’t simply offering an electoral option or just a possible government. Opposing is a dynamic that affirms itself by being contrarian, with some effectiveness, to the government’s arbitrary conduct, and to offer other possible ways of living. The passivity around chavismo stealing the votes in Barinas in plain daylight doesn’t only prove the total impotence of electoral fetishism, but the fact that in pragmatic, functional terms, Venezuela has no opposition left: only candidates who aren’t chavistas. 

From the Venezuelan opposition’s point of view, events such as Tahrir Square, the 2013 revolt in Brazil, or the more recent ones in Sudan, Hong Kong, and the U.S., and all that took place since 2009, simply don’t exist. They paid some attention to the revolt in Ukraine, maybe because they saw it as an anti-communist movement, but it’s quite difficult to find any reference to those mobilization experiences in the opposition’s speech. Even the recent uprising in Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia are seen with distrust and even sad resentment (there are people in the Venezuelan opposition who support the Colombian National Police over the Colombian youth, and the Chilean Carabineros over the Chilean youth). 

For the Venezuelan opposition, politics are still the adventurous journey towards the power of the parties and their politicians. Our revolts in 2014 and 2017 were seen from that narrow, short-sighted perspective, and they forgot about them when they didn’t achieve their goals. Of course, you see people saying that civil society can pressure, but, as in old machismo, the civil society is the wife of those parties that say to represent her, and she can get mad and mumble under her breath but in the end, it’s the husband who makes the decisions and imposes his will.

The debate on the crisis of political parties, on representation, on the great possibilities (and limitations) of the social movements in the last years, is quite common in other countries. Why do those movements tend to be very potent and at the same time short-lived? What is it that prevents them from developing more institutional, routinary forms that may help them prevail? Why are those democratic or revolutionary movements absorbed by old corruption (like Podemos in Spain), or worse, turned into tyrannies (like Sandinismo in Nicaragua)? These are questions that activists, scientists, and intellectuals are asking all over the world. There are no definitive answers to those questions, because, like life, democracy is what happens between order and chaos, and the great revolts and mobilizations show that, even when they fail, they always change at least something, and prove that the future isn’t pre-established and that people aren’t entirely powerless.

Meanwhile, for the majority of the Venezuelan opposition, the ideas of participative democracy or direct democracy are “castrocomunista” demagogy, yet distrusting representation and the concept of citizens directly participating in public affairs is part of the modern liberal tradition, which was passed down and became what we now see as the Left. It’s in Rousseau and Jefferson, who said that rebellion isn’t only a right but a need to keep freedom alive. It’s in Thoreau and his thesis of civil disobedience. It’s the tradition of “radical democracy” that exists beyond a certain Left that corrupted it. This is why you’ve seen people in the U.S. talking about participatory democracy for some years now, in a very natural way, and why people who took to the streets to protest against the murder of George Floyd, with quite radical slogans, voted for a moderate like Joe Biden, because the vote and disobedience are just two different ways of participating.

The idea of democracy as a process totally computed by parties and within them was established among us in 1959, when in fact AD, Copei, and URD had to develop a culture based on the equivalence of democracy to voting. Since then, we think of voting as a moral principle that justifies itself beyond consequences: we vote and that’s it, this is what democratic people do, this is what gives democracy and voting their meaning. This meant that by fetishizing votes, we embellish passivity. 

There are some reasons for that. Not only did Chávez instrumentalize participative democracy, but people like María Corina Machado and her followers also do it with civil disobedience, using it as an elegant code for coup. Those ideas were also involved in the revolts of 2014 and 2017, that we can say failed under repression or the deplorable conditions of the country, but also because they weren’t coordinated by social and citizen forces, like in other countries, but by politicians trained as professional candidates that know nothing of mobilization and civil disobedience. Let’s also remember 2019, when, instead of focusing the strategy on re-mobilizing people when there were actual domestic and foreign conditions to do so, they focused on making the Armed Forces turn their loyalty to the caretaker government, amid the paralyzing discourse of Venezuelan people as pathetic, impotent beings that need to be rescued.

So the belief of revolting being useless was spread, without thinking on why the revolt had failed… when History has proven that failure is the best way of learning for a democratic movement. 

The Double Paradox

Rebellion and civil disobedience aren’t everything in politics. Neither is voting. Politics moves between the totally routinary and the totally extraordinary, between continuity and rupture.

Venezuela was left without opposition not only because the pro-voting and the anti-voting burned the bridge between them, but because it was established that politics is something that can only be done by politicians and parties, bureaucracies, and civil society is reduced to the role of cheerleader. In fact, the idea of rupture amid the so-called “radical” opposition has nothing to do with rebellion, but with the intervention of a saving military force.

Only a few were worried about building the networks that were in place in Egypt, Sudan, Hong Kong, Colombia. And the only political scientists talking on Twitterzuela about the need to build a national network of activists were mocked by people who were, at the same time, totally convinced of the impotence of common Venezuelans, and of the possibility of a miraculous outcome, via the saving invasion or the elections through which the government would hand out power to the opposition that same government is so fond of beating to a pulp.

In many parts of the world, since the 1980s at least, what defines democracy isn’t the politicians who represent a constituency, but the activists that are doing something for themselves. They can be mothers seeking justice for their sons, minorities fighting for their rights, journalists unmasking the abuse of the powerful, scientists asking for attention and action against climate change, technicians promoting free software, Indigenous or rural communities, and also pressure groups linked to powerful economic interests, evangelical churches, cults, or dark right-wing subcultures. Not everything is nice or ends well, but that’s where politics is done and then gets into the parties or takes its shape.

Those first-world parties the anti-chavista admires so much mean something, because of that activity of posing problems, developing agendas, delivering proposals. That’s how real leadership is made. If politicians express something more than their own ambitions, if there are reasons to tolerate their narcissism, it’s because they come from that activism (like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S. or Daniel Boric in Chile) or because it champions it (like Trump or Bolsonaro).

I don’t believe this article, in our Venezuelan context, will convince anyone who believes that democracy equals voting (or that it’s “also” other things but “the most important” is sitting a candidate on a chair). I just want to finish by highlighting two paradoxes: the one of the fetishism of the party, and the one of the fetishism of the vote.

Fetishism of the party only leads to creating parties as electoral committees of famous people, often corrupt, empty parties that mean nothing, parties nobody trusts, who have no links with society and no other goal than getting their chiefs in office.

Fetishism of the vote leads to people refraining from even imagining mechanisms or forces to defend those votes, and to absurd redundancies like “we defend votes by voting” which make voting totally useless.

If we have, on the contrary, a structured and coordinated network of people who work for something else than being a candidate, who have knowledge of concrete problems, who don’t expect to be the angry but obedient wife of the representative party (refusing to be a victim worthy of pity), and if the parties create an interface with that network, these parties would acquire some meaning, would have some capacity to do things and therefore inspire trust, and maybe then they’d be able to do something when an election is stolen. 

In other words, to oppose, to be a real force of connected people, which would make both paths possible, one of elections and negotiations and another one of fractures. With realism, pragmatism, and plausibility.