Enrique Mendoza: the Third Base Coach of Venezuelan Politics

The former mayor and governor passed away at 77. It’s time for me to share, for the first time, what Enrique Mendoza taught me about defeat without uttering a word

It was a historic date—among many others in the last two decades—where Venezuela was facing a crossroads between a theoretical path to restoring progress through the sparkling rainbow of democracy, and a highway to hell. It was August 15th, 2004, the day of the recall referendum against Hugo Chavez. 

The fact that we would be able to vote YES (“yes” as in “yes, we want Chávez to leave”) that day was the product of lengthy negotiations between chavismo and opposition after the craziness of 2002-2003, and took months of dramatic logistic efforts to get the signatures validated against a myriad of dirty tricks from the Jorge Rodriguez-controlled CNE and the courts—apart from the circulos bolivarianos repressing demonstrators in the streets and attacking media outlets. Chavismo, on its part, was using all its might to get millions of power-keeping NOs (the tollbooth at the entrance of the highway to hell). The referendum had demanded a massive effort as well from the Chavez government, beyond red tape and bureaucratic bottlenecks: it had to rely on Cuba and to invest a lot of financial and political capital in the Misiones to restore the support Chavez had lost by 2003. 

So all eyes were on the events of that date. My assignment, at newspaper El Nacional, was to follow one of the main leaders of the Coordinadora Democratica (one of the early iterations of what eventually would become MUD and the Unitary Platform), Miranda governor Enrique Mendoza, and to write a chronicle of the day from the field marshall’s point of view. I joined Mendoza by 8 am, when he was leaving the school near Petare where he was registered to vote. I identified myself, the paper had arranged the whole thing, and I went with him to check on some voting stations before setting camp at the opposition’s headquarters, a two-story upper middle-class house in Campo Alegre renamed as Quinta La Unidad. 

From the first moment, Mendoza displayed the attitude he was known for, the same he showed during his many years as mayor in Sucre and governor of Miranda, where he went chest-deep in water helping rescue teams after the catastrophic floods of December 1999. Instead of smiling and greeting, Mendoza focused on listening and doing, running against time with a bit of a hunched posture, and apparently oblivious to things like eating, much less elaborating on theories about the country or the epic of democracy. Way more a baseball third-base coach than a candidate hungry for attention. 

Actually, in a fashion-obsessed country where politicians tended to develop recognizable outfits—Betancourt’s pipe and hat, CAP’s jackets, Chavez’s red shirts—, Mendoza’s was most likely involuntary and revealing: a baseball cap turned backwards, making him look like a catcher ready to handle anything that politics would throw at him.  

The first time I met Mendoza was in 2001, when he was in charge of organizing one of the first big demonstrations against Chavez, to protest the rise in crime. We were in the governor’s official residence in Los Teques. He was difficult to interview, unless you were able to hit a subject he was passionate about. He interrupted my questionnaire and asked me: ‘¿Tú sabes cómo se hace una marcha?’, and proceeded to teach me, on a board, how a demonstration has an architecture and must tell a story made of representation quotes, messages, pace and logistics—as a Catholic procession, a carnival parade in Guayana or a samba squad in Rio. 

Mendoza wasn’t an ideologist or a media-savvy leader; his thing was field work.

That August 15th of 2004 I had many chances to grasp the contrast between Mendoza’s demeanor and that of most of his travel companions at Coordinadora Democratica. Even with no cameras or mics at the scene, and in that context of real-time battle when the situation was evolving every minute, I could easily see the difference between him—and a few other people like union leader Manuel Cova, strategist Alberto Quiros Corradi, and grassroots activist Chuo Torrealba—and the swarm of professional politicians, media moguls, and aficionados taking part in such a critical competition. Mendoza was gathering information from many places, seated by a desk as if he was about to run, while a lot of people entered and left the office after interchanging rumors, bad jokes, unreliable figures and disgraceful comments that made me think that, for many of them, this was just a game. Not the fate of our nation, as they liked to say, but a funny day where they were playing the roll game How To Rule Venezuela.  

When the afternoon came, and with it the news of chavismo finishing off the mobilization and turning the polls to its favor, Mendoza left Quinta La Unidad to walk to another office they had rented in a nearby tower. He would repeat that route a couple of times, without saying anything, becoming increasingly worried. He stopped once to greet, with a rare smile, a living legend, another man of action: Pompeyo Marquez. Then, at some point, we took an elevator to the other office, when he had a meeting I was denied access to. 

I waited in a room full of people, including other journalists, among them a young, blonde American camerawoman that was being openly gazed at by drivers and security guys, in a fascinated, feverish way that reminded me of the black oil worker watching the blonde wifes of the first oil executives playing tennis at a camp in Ramon Diaz Sanchez’s Meme. About half an hour later, Julio Borges walked out the meeting with a smile too big to be sincere. I had to wait more for Mendoza, until he opened the door and cut through the crowd towards the elevator. I was lucky enough to slip myself in before he pushed the bottom to the ground level. He was self-absorbed, shaking his head, and talking to anyone in particular, he said:  

‘Yo soy un tipo práctico, yo…’

And no more. He didn’t say “we lost,” or “we will prevail.” He didn’t use a cliche to disguise the collapse of our hopes. He just seemed to imply that he did all that he could in the practical problem/solutions realm, and that any other thing, more creative, more audacious, was beyond his reach. Back at the office he, and no one else, was using at Quinta La Unidad, he sat at a big, messy desk and dropped his forehead between his hands. I was the only one there, but I think he wasn’t even aware of my presence. I realized my reporting had ended and that Chavez had won again. It was around 5 pm.  

‘Gobernador,’ I asked him, ‘¿quiere que lo deje solo?’ He didn’t answer. I closed the door behind me and rode the Metro downtown. A computer at the newsroom was waiting for me.

Almost 20 years had passed and I have thought several times about that moment when that man of few words went totally speechless and found no other thing to do with his hands than supporting his worried head. I’ve kept wondering what is the lesson he gave, with no intent, to that fastidious reporter shadowing him on the day of what may have been the greatest defeat of his political career. All that has happened after, tells me that we’ve had people who treat politics as service, as feet on the ground and not as head under the studio lights. People who end up falling under the weight of dark forces that never retreated—the ancient, unscrupulous authoritarianism chavismo brought back from our history—and amid the dazzling noise created by incapable, frivolous allies. 

I saw Enrique Mendoza unable to act, struggling for words at the time of utter defeat, and what I felt was respect for him. I saw dignity in his silence and impotence. And now that he’s gone and I’m telling the complete story of what I saw that day, I can’t help to think about the kind of politician he was, and how rare his species is in our times.