What If Another Sort of Transition Is Happening In Venezuela?

Maduro's new crackdown could be ending the traditional type of opposition politics, consolidating his regime and making the need for a new type of opposition more urgent.

Ask the Next QuestionTheodore Sturgeon.

There’s a The Simpsons episode in which Homer is banned from Moe’s bar. Suddenly, a very well-dressed guy, identical to Homer but sporting a frock coat, top hat and a mustache, enters the bar. Moe tells him to go away but the gentleman claims to be Guy Incognito (or Cosme Fulanito in the Latin American version). Moe beats Cosme and takes him out of the bar. But it turns out that the real Homer –who gets amazed with the resemblance – was outside.

As astonishing as it is, a good number of very educated people in Venezuela is demanding, vehemently, that the Venezuelan opposition names its very own Cosme Fulanito to be María Corina Machado’s substitute candidate. The plan’s promoters justify it by citing the success of the opposition in the repetition of the Barinas regional elections in 2022, when last-option candidate Sergio Garrido won, substituting the banned candidate Freddy Superlano and his also-banned first substitute options. 

Cosme Fulanito enters Moe’s bar.

But Barinas was just a regional election in a small state, not a hardcore national battle for political power. And those sweet little tricks –voting center witnesses or substitute candidates– are as evident for the Chavista leadership as they are for the analysts and commentators that discuss them publicly. On X. Everyday. 

Nevertheless, the Cosme Fulanito strategy assumes that Nicolás Maduro and the Rodriguez siblings —and the whole Chavista establishment, of course– won’t realize that Cosme is actually the opposition’s candidate endorsed by the winner of the primaries; the candidate which most voting Venezuelans will vote, con saña, in the hope of ousting Maduro and ending the purgatory that their lives are in.     

But this is not the place to discuss why important sectors of Venezuelan opinion-makers believe that cute little tricks –and the ritual “tragadera de sapos, of course– could oust a tyranny that appears to be kidnapping dissidents in other countries, is accusing a respected activist of the crime of having publicly-accessed maps, is planning a crackdown on NGOs, is actually cracking down on unions and is killing young people in the barrios. This is the place to discuss how Maduro´s   Nicaraguazo is ending, for good, the type of opposition politics that we have known and hated for so many years.

The top-down opposition

Insurrections, negotiations and elections: those have been the methods of choice of the traditional Venezuelan opposition and they were all understood within a bureaucratic, top-down, paradigm of politics.

There is almost no instance in which the opposition has not conceived their  “strategies”, both in the short term and in a very simplistic way – as if there is a magical moment in which the regime will crumble and give way to freedom, simply handing away its power to be either erased by the forces of good or appeased by the sacred ritual of the tragadera de sapos.

But, nowadays, there is not a single reason for Maduro to negotiate his departure from power because his regime, unlike the country, appears to be healthy. We are entering uncharted waters in which the continuity of the government in power has zero relation with its legitimacy: in this new period the old commonplaces and the Cosme Fulanitos politics have no place. 

For now, Madurismo has no major internal threats. While it is unknown if it is possible to hold an entire country at gunpoint for unlimited time, especially when that country is crumbling, Chavismo appears to be taking advantage of the enormous difference of forces and the disorganization of civil society to bet on the efficacy of fear as a deterrent. 

On the international front, foreign interventions are out of the picture, the regime has survived sanctions in the past and if you want to deport Venezuelans (a new sport of the western democracies), you have to be friendly with Maduro. There are also significant oil reserves that are further incentives to be at least polite with him. In fact, there might be a transition in progress – but not the one that the Cosme Fulanito strategists dream about, but rather one towards a full autocracy, without any residues of democracy or pluralism. 

An anti-fragile opposition.

So, what ways remain open to Venezuelan society? Is it still possible to construct a proper opposition that is not simply resilient but adaptive and antifragile? Or will Venezuelan society have to mutate into a deterritorialized diasporic society to prosper?

Those are the questions for this time.

Some politicians are finally realizing that organizing people is kinda their job description. The comanditos –the opposition’s current strategy of promoting small self-organized electoral groups in communities to mobilize and energize voters– look promising, as grassroots politics is the essential infrastructure of any democratic struggle in any juncture. Such a decentralized structure can work for an electoral campaign, organize protest and provide mutual aid, information or solidarity (sorely needed in times of state abductions) while also combining themselves in bigger blocks. But time could be against these initiatives, as civil society could be already very weakened and repression is getting more aggressive as Chavismo hopes to demobilize and desarticulate. 

In philosophical terms: Chavismo almost Foucauldian understanding of how power works –structuring the possible field of actions of others– contrasts sharply with  the cute Kelsenian or Habermasian conceptions of  many opposition figures, who are very concerned with rules, dialogues and negotiation tables.

Chavismo always goes for the people that actually understand power and have even  a little potential for organizing and/or shaking things –NGOs, labor unions, activists, journalists and military officials– to leave them with no chance of becoming a threat. Now, with the Furia Bolivariana tactics, Vente Venezuela and other parties become also targets: is just logic that someone like Víctor Venegas, president of the local branch of a teachers union and member of Vente Venezuela was arrested, as well as members of the campaign command of Maria Corina Machado. Constructing a proper opposition won’t be easy and, worst, it may not be possible. 

We have to consider the dystopian possibility that some countries have no way out of their regimes, at least in the short term, and that their only way out is exodus. There are several societies that appear to have lost the ability to battle tyranny or are descending into chaos. Is that the case of Venezuela?

Hopefully not, but we have to be serious about it, let go of the Cosme Fulanito politics, and ask the next questions.