Martial Arts for An Elastic Opposition

To have a fighting chance, the Venezuelan opposition has to learn to adapt and overcome - even beyond the electoral route.

“If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” – Bruce Lee.

On April 19th, the Unitary Platform (PUD) announced that former diplomat Edmundo González Urrutia –already registered in the CNE, originally as a “placeholder” candidate– will be the unanimous candidate of the opposition and that Manuel Rosales, the governor of Zulia, will withdraw his candidacy.

This would be the third time that the battered political opposition has dribbled or surprised the government in recent months. First, with the primaries last October where massive participation –even in popular areas or in former bastions of Chavismo– became a kind of public demonstration. There, María Corina Machado, the banned leader of Vente Venezuela, became the unexpected representative of a democratic victory both against the government and against the old political elites of the opposition parties.

The second time that the opposition surprised Chavismo was when Machado “raised her hand” with Professor Corina Yoris, agreeing to give her the Unity candidacy. And the third was when everyone opted for what was the most logical option: a candidate already registered but not controlled by the government.

Although the government not only has many more resources and forces but also has played much better than the opposition –which insists on reading the situation from an electoral perspective even when it is evident that the government is heading towards authoritarian radicalization– it suffered its first setback with the massive participation in the primaries, in which it underestimated the discontent. The next time, it underestimated Machado, believing that she would insist on her candidacy or call for abstention, and the third time they underestimated all the factors of the Democratic Unitary Platform.

But we should not read these small victories in the moral way in which the mainstream of political “analysts” and catechists of the vote tell us: the success was not in sticking to an electoral route that does not exist but in not collaborating with the farce of the government that would benefit from a dramatic –and useless– call for abstention that would place the responsibility for what will happen in July in the lap of Machado, who has understood that holding her responsible for the possible opposition defeat is an essential part of the government strategy.

The point is that, as she accepted using proxies, Machado dribbled between Scylla and Charybdis but with an unexpected effect: the opposition candidacy was purged of controversy, becoming more “abstract” and therefore more “representative”, since Yoris and González Urrutia are not professional politicians with concrete trajectories but rather ordinary people who took a step forward to give other ordinary people someone to vote for.

And that possibility of concentrating the enormous discontent in a symbol for allows an enormous amount of potential energy to be directed: but at this point, and despite Machado’s undeniable leadership, that symbol is not even Gonzalez Urrutia but the opposition candidate who personifies the rejection of an unsustainable state of affairs.

Gonzalez Urrutia is an impasse, a strike, that the government will probably correct soon because it controls the electoral and judicial apparatus and because its bet is on a “potable” opposition candidate: that is, one who does not oppose anything.

However, public opinion tended to lean towards a melodrama about who would talk to whom and how, convinced that it was just a matter of reaching an agreement and that – using cute little electoral tricks– they could remove from power a quasi-hegemonic government that has no intention of leaving power.

But there is nothing surprising in that: in Venezuela. politics has been understood essentially as an electoral campaign and partisan activity – history is a theater of great figures making great decisions on behalf of erratic and foolish masses protected from their base passions by their shepherds. And our electoral tirade seems defined by it.

The great man theory

Almost no one talks about the people who rose up against Gomecism after the death of the tyrant but about Eleazar López Contreras. Similarly, instead of talking about those who carried out the Oil Strike of 1936 and created the first unions, we talk about how Isaías Medina Angarita created the Ministry of Labor.

The intermittent, sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, juanbimbada that took Venezuelans out of a servile condition and that is behind the early Venezuelan democratization was conveniently forgotten and presented as a legacy of the leading men of the parties, without whom –we are told– democracy is not conceivable.

That is why Hugo Chávez, beyond his participatory rhetoric, used the elections profusely: transforming them into plebiscites where a captive electoral market was condemned to vote for some so that the others would not win while systematically restricting the electoral offer by making it difficult or blocking the creation of new parties while beginning the culture of bans from running for office. No one took the electoral culture to its extremes like him, even using the electoral campaign as a means of social control.

In this top-down, candidate-centered political culture, it is not at all strange that organization and collective mobilization have no importance next to the names of the leaders.

In that context is where Machado appears as an enigma: to begin with, she is the least common type of politician in Venezuela. She is the scion of a patrician family, highly ideological, right-wing, with a rigid discourse and, apparently, little concern with means and strategies. A political celebrity par excellence, the role of candidate has suited her like a glove.

But Machado has become the visible head of the democratic opposition because she does not accept the continuation of the system, a position considered “extremist” by the lobby-analysts of Twitterzuela but which is that of the majority of Venezuelans eager for change, and because she dedicated herself to carrying out the work of organizing the Venezuela profunda that no professional candidate cares about (except to get votes) while her affinity with women grows: poor women who appear to be one of the most important actors in our battered politics.

She, the most unlikely, is the only one who has experienced a rise. Seeing it with crowds in towns whose existence the horrible political consultants from Caracas don’t even know about can generate the expectation of a change at the door, like in those times when the vote was worth something. But these are not those times, and the vote is worth less than the bolivar.

The authoritarian peace

Just as she is for much of the partisan opposition, Machado is a big problem from the government. She is resented twice: for the beating she gave to those parties in the primaries and because for many she symbolizes the intransigence, disobedience and even rebellion that became anathema –after 2017– for the majority of opposition public opinion that proclaims itself “moderate.”

Thus, there were two responses from transchavismo –that non-formal extension of Madurista control or influence over parties and groups that have historically been part of the opposition– to Machado’s victory. One, political, is the candidacy of Manuel Rosales or the moderate and realistic alternative that, in addition to being “potable” for the Madurato, would pressure Machado to dissolve her leadership in Rosales’ candidacy.

The other response is what we can call “ideological”: the propagation of the idea that a democratic transition is occurring in Venezuela, justified with silly expressions (“potable candidate”, “golden bridge”) and absurd similes with past situations that have no comparison with the Venezuelan one.

But Manuel Rosales’ candidacy goes beyond that. Although the government has all the judicial and electoral tools, electoral falsification is not only the repression of opponents but a kind of dramaturgy to simulate that the ruler extracts from the governed the consensus that they no longer want to give him. For this, at least in the presidential elections, a more or less credible opponent is needed to play the role of the Dragon of Chaos that the president is going to ritually strike down.

Manuel Rosales is the center of an already quite prolonged political operation that began with his return to the country after years of exile, his release, and his eventual victory in Zulia. It is the avatar of the thesis in which everything that is wrong in politics is blamed on the “radical opposition”: Maduro remains in power only because of abstention in 2018, says this version, and because the Chavista elite is afraid –very afraid– of being murdered by María Corina and her North American allies. It is the ideology of “authoritarian peace”, defended by the analyst-ideologists to whom Chavismo has outsourced its legitimation.

The need for these narratives and theaters has led to a surprising division of labor between Chavismo and transchavismo: the former is dedicated to organizing coercion and the latter, consent. Since Chavismo cannot justify itself, it requires not only propagandists (lobby-analysts) who normalize it but docile “opponents” who present “abstention” and “radicalism” as the causes of the permanence of Chavismo in power.

The problem is that, despite attempts to sell Rosales as a moderate statesman, the rejection of his candidacy is enormous: his career is well known, his closeness to the government evident, his vulnerability and lack of willingness to fight notorious, and his registration as a candidate at the last minute –immediately followed by a huge rally in Maracaibo– and without notifying the rest of the forces has only generated distrust.

But, so far, the campaign to beatify Rosales has failed: he himself ended up pointing out that he would not go to the elections without the support of the PUD before retiring. Rosales’ candidacy, furthermore, was not only going to phagocytize the PUD candidacy but also all the achievements of the primary that were so inconvenient for the government as well as for the ecosystem of the stew parties, the professional candidates and the senile elites.

Demokratia and Pankration.

Chavismo, which in addition to its military background comes from the tradition of “all forms of struggle,” knows that an electoral campaign can easily become a political movement or a rebellion. They do not believe that politics is an electoral campaign or a board game, they do not confuse democracy with norms and good manners. They are not naive and have already thought of all the scenarios. Nothing prevents them from disqualifying González Urrutia or illegalizing the MUD card he represents. The electoral scenario is the one that holds the fewest surprises because the government controls it unilaterally.

Of course –with the government adapted to a unit of professional candidates and business-parties dedicated to rent-seeking or entourage-parties dedicated to promoting a political celebrity– the rise of María Corina Machado, attracting crowds like Lisan al Gaib from Dune, raises alarms. However, what prevents Machado from going beyond the role of candidate –and the comanditos from commanding the social and political struggles in its localities and the electoral campaign from becoming one of pressure for free elections– is not only the repression and the disaster. But the opposition itself is a prisoner of its electoralism, its elitism and its conviction that politics is the monopoly of mediocre politicians and political scientists before whom citizens are no more than the fans or the audience that nods and takes notes. The politics of great men.

If the opposition saw itself not as a parallel government or a possible government but as a movement to give a share to those who have no share, we could know how much these other limitations weigh. But what a large part of the opposition wants, for now, is to win an election, vote on a Sunday and return home.

A bit like what happens with the old martial arts with their ornamental postures, this failure translates into rigidity or narrowness of principles and means: in practical terms, the failure of the Venezuelan opposition is manifested in the reduction of their activity to a single channel. But, like mixed martial arts –anticipated and remembered in Bruce Lee’s legendary interview– democracy is not reduced to a principle or a means or a theme: neither the vote, nor the assemblies, nor the protests, nor the negotiations, neither civil disobedience, nor parties nor activism define it: it can go through all these forms without being reduced to any one.

If the opposition continues to be confined to the purely electoral principle and the elitist interests that support it, it will not be able to expect anything other than another cycle of illusion and disappointment because in Venezuela there are no conditions for a free election.

But if it does understand –and makes it understood– that it has to face the very difficult task of preserving the demands, structures and leadership that it has gained since October beyond this situation and based on something that goes beyond immediatism and the electoral principle, if it stops being the project and monopoly of the same elites who repeat the same failures, at least we will be able to put up an honest fight and look to the future with something more than illusions or terrors.