María Corina’s Most Powerful Tool? Her Flaws

Like Spain’s Adolfo Suárez, María Corina Machado’s intransigence could be helping her gain momentum and force the regime’s hand

A lesson I learned from The Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas, a great book about the transition to democracy in Spain, is how some personal flaws can become virtues at certain historical moments. One of Cercas’s arguments is that Adolfo Suárez –a Francoist collaborator turned hero of the transition– could lead his country towards democracy not only because of his virtues, which he undoubtedly had, but also because of his many shortcomings:

“Suárez was not an ethically irreproachable man, but it’s very possible that he would never have been able to do what he did for years if he hadn’t been a rogue with the morality of a survivor and a gift for deceit, an upstart without much culture or firm political ideas, a cocky, fawning, swindling Falangist.” 

On Suárez’s gift for deceit, Cercas notes: 

“At the beginning of his mandate, his main objective was to convince the Francoists and the democratic opposition that the reform he was going to carry out was the only way they would both achieve their conflicting purposes.”

How did he achieve this feat? In answering this question, Cercas doesn’t hold back. Suarez was able to lead the transition because he was a chameleon, a hypocrite, a skilled actor, a snake oil salesman who told his interlocutors what they wanted to hear:

“He assured the Francoists that they’d have to renounce certain elements of Francoism to ensure the survival of Francoism; he assured the democratic opposition they they’d have to renounce certain elements of the break with Francoism to ensure the break with Francoism… he completely deceived the Francoists…. whereas the opposition he did not deceive, or not entirely… but he did as he pleased with them… and put them to work at his service.” 

To sum it up, Cercas argues that if Suárez had not been a careerist and sycophant, as well as a schemer with a special talent for duping everyone, the transition could have failed. His flaws partly explain how Spain managed to move away from Francoism and become a prosperous and modern democracy.

With the word “transition” being openly flaunted now in Venezuela, could some of María Corina Machado’s shortcomings help her push for a major change?

María Corina Machado’s black-and-white intransigence 

One advantage of blogging is that it allows us to write from a place of uncertainty. Instead of casting definitive judgments, we can ask questions and pose answers while accepting the exploratory and doubtful nature of what we’re saying.

Unlike Adolfo Suárez, Machado is not a regime collaborator but rather the opposite. Among all opposition leaders, she is the one who has most radically rejected everything that Chavismo represents. 

However, at times, Machado makes me think of Cercas’ book because she has flaws that, at this historic juncture, could be seen as virtues.

What are some of her strengths? Ambition, courage, commitment, grit, perseverance.

Some of her flaws? Ambition, voluntarism, intransigence, and a desire for prominence that sometimes borders on narcissism.  

Narcissism should be marked with an asterisk because, in politics, this fault is nearly a prerequisite for success. Although not all politicians are narcissists, many of them are. Aspiring to the presidency requires a copious, almost delusional, amount of self-belief, even more so if achieving this goal demands first overthrowing an authoritarian regime.

That is why it’s more interesting to examine intransigence: perhaps the clearest example of a flaw in Machado that could now be seen as a virtue. Or at least a flaw-virtue. 

Some people have a binary conception of morality that separates the world neatly into good and bad. This black-and-white view leads them to be intolerant of moral ambiguity and leaders willing to make too many concessions to reach agreements with their enemies.

There is another group that has a more flexible conception of morality; people who are able to see nuances and grays, to be less judgmental, and also more understanding of human frailties and weaknesses. Sometimes this malleability is necessary to make wise decisions, but it can also lead to naivety in the fight against shameless and amoral rivals.

During her career, Machado has belonged to the first group – arguably the most intransigent wing. That has complicated her relationship with the opposition leaders and parties that are more inclined to try to get along with the Maduro regime or assume that it’s possible to negotiate in good faith with them.

In recent months, this intransigence has benefited both her and the democratic alternative. Why do I say so? One of the most perverse and ruthlessly effective practices of Chavismo has been the infiltration of the opposition. Through various methods that surely include blackmail, bribery, and extortion, the regime has managed to manufacture “opposition” parties whose role is not to confront Maduro but to help him marginalize the real opposition and create a simulacrum of a democracy. Even worse, the regime has managed to sow doubts about the honesty of some members and parties of the Unitary Platform.

From this perspective, Maria Corina’s intransigence has been a key factor in her rise as a leader. 

In this world of mirrors –in this sinister environment where it’s difficult to distinguish honest leaders, activists, and even analysts from traitors, cynics, and double agents– Machado inspires confidence largely because of her intolerance to moral ambiguity, her predisposition to see clear lines separating right from wrong and her inability to consent, even partially, to anything that resembles appeasement. 

No one doubts that Machado is a real opponent of Maduro, fighting for nothing less than an end to the dictatorship. This partly explains why she, unlike some of her competitors, has been able to re-energize millions to play yet again in a game they’ve lost so many times and instill a genuine hope for change in Venezuela.

However, if the regime fails to commit fraud on July 28th and loses the support of key sectors at that critical moment, Machado will need to be more flexible and less intransigent to negotiate among people with conflicting purposes. Perhaps, once again Adolfo Suárez’s role during Spain’s transition to democracy will serve as an example.

Alejandro Tarre

Alejandro Tarre is a Venezuelan journalist and writer. He has written for El País, The Washington Post, Americas Quarterly, NPR and others.