Venezuela: 15 Years of Opposition Failure

EspañolHugo Chávez was undoubtedly a charismatic man, and those who knew him personally know that he was also brilliant and possessed a prodigious memory. His plan to become the lifelong ruler of a socialist Venezuela, which he never made secret, managed to be cut short by providence, but never by his adversaries.

Still, Chávez made many mistakes, and his audacity was often reckless to the point of making him vulnerable. As a result, the opposition had many opportunities to halt his advances toward total control of public authority, the transformation of the armed forces into his own personal guard, and the destruction of independent media.

However, on every occasion, Chávez proved to be smarter, more skillful, more practical, and always more convincing than his foes.

When Chávez came to power in 1998 with 54 percent of the vote, after the last truly free election in Venezuela, nothing seemed to indicate that his administration would end any differently than those of Carlos Andrés Pérez or Jaime Lusinchi, who in 1973 and 1983, respectively, achieved victories of similar magnitude. Moreover, Chávez, unlike Pérez and Lusinchi, failed to obtain a parliamentary majority, making it a potentially very difficult presidential term for the former military coup leader. Chávez’s party, then called the “Fifth Republic Movement,” only won 12 percent of the seats in Congress, and together with other allied parties Chavez could hardly muster 30% of the votes.

With incredible audacity, Chávez then sold the idea of a constitutional assembly to the country for the purpose — which became rather obvious to many — of ridding himself of the opposition in the Congress and making reelection legally possible.

What happened next has been recounted many times. In an act of betrayal that will forever be recorded in history, the president of the Supreme Court, Cecilia Sosa joined justices belonging to the radical left in a vote that killed the 1961 constitution. Perhaps someone in the future will write a thesis explaining the motives of Cecilia Sosa in ruling that the 1961 constitution could be amended through a constitutional assembly, even though its text, leaving no room for interpretation, explicitly stated that it could not be changed “by any means other than those it provides.”

This initial victory gave a certain legitimacy to Chávez’s plans, but at the time, there was still another obstacle in his way. The National Congress would have to decide whether or not to abide by the clearly seditious judgment of the Supreme Court. Chávez, at the time, had great popular support but lacked any backing within the armed forces. If Congress had refused to commit political suicide and open its doors to those who would use classic Leninist mechanisms to seize power, the military would not have supported the president. Faced with an unprecedented institutional crisis, Chávez would not have an army to assert his rule. In his masterful grab for power, Chávez now assumed great risk, as he relied solely on the popularity he was afforded as a newly elected president.

It was in this moment that the leaders of the majority parties in congress, to universal surprise, decided to proceed with their political suicide. Knowing Chávez’s intention to assume absolute power, congressional leaders decided to comply with the judgment of the court after conversations at the presidential palace and upon the advice of foreign governments. The president of the Chamber of Deputies at the time, in February of 1999, was Henrique Capriles Radonski.

Henrique Capriles Radonski. Fuente: Fabiola Portillo
Henrique Capriles Radonski. Source: Fabiola Portillo.

This was the first time that traditional Venezuelan politicians chose to accept a bad deal rather than confront the brilliant execution of Leninist tactics by Hugo Chávez. In the last 15 years, this process has been repeated several times. In late 1999, for example, these politicians decided not to campaign against the referendum to approve the new constitution, leaving only business leaders as the organized opposition to this constitution tailored to Chávez’s ambitions.

In 2003, the political leadership agreed to end the national strike in exchange for a document full of promises from Chávez, backed by the OAS. Later that same year, they accepted the authority of the National Electoral Council, appointed by illegal means.

In 2004, after Chávez failed to comply with the agreements made the previous year, they agreed to a referendum without ensuring that voter rolls were audited and despite the government’s intimidation of voters and the forced installation of electronic voting machines that put a secret ballot in doubt.

We could go on citing other examples in which opposition leaders, through dialogue with the Chavista government, yielded to abuse of power and illegal bias by government institutions. The events of the presidential elections of April 14, 2013, and the regional elections held later are well known.

It is clear is that in each of these instances during the past 15 years the opposition has given in and has been defeated. Over and over again, they have told the country that dialogue with the regime was the only way to avoid violence or “something worse,” making veiled references to the possibility of a coup.

During this same period, the electoral strategy of opposition leaders has also remained the same. Designed by advisers that are no more than mere survey experts, this strategy has consisted of adapting the message to public opinion polls. In this way, in each election, opposition leaders — be they named Rosales or Capriles — have each done the same thing: offer the electorate Chavismo without Chávez.

Their speeches and election slogans have always been aimed at convincing voters that Chávez’s social programs would be better managed and free of corruption under their leadership. They have sought to convince the public that state largesse would be even greater than under Chávez, delivered, however, under democracy and pluralism.

If a foreign academic with passing knowledge of Venezuela researched the electoral discourse in the country beginning in 2006, he would reach the conclusion that Venezuela was a normal democratic country with a political climate similar to that of Chile or Mexico!

While trying to be democratic Chavistas, opposition leaders not only guaranteed their own failure, they also helped to mask the true nature of an authoritarian and thuggish regime.

The only two clear defeats suffered by Chavismo occurred during elections that forced the opposition to base its campaign on ideas: the Union Freedom referendum in 2000 and the referendum on constitutional reform in 2007.

Hugo Chávez was a charismatic and intelligent man, but his victories were owed in large part to the mediocrity of his opponents.

Present Day

This is how we have arrived in the year 2014. We now have an openly communist regime: brutally authoritarian and on the brink of totalitarianism. We have a country that has been crippled economically, destroyed socially, and an opposition that has been marginalized to the point that it appears nonexistent.

On January 23, three  voices from the opposition, who have for many years  been opposed this ineffective and tired way of fighting against an authoritarian regime, decided to make a public call for peaceful street action: Leopoldo López, María Corina Machado, and Antonio Ledezma decided to ignore the sort of tactics that have failed time and time again since 1999.

In two months, street actions managed to unmask the regime on an international level and place the loss of individual liberty and moral and economic bankruptcy of the country in the political foreground. The illegitimate and paranoid regime began to feel the trembling of their foundation, and neighboring countries could no longer ignore what was happening.

But in that moment, against all logic and defying a winning strategy, the same political leaders who have held positions of patronage during the last 15 years decided once again to agree to a  process of dialogue that has the manifest intention of cleansing the government’s image internationally . A dialogue that is also undoubtedly an attempt by the regime to sabotage the emerging opposition leadership.

Once negotiations began the government no longer had to compromise on anything. Their objective had been achieved. To the international community, the Venezuelan government is now in the “process” of dialogue with its opponents, and meanwhile, we must all wait. The government was trying to buy time and they were successful.

It’s clear that the  leaders of the  Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) must now come away with some concessions from the government so as not to be entirely discredited. The release of all political prisoners would be such a concession. They also believe they will be able to achieve a victory, with international support, with an agreement to liberate  from total government control the National Electoral Council (CNE) and the Supreme Court, whose impartiality is essential if victory is ever to be achieved by the opposition.

However, as with all previous attempts, the bargaining position of these traditional politicians has been weak and transparent. The regime knows that the opposition has a weak hand and has thoroughly infiltrated their ranks. The minister of the interior has even made public the contents of meetings held in private by these opposition leaders. Desperate to regain the position of leadership they lost on April 14, 2013, the MUD representatives at  are now trapped at a dead end.

In the coming days, we will see the government grant some concessions to the MUD. Some political prisoners, though not all, will be released. The majority of students who have been arrested, but not all, will likely be released, and a “pre-agreement” may possibly be announced toward the renewal of institutions such as the Supreme Court. Maduro will boast of his democratic convictions and restraint, while MUD leaders will be able to declare victory, saved by a government they claim to oppose.

Within months, the government will have violated the agreements or will have found a way to ignore them. The “revolutionaries” have studied Lenin well, and know agreements are made to be broken.

This same process will continue to repeat itself until a real change in leadership occurs in the opposition — and someone that truly understands the nature of this regime takes the reigns. That is to say, until Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado are able to assume total command of the united opposition movement.

Translated by Guillermo Jimenez.

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