What’s Next for Venezuela’s Opposition?

When Venezuelan voters approved a referendum allowing for indefinite re-election on all elected posts, commentary immediately turned to what the reform meant for chavistas — particularly, the prospect of having Hugo Chávez as president until 2019 or later.  Far less attention was paid to what the defeat meant for the opposition or to its reaction.

A functioning opposition could have good effects on Venezuelan society.  If it were to advocate, say, a corruption-free, developmental state-capitalism, it would force the Chávez government to put its program and its sometimes hazy ideology into sharper relief.  It also could compel the government to scrape out corruption and, perhaps, accelerate structural change.

No such luck.  A great many opposition groups, linked to the 2002 imperial coup d’état and U.S. financial support, as well as ideologically bankrupt, are hardly thinking in such terms, though, for some of them, the referendum’s passage has occasioned deep self-evaluation.

One opposition response has been to squint hard at the numbers, willfully discerning an image of victory where most saw defeat.  One blogger suggests that many chavistas actually voted against the referendum, rather than simply abstaining, concluding that the opposition has won over disaffected chavistas.

Opposition commentator Teodoro Petkoff endorses this analysis, calling the result a “quantitative” and “qualitative” advance.  He moreover credits it to a more mature opposition “wedded to a democratic strategy, which has proven fertile, and that has completely distanced itself from loudmouthed, pathetic and ineffective extremism.”

Both assessments avoid crucial facts.  As other analysts have observed, the more than 10-percent margin of victory would have incited breathless clichés about landslides and tectonic political movements in almost any other electoral contest.  Furthermore, neither interpretation acknowledges that some chavistas opposed limitless terms but still consider themselves part of the greater Bolivarian political project.

Others have assessed the results more soberly, claiming the defeat is a clear signal that the opposition needs to re-trench and unify its disparate components.  As Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma puts it, “Self-criticism is important, we must continue creating authentic unity.”

Still others call for a strategy of serious re-engagement with the political process.  The opposition is still smarting from the disastrous boycott of the 2005 parliamentary elections.  Indeed, emboldened by significant pluralities in the past two elections, they feel that they could take between 30 and 50 percent of the seats in the assembly.  If the latter percentage were achieved, it would constitute a political blockade on radical measures that must wend their way through the legislative branch.

Meanwhile, other groups focus on economics, suggesting that economic calamity is incipient.  They criticize the inefficiencies and supposed failure of the social missions, while attacking chavista economic development strategies more broadly.  This discourse embraces a crude Marxisant determinism, assuming economic conditions will ultimately determine political results.

The popular opposition blog, Caracas Chronicles, takes this view, marshalling many statistics suggesting that Venezuela is just following a normal boom-bust commodity cycle.  The hope is that economic turmoil will depose Chávez, making worries about him being a president-for-life a non-issue.  Still, the blog recognizes the need to articulate a coherent, convincing discourse.  Its writers note, “Whether we like it or not, getting people out of poverty and empowering them is the central debate in the coming years. . . .  If the opposition is to take power, we will need to have a social message.”

The phraseology is revealing.  The remark “whether we like it or not” suggests that parts of the opposition would rather ignore the overwhelming poverty faced by the vast majority of Venezuelans.  The government’s social programs have undisputedly helped alleviate that poverty.  And Chávez’s discourse’s defining feature is a discussion of poverty and wealth.  The opposition’s failure to understand this simple fact points to an utterly impoverished moral imagination.

Some of them do acknowledge the need to gather broad support.  Opposition intellectual Heinz Sonntag writes that the goal of the opposition should be to reach the millions of Venezuelans who share neither “the objectives, nor the methods, nor the stupidities, much less the dubious ethics of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution.'”  Sonntag is plainly speaking of the ni-nis, who support neither chavismo nor the opposition.  Still, it remains unclear how the opposition plans to court these voters, many of whom support goals like improving the quality of life in Venezuela and bettering social indicators, even if they find the rhetoric of chavismo repugnant.

Still other far-right factions see violence and mayhem as the best way to defeat Chávez, visible in the raucous demonstrations of M-13, the self-described “revolutionary” student group in Merida, mostly composed of upper-middle-class and upper-class students.  Its members have attacked and attempted to rape police officers, set buses afire, and generally wilded about, burning and destroying.  Such tactics doubtless have scant resonance with the Venezuelan people.  In a country with one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the world, spectacular violence is not the route to popular legitimacy.

If the opposition were able to see beyond its intellectual ghetto, it might notice that mounting a coherent opposition to chavismo that could attract general support would not be impossible.  Nor should it be so hard.  Crime in the cities continues to be rampant.  Rubbish piles up.  The hard currency is still wasted on importing whiskey and expensive cars; the government misses its inflation targets, again and again; and the poor remain in their precarious mountainside ranchos (slums).

Nevertheless, the opposition insists on supporting subsidies for imported luxuries and spending oil funds on lavish lifestyles, rather than providing healthcare, housing, and food.  Until it stops doing so, it will never gain the legitimacy it needs to attain broad support.

However, instead of contemplating change, it busies itself taking money from Washington’s National Endowment for Democracy, courting lucrative prizes from the Cato Institute, or thinking that NGOs constitute a coherent political network.  Such a movement will go nowhere, as more reasonable fragments of it readily acknowledge.

Max Ajl is a writer and activist based out of Brooklyn, has written on Latin American politics and economics for the New Statesman, the Guardian, and NACLA, and blogs at Jewbonics.   A slightly different version of this article appears in the NACLA Web site.