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Two magical moments in politics

The Republican Party's presidential candidates could learn a great deal from Venezuela's opposition leaders as they prepare to take on Chávez

Despite the widespread disenchantment with politics and politicians, there are two events that often engage even the most cynical and uninterested. Voting on election day is one of them. Everywhere, the number of people who actually abstain from voting tends to be lower than what the pre-election opinion polls suggested. On election day, something magical happens, and many of the erstwhile reticent stand in line and vote. The other magical events that engage even those least interested in politics are the televised debates between contending candidates.

Electoral debates are a mixture of political theater and reality show that sometimes influence a country's future. While they all too often change nothing and simply confirm the preferences that people held beforehand, in some rare cases a debate can change the outcome of an election.

Recently there have been some debates that have gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. One was among the contenders for the presidential nomination of one of the world's most powerful political parties. The other was between five candidates seeking to represent one of the most fragile and embattled political groups on the planet. The first was among Republicans seeking their Party nomination while the other was between members of the Venezuelan opposition who are running in a primary contest that will pick a "unity candidate" to run against Hugo Chávez in elections scheduled for 2012. The first left me concerned and somewhat embarrassed the second filled me with pride and hope (full disclosure: I am Venezuelan, and a Chávez opponent).

These debates have implications beyond what happens in the United States and Venezuela. The Republican Party, is influential, knows how to win elections, and is energized by the belief that it has a good chance of beating Barack Obama in next year's poll. The problem is the eight candidates seeking to lead the challenge. They have already had 10 debates, and intend to hold another 15. The debates have helped to make them better known, and what we have discovered is not good. We have seen an astonishing display of religious fanaticism ("homosexuality is a disease that can be cured through prayer"); deep disdain for science ("Darwin's theories have not been proved"); spurious economic positions ("the fiscal deficit can be reduced without raising taxes"); crass populism ("I am going to abolish, two - no better three! - large government agencies"); hypocrisy ("marriage and faithfulness are sacred values"); ignorance ("the Taliban are in Libya"); and downright lies ("Obama is not an American"). To think that these are the best leaders that one of the world's most powerful political parties can field is, to say the least, surprising. The Republican Party, the United States and the world deserve better.

Meanwhile, in Venezuela... an opposition with a reputation for ineptitude, corruption and elitism has transformed itself into one of the most democratic and inspiring political movements in Latin America. It is now a multi-class, movement, full of young idealistic activists. It is planning to hold primaries in which all Venezuelans can vote to elect the candidate who will stand against Chávez.

Recently, the five candidates took part in an event that most Venezuelans - the under 30s - had never witnessed: a televised debate between political opponents. The last debate was in 1983. Neither had they seen politicians who didn't treat their competitors as mortal enemies and who did not accept their right to aspire to office. They didn't see them insult each other; what they saw instead was a discussion where nobody resorted to the brutal tactics that President Chávez commonly uses against those who disagree with him. Compared to the Republican Party's hopefuls, the Venezuelan opposition leaders were better informed, serious, capable and modern. Sadly, and in stark contrast to their US counterparts, whoever emerges as the candidate will not be facing an incumbent president within a democratic institutional framework. Instead he or she will run against Hugo Chávez and his penchant to bend the rules to ensure that contenders face anything but a level playing field.

This will come as a surprise to many political observers but the likes of Bachman, Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, Santorum, Paul, Perry, or Romney, could learn a great deal from leaders that you have probably never heard of: Arria, Capriles, López, Machado and Pérez, the Venezuelans who are daring to stand up to Hugo Chávez.

The world's assorted crises have not left much room for coverage of the tragedy unfolding in Venezuela. But what happened there recently is an event that deserves more international attention. As does what is not happening in the Republican Party.

I am on Twitter at @moisesnaim

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