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How to cope with Chavism

Leopoldo López wants to bring down Maduro in the short term; Henrique Capriles prefers to build up strength for an election victory. Who has the better plan?

Is it really possible, in the short term, to oust the Chavist government? Can what has just happened in Ukraine, and happened recently in the Arab world, happen in Venezuela? Has the Bolivarian system reached the end of its social and political tether? Is Maduro’s situation similar to that which brought down Fujimori in Peru, and other governments throughout the continent? Reports coming out of Venezuela, especially from the opposition, give the impression that Maduro’s government is about to fall as a result of the protests in the street. But to bring down a government by means of civic protests is no easy task.

The polarization that prevails in Venezuela has contaminated political rhetoric with the logic of good and evil, impoverishing the political debate about what is really going on. After a decade, the denunciations of the undemocratic aspects of Chavism have become repetitive and irrelevant. It is common knowledge that it is not just social discontent that is present in the street protests, but also a struggle between the strategies of the two chief opposition leaders about how best to confront Chavism. That of Leopoldo López is aimed at bringing about the fall of the Chavist government in the short term; that of Henrique Capriles, at building up strength with which to confront and defeat Chavism in future elections. Who has the better plan?

Every protest is a break with the normal life of those who participate, and those who don’t. It is impossible to keep thousands of people mobilized indefinitely. Struggle in the street, then, has a period of rise and one of fall, which occurs by natural exhaustion. Social protest can only be maintained in a prolonged manner if there are driving forces of great power, which feed upon repression as brutal as that in Ukraine. Economic crisis and criminal violence are powerful factors in motivating normal social protest, but not for overthrowing a government. Elections are the most effective mechanism for discharging social discontent, and Venezuela has had almost one election a year for the last 15 years.

The opposition has overrated the exterior factor in its struggle, forgetting that while it makes noise, it does not bring down governments, unless by means of military intervention, which is not on the cards in Venezuela. There is a majority of leftist governments in Latin America, and they will go on supporting Maduro, considering that if he came in by votes, he can only be removed by votes. This argument has to do not so much with leftist solidarity, as with the stability of their own governments.

To bring down a government by means of civic protests is no easy task

The Bolivarian government tampers with the institutions, applies justice whimsically, curtails freedom of expression, but does not kill, and uses repression moderately. When repression is brutal it cannot be hidden, nor is it necessary to exaggerate it. Keeping in mind the 15 years of extreme polarization in Venezuela, political violence is still rare. The government is not prepared to kill, and the opposition is not prepared to provoke them to it. The regular holding of elections has prevented violence from becoming general.

If López persists in his strategy of popular revolt, to the cry of “Maduro go now,” the protests will become ever more massive, even less peaceful, more violent and more unpopular. The shock troops of López will confront Maduro’s shock troops for control of the street, generating a situation of daily attrition and a trickle of deaths on each side, as has already begun to happen. The protests may serve to build up forces, to denounce and debilitate Chavism, but cannot by themselves overthrow the government of Maduro. The opposition holds no instrument of power with which to produce such an outcome, which would be possible only if there were a division in the army or in the ranks of Chavism. The “insurrectional” strategy of López does, however, generate a certain fear of revanchism in the Chavist ranks; and fear is a factor of unity and not division. So López is helping Chavism to stick together, rather than fall apart.

Economic crises can make you lose elections, but do not automatically overthrow governments. Chavism as a political phenomenon has been a process of social inclusion and constructing new elites. Both have occurred by means of a reorientation (a disorderly one) of the country’s petroleum income, with mechanisms that may be considered corrupt, inefficient and populist: but mechanisms of this type are historically similar to those that built many other elites and political forces in the past, throughout the continent. We are looking at a social force that was politically born with Chávez, and generates a loyalty that is not so easily dissolved by the effects of economic crisis, or because liberties are violated.

The Venezuelan opposition made grave mistakes in the past; following an inverted strategy that began with a coup (which is supposed to be the last resort) and continued with strikes, street protests, elections, accusations of election-fixing, and withdrawal from the elections, meanwhile splitting into dozens of small groups. This mistake meant they gave Chávez total control of the army, the oil, the parliament, the courts and the electoral colleges. Then they mended their ways, united, returned to the elections, and made another mistake by converting their good electoral result against Maduro into a defeat. Their obsession with complaining of electoral “frauds” that are by no means clear debases the moral authority of the elections, which are the only way they have of coming to power. Running in a fixed election is not the same as competing at a disadvantage.

López is helping Chavism to stick together, rather than fall apart

No doubt Maduro is a bad governor. Venezuela is languishing in an economic crisis and Chavism is weary, but its social strength is sufficient to keep it standing. The central problem for the Venezuelan opposition is not one of inventing an insurrection, but of building a majority capable of rising above the government’s arbitrary, undemocratic conduct, reassuring the Chavists that there will be no revanchism, winning elections, and reunifying Venezuela with the Chavists included. In Cuba half a century of the Castro regime would have been impossible without the rabid, recalcitrant attitude of the opposition in Miami, and the US embargo. Capriles is right: they have to build up strength. The strategy of López appears to be dividing the opposition, and strengthening Maduro. The issue is not about how awful Chavism is, but about the strategy of the opposition, because the future of Venezuela can only be decided by the Venezuelans.

Joaquín Villalobos is a former Salvadoran guerrilla, now a consultant specializing in international conflict solution.

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