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Venezuela: the hour of the brave

The lesson for today’s leaders is not only to appreciate the value of errors in judgment, but also to understand that the desire for change may be greater than the best of calculations, not to mention that this desire requires direction

Maria Corina Machado y Corina Yoris Villasana
María Corina Machado and Corina Yoris.Gaby Oraa (REUTERS)

The last week in Venezuela has become a full-blown race against the clock for the opposition, with new obstacles arising hour after hour. This turmoil has yielded a series of unwanted and unexpected candidacies. However, now that it has been confirmed that some of these candidates are staunch democrats, it is crucial to focus on the essential task of mobilizing Venezuelans. Whether the dictatorship will end or prevail will ultimately depend on democratic mobilization and citizen participation.

The refusal of the Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE) to accept the registration of Corina Yoris as candidate of the Unity Democratic Platform was such a flagrant violation of the principles of democratic competency that governments that are usually benevolent with Nicolás Maduro, such as those of Colombia and Brazil, were quick to condemn it. Understandably, María Corina Machado, the opposition candidate elected by Venezuelans in October, has expressed her disappointment and rejection. It is equally logical that the last-minute registration of Manuel Rosales, opposition governor of the state of Zulia, has been regarded as an act of crass opportunism by an opposition eager to keep alive the possibility of competing in the July 28 presidential elections and bringing an end to the dictatorship. Meanwhile, the registration, also at the eleventh hour, of the diplomat and academic Edmundo González Urrutia by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) will give the opposition a small margin for maneuver if it manages to unblock Yoris’ candidacy.

However, it is not unreasonable to think that Rosales’ “betrayal”, as Yoris and Machado called it, will become a key milestone in the struggle for the pacific change that millions of Venezuelans continue to support. Indeed, as has been the norm in history, apparent betrayals have catalyzed the struggle for freedom and democracy. The abrupt reversals of Frederic De Klerk in South Africa and Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR, both regarded by many as traitors, helped overthrow Apartheid and bring down the Berlin Wall and with them two of the most shameful and repressive systems of the 20th century.

It must be assumed that, in the four turbulent months remaining before the vote, the Maduro dictatorship will boycott every initiative from the opposition so as to divide them and cause them to fail. They will intimidate them, repress them, turn them against each other and, if they fail to break them by any of these brutal methods, they will tempt them with Faustian offers that “they cannot refuse.” Its aim is to take the legitimate opposition out of the electoral process, because each opposition move on the electoral chessboard represents a mounting threat to its power that must be averted. However, now is not the time to engage in a battle with the government or to wear themselves out in internal disputes. The main mission of opposition leaders in Venezuela is to preserve and strengthen unity in the run up to July 28.

Despite being banned from running as a candidate, María Corina Machado, the strongest national leader at this moment with 70% support, must continue campaigning throughout the country calling for the vote and spreading the opposition movement until citizen participation gains momentum. The role of citizens should not be reduced to one of “spectators,” but should be elevated to one of protagonists. This is what the large turnout in last October’s primaries and the recent polls on voting intentions suggest.

Since the “Caracazo”, the 1989 social uprising, Venezuelan history over the last 35 years has been convulsive and traumatic. But, despite the numerous eruptions of violence, the quest for peaceful and democratic change has been the main constant theme. This is the quest that the opposition leaders must pursue. And we must review Venezuelan history itself to remember that this is where the greatest possibility of overthrowing Maduro and his inner circle lies.

1952, a year of brutal repression, is the example that best applies to the present time. The Government Junta under Marcos Pérez Jiménez sought to legitimize itself by calling for a constituent assembly. Clandestinely, Democratic Action (AD), the most powerful opposition party at the time, was engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow the dictatorship and ordered its members to abstain from voting. Not participating in an electoral farce seemed the most logical thing to do in a scenario of repression and illegalization of the main parties.

Jorge Dáger, one of the main clandestine leaders of AD, wrote lucidly in Testigo de excepción, his memoirs on those years: “As for URD and Copei — the only parties allowed by the regime — their limitations made a significant performance in the elections practically impossible. Hounded by the police, forced to hold their events in closed rooms, placed at a gross disadvantage in relation to the government’s electoral organization, or unable to use the heavily censored media, neither the Urredistas nor the Copeyanos could be considered as serious alternatives for power. […] So why divert the Party in electioneering efforts that could, in the end, hinder the work at hand?”

On November 30, Venezuelans surprisingly came out en masse to vote for the URD. Faced with the defeat of the dictatorship at the polls, Pérez Jiménez had the results altered to present himself as the winner. However, the lack of flexibility of the AD leaders impeded the mobilization of their militants in defense of the opposition’s victory. As a consequence, Jóvito Villalba, a URD leader, was forcibly put on a plane to exile and democracy had to endure six more terrible years of imprisonment, torture and death.

The lesson for today’s leaders is not only to humbly appreciate the significance of errors of judgment in history, but also to understand that the desire for change can be greater than the best of calculations, not to mention that this desire needs a channel and a direction to become a reality. In other words, when citizens unite, they become a collective force with inherent power. But this force must be politically directed to achieve the desired change in an effective and constructive manner, preventing the masses from degenerating into a violent and destructive mob.

That is the challenge facing the current opposition in Venezuela and it will be necessary to continue to amass that collective strength to overcome it. At the same time, the Unity Democratic Platform must work with the international community in order to exert pressure to prevent Maduro from blocking the electoral path and to offer the Chavista leadership a negotiated exit, even if there is no doubt about its responsibility in some of the worst crimes committed in the country’s history.

The hour of the brave has come. “Glory to the Brave People,” in the words of the Venezuelan national anthem. These are talismanic words that should resound in the ears of all Venezuelan democrats today.

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