Alternative Leadership within the PSUV?
Criticisms are frequently made that, but for Hugo Chávez, the Bolivarian project lacks leaders. Yesterday the President himself explained that part of the need for the proposed amendment, which would remove term limits for elected officials, is that he is essential to the unity of the revolution. Without him he suggested that there would be a fragmentation within the revolutionary party, the PSUV, indicating a clear lack of alternative leadership.
Many causes of this are posited, among both supporters and adversaries of the Bolivarian project, some credible, some incredible. They range from an effect of the left's participatory ideology and a distrust of political parties, stemming from the experiences of Punto Fijo democracy, to Chávez's unquenchable personal and paranoid thirst for power.
Yesterday however, I saw what alternative leadership the PSUV has to offer first hand. In Merida at about midday a violent confrontation between police and opposition students began. The students claimed armed leftist student groups had driven past the entrance to the campus and fired shots into the air the day before, citing this as provocation.
At the height of this confrontation a group of about 200 students came out of the university gates throwing stones and hurling abuse at police officers who stood their ground in full riot gear. When students began to physically assault an officer the police responded heavily, opening fire with their rubber pellet shotguns and hurling tear gas canisters.
In that moment something extraordinary happened. The newly elected PSUV governor of Merida state, Marcos Diaz Orellana appeared and ordered the police to retreat. Alone he the walked to the students, braving a hail of stones which struck him twice the governor made it to the students with his hands up insisting that he speak with their leaders and negotiate an end to the violence.
Surrounded by a throng of about 100 students, half of whom still screaming abuse at him, Marcos Diaz spoke directly to their representatives. "I myself was a student here, the men of the police force with whom you are fighting are family men with children in this same institution" he appealed. After around 20 minutes students agreed to wait within the grounds of the university (which legally the police are not allowed to enter) while the Governor left to negotiate the disarmament of the leftist groups known to reside in the radical urbanization Domingo Salazar.
Incredibly, walking up to a policeman Marcos Diaz announced "I'll be needing your motor bike" and after some brief problems starting it hopped on and shot off to Domingo Salazar. There he spent two hours in closed negotiations with students. Leaving to shouts of "Yes to the Amendment!" Marcos Diaz assured me he had successfully negotiated the disarmament of the urbanization.
I next found Marcos Diaz again surrounded by over 100 students, though this time they stood in silence listening to what the quietly spoken governor had to say. He explained the outcome of his negotiations and the student protestors dispersed promising no more violence "without provocation" from the police or Domingo Salazar.
Though this is an uneasy peace, and we are likely to see further rioting from students, the courage shown by Marcos Diaz Orellana was extremely impressive. For an elected representative to go, alone, to negotiate directly with protestors in the midst of a violent confrontation with police is practically unheard of. Of course leadership consists of more than courage, yet Marcos Diaz also proved his skills of mediation in bringing an end to yesterday's violence.
Whether these qualities will be enough to prevent further violence on the streets of Merida is unlikely, yet yesterday's events should give some hope to those looking for other leaders within the Bolivarian movement. Given the uncertain prospects of the amendment this issue seems more important than ever.
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