During the high profile trial of jailed rightwing politician Leopoldo Lopez for the incitement of public violence, the constant barrage of ridicule directed against Venezuela’s state institutions in the mass media was almost impossible to ignore.
Hiding behind a veneer of neutrality, global news outlets intimated through both omission and the power of suggestion that the trial was merely a circus show, which responded to neither logic or ethics, nor legal norms, but rather to the political whims of the Chavista administration under the caudillo-like control of President Nicolas Maduro.
In international reports, the proof against Lopez- a series of public Tweets and Facebook posts in which he is charged with having promoted public violence- was presented as absurd; purely circumstantial, coincidental and even a matter of total subjectivity.
These posts allegedly sent “subliminal” messages to his supporters, they mocked. How could this possibly be a reliable way to convict a man? How can “subliminal” messages even be proven in a court of law when they are a matter of the subconscious interpretation of another human being? It’s a farce, a laughing matter even, they said, if it were not for the fact that the life of an “innocent” Harvard educated lawyer hung tentatively in the balance.
The reality is quite different, however, and as always context is everything.
Beyond the conjectures of the international media, the entire population of Venezuela saw how in 2014 Lopez, in the midst of the targeted street persecution and violence which he encouraged, called on his followers and supporters to refuse to recognise state authorities, in a situation when civil rights were guaranteed, and to implement their “popular will” (ironically the name of his political party) by force.
They saw how Lopez co-opted the language of emancipatory popular politics to carry out a rightwing populist attempt to physically force the retreat of politics itself through oppressive means. They saw how he said on national television that it would only come to an end once the government was removed from power. There was nothing subliminal about his intentions; this is terrorism by any other name.
It is for this reason that Lopez’s conviction is not a source of national public outcry in Venezuela, as it is elsewhere, and also why there has been nothing resembling a mass protests in response to his 13 year jail sentence.
Yet if there were some kind of warped dialectic between Lopez’s public statements and action in the street, then the jailed politician’s latest Facebook update is certainly cause for alarm, especially to anyone familiar with the machinations of the Venezuelan political opposition to which Lopez is openly affiliated.
Now, just as last year, Lopez is continuing to call on his followers to depose the current democratically-elected government, oscillating between demands to do it constitutionally, or failing that, by force.
On Monday November 10th, Lopez published a hand written four page note on his Facebook page from prison (that’s right, in the gulags of Venezuela, high-profile prisoners get access to Facebook and Twitter) on the up and coming parliamentary elections of December 6th, when Venezuelans will choose their legislative representatives in the National Assembly.
The message is revealing both in terms of opposition strategy and the backdrop to these elections; which are perhaps the most difficult electoral contest that Chavismo has had to face since the death of Hugo Chavez in March 2013.
For Chavismo, maintaining a majority in the National Assembly is absolutely vital. Without this majority, it will be impossible to pass any progressive laws to effect the changes that are in many cases being demanded by the population, or to take the necessary steps to deal with the current economic crisis that is strangulating the country. For the opposition, a majority win is a critical opening to launch an onslaught against the Bolivarian process. In this sense, 6D is not just a routine matter of filling the legislative body with legislators of one particular stripe or another.
Lopez is acutely aware of this scenario and he begins his publication with “The Majority: To what end?”.
“Today, we Venezuelans are sure that a dictatorship governs Venezuela, that is what we are up against. Our people know that winning the National Assembly is a fundamental objective to conquering democracy,”
“Today, the people that want change know that they are the majority, but we have to prove that majority at the ballot on December 6th, it’s necessary to go out and vote massively. And then, more importantly, to defend those votes, peacefully, with courage, firmness and organisation. We will not hesitate to defend the popular will,” reads the statement.
The development of this contradictory dual narrative of labelling the country a dictatorship whilst urging the population to vote en masse undoubtedly has practical implications for the opposition, which has little interest in making its arguments stand to logical reason.
Through this discourse the opposition (which incidentally, has a number of mayors, governors and legislators elected through the same system as Chavista politicians) can simultaneously claim victory if they gain a majority in the elections, whilst crying fraud in the event of their defeat.
It is a time-tested method used by the opposition, which is still hedging its bets on a win less than a month away from the elections. This is revealing in itself.
Despite fifteen years of government, the death of the Bolivarian revolution’s main political reference point, an economic crisis and siege, as well as popular disenchantment with corruption and inefficiency, an opposition win is by no means assured. The barrio or shantytowns where the popular sectors reside are still in many ways no go areas for an opposition which is still emblematic of a privileged, colonial White elite. The natural punishment vote for Chavismo, for sure, but unpopular nonetheless.
So what does hedging your bets look like when translated to a political strategy?
According to Lopez, a majority win at the National Assembly would mean “the weakening of the dictatorship” and the “new National Assembly” would have the “historical responsibility of bringing forth change… liberating Venezuela by changing the model”.
“With the same united spirit, our brethren at the (Roundtable of Democratic) Unity have also agreed to have a profound discussion on what mechanism to activate in order to achieve this political change, whether that be (constitutional) amendment, resignation (of the president), a recall or constitutional (referendum)… for the beginning of 2016,” states Lopez clearly.
The prospective of a recall referendum has been on everyone’s lips since current President Nicolas Maduro won the presidential elections in 2013 by a narrow margin of 1.5%. Yet it is only Lopez who has come out now and identified it so brazenly as an objective of the opposition.
Should the opposition fail to gain a majority, however, then their “activists” can take to the streets against the government, legitimised by the fact that they are defending “the popular will” that will have been violated by the same “corrupt institutions” from which they would have gladly accepted a victory.
And if this doesn’t work; then who knows. But the opposition is impatient.
“We cannot wait years, we cannot wait for the presidential elections of 2019,” states Lopez.
It’s a sentence that is only ambiguous if it is separated from the historical trajectory of anti-Chavismo, if it is isolated within the ahistorical world and Westernised viewpoint of the international media. Where the methods used by the opposition less than fifteen years ago, including a military and US backed coup, economic sabotage, an oil lockout, violent street campaigns and a recall referendum, bear no reference to Lopez’s current demands.
To the rest of us: can there be any doubt that a constitutional “coup,” similar to that enacted in Paraguay in 2012 against leftist Fernando Lugo, is at the forefront of the opposition’s mind? Can there be any doubt that Lopez supporters, in response to this message, would “hesitate” to take to the streets again? Is it really just a matter of speculation when “defending the popular will” has already been established as a narrative to justify the murder of 43 people and the months long siege of communities across Venezuela?
I don’t think you need to be a semiotics expert to answer this question.
This is what is at stake when Venezuelans head to the polls en masse on December 6th. There is everything to play for: the possibility of politics, no matter how difficult, or its forced retreat. It’s not a matter of interpretation; Lopez’s posts say it clearly.