What’s Next for Venezuela’s Opposition?

A few distinct tendencies have become visible in Venezuela's opposition since February's referendum: from re-engagement with the political process and an attempt to broaden appeal, to a more thorough self-analysis and a recognition of the need to address poverty and inequality.

When Venezuelan voters approved a
referendum allowing for indefinite re-election on all elected posts,
commentary immediately turned to what the reform meant for chavistas-particularly,
the prospect of having Hugo Chávez as president until 2019 or later.
Far less attention was paid to what the defeat meant for the
opposition, or to its reaction.

A functioning opposition could have good effects on Venezuelan
society. If it were to advocate, say, a corruption-free, developmental
state-capitalism, it would force the Chávez government to put its
program and its sometimes-hazy ideology into sharper relief. It also
could compel the government to scrape out corruption and, perhaps,
accelerate structural change.

A great many opposition groups, linked to the 2002 imperial coup
d'état and U.S. financial support, ideologically bankrupt, are hardly
speaking in such terms. But for others, the referendum's passage has
occasioned deep self-evaluation.

One opposition response has been to squint hard at the numbers,
willfully discerning the image of victory where most saw defeat. One blogger suggests that
many chavistas actually voted against the referendum, rather than
simply abstaining, concluding that the opposition has won over
disaffected chavistas.

Opposition commentator Teodoro Petkoff endorses this analysis,
calling the result a "quantitative" and "qualitative" advance. He
credits this change to a more mature opposition "wedded to a democratic
strategy, which has proven fertile, and that has completely distanced
itself from loudmouthed, pathetic and ineffective extremism."

Both assessments avoid crucial facts. As other analysts have
observed, the more than 10-percent margin of victory would have incited
breathless clichés about landslides and tectonic political movements in
almost any other electoral contest. Furthermore, neither interpretation
acknowledges that some chavistas opposed limitless terms, but still consider themselves part of the greater Bolivarian political project.

Others have assessed the results more soberly, claiming the defeat
is a clear signal that the opposition needs to re-trench, and unify its
disparate components. As Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma puts it,
"Self-criticism is important, we must continue creating authentic

Still others call for a strategy of serious re-engagement with the
political process. The opposition is still smarting from the disastrous
boycott of the 2005 parliamentary elections. Indeed, emboldened by
significant pluralities in the past two elections, they feel that they
could take between 30 and 50 percent of the seats in the assembly. If
the latter percentage were to be achieved, it would constitute a
political blockade to radical measures that must wend their way through
the legislative branch.

Meanwhile, other groups focus on economics, suggesting that economic
calamity is incipient. They criticize the inefficiencies and supposed
failure of the social missions, while attacking chavista economic
development strategies more broadly. The discourse embraces a crude
Marxisant determinism, assuming economic conditions will ultimately
determine political results.

The popular opposition blog, Caracas Chronicles, takes this view,
marshalling many statistics suggesting that Venezuela is following a
normal boom-bust commodity cycle. The hope is that economic turmoil
will bring about Chávez's deposition, making worries about him being a
president-for-life a non-issue. Still, the blog recognizes the need to
articulate a coherent, convincing discourse. Its writers note, "Whether we like it or not, getting people out of poverty and empowering them is the central debate in the coming years… If the opposition is to take power, we will need to have a social message."

The phraseology is revealing. The remark "whether we like it or not"
suggests that parts of the opposition would rather ignore the
overwhelming poverty faced by the vast majority of Venezuelans. The
government's social programs have undisputedly helped alleviate that
poverty. And Chávez's discourse's defining feature is a discussion of
poverty and wealth. The opposition's failure to understand this simple
fact points to an utterly impoverished moral imagination.

Meanwhile, others also acknowledge the need to gather broad support. Opposition intellectual Heinz Sonntag writes
that the goal of the opposition should be to reach the millions of
Venezuelans who share neither "the objectives, nor the methods, nor the
stupidities, much less the dubious ethics of the ‘Bolivarian
Revolution.'" Sonntag is plainly speaking of the ni-nis, who
support neither chavismo nor the opposition. Still, it remains unclear
how the opposition plans to court these voters, many of whom support
goals like improving the quality of life in Venezuela and bettering
social indicators, even if they find the rhetoric of chavismo repugnant.

Still other far-right factions see violence and mayhem as the best
way to defeat Chávez, visible in the raucous demonstrations of M-13,
the self-described "revolutionary" student group in Merida, mostly
composed of upper-middle class and upper-class students. Its members
have attacked and attempted to rape police officers, set buses afire,
and generally wilded about, burning and destroying. Such tactics
doubtless have scant resonance with the Venezuelan people. In a country
with one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the world,
spectacular violence is not the route to popular legitimacy.

If the opposition were able to see beyond its intellectual ghetto,
it might notice that mounting a coherent opposition to chavismo that
could attract general support would not be impossible. Nor should it be
so hard. Crime in the cities continues apace. Rubbish piles up.
Venezuelan hard currency is still spent importing whiskey and expensive
cars; the government misses its inflation targets, again and again, and
the poor remain in their precarious mountainside ranchos (slums).

Meanwhile, the opposition insists on supporting subsidies for
imported luxuries and spending oil funds on lavish lifestyles, rather
than providing healthcare, housing, and food. Until it veers off this
course, it will never gain the legitimacy it needs to attain broad

But instead of contemplating change, it busies itself taking money from Washington's National Endowment for Democracy, courting lucrative prizes
from the Cato Institute, or thinking that NGOs constitute a coherent
political network. Such a movement will go nowhere, as more-reasonable
fragments readily acknowledge.

Max Ajl is a NACLA Research Associate. He blogs at MaxAjl.com.