Sleeping in Barrios: The Venezuelan Opposition in a Class of Its Own

Despite the fact that he still had a possible ban from holding public office hanging over his head, presidential hopeful Leopoldo Lopez chose to take his lead from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights last Sunday and get started on his electoral campaign.


In an all-out assault on the senses, an informally dressed Lopez set about his “The Best Venezuela” tour by rubbing shoulders with a group of working class fisherman and beating the drum of democracy as loudly as humanly possible. The opposition candidate for the “Popular Will” party had pledged to travel to “each corner of Venezuela” over the next few weeks in order to “listen to the people”. As opposition spectacles go, it did not disappoint.

Without a hint of irony, Lopez brazenly declared to the world that he would “use oil for well-being and progress and to eradicate extreme poverty”.

“It is immoral and incoherent that there is so much poverty, zinc roofs, areas without basic services where children are exposed to rubbish and illness, on this ground which produces the best riches thanks to oil…that is a reality that we are going to change, that is not ‘The Best Venezuela!’” chimed the Harvard graduate.

If that is the best campaign that millions of dollars worth of USAID funding can buy, I can only assume that there must be some serious hand-wringing going on in Washington. Still, if charismatic public speaking isn’t Lopez’s strong point, you have to admire his sheer audacity.  Having stolen 60 million bolivars from PSVSA and donating it to his own political party in 1998, misappropriating public funds during his time as Mayor of Chacao and taking part in an illegal and violent coup against the democratically elected president in 2002, you think he’d be a little more humble with regards to the topic of upholding human rights and democracy. Nevertheless, Lopez assures us that, given the chance, he will “build a Venezuela where rights are for all”.

Lopez’s moment in the limelight was cut short, however, as the Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice released a proverbial rain over his parade:  the ban preventing him from holding public office would be upheld: pressure from Washington or no pressure from Washington.

Apart from the accusations of “flagrant human rights violations” that this move will undoubtedly provoke, the verdict makes very little real difference to the up-and-coming 2012 elections. Lopez was not the favourite opposition candidate and there are plenty of other presidential hopefuls who are willing to cavort with fisherman they have never met or cared about before in order to get a slice of the electoral pie.

However, Lopez’s ephemeral political campaign is interesting for a number of reasons, not least its comedy value. Lopez’s constant references to the “people”, “excluded sectors” and using oil for “the well-being of all” is incredibly revealing of the opposition’s electoral strategy.

Having tried an array of tactics, from coups and boycotting elections to ridiculing Chávez, (and by proxy, millions of Venezuelans) the opposition has added a shrewder political tactic to its repertoire: simply regurgitating the rhetoric used by the revolution.

 In fact, according to Lopez, when he wasn’t ferreting away public funds to unknown destinations during his time as mayor, he was busy promoting “popular networks”, which bear an astounding similarity to the revolution’s communal councils. Lopez defines these networks as “a model of community organisation which is orientated towards promoting social and political participation for your rights and in search of solutions to community problems”.

Keen to present themselves as an alternative to the “traditional politics” of the Fourth Republic, opposition candidates are currently busy stressing their links to unions, youths and “grassroots organisations” to any media outlets willing to listen. Yet this isn’t just your typical political showmanship, the latest opposition strategy is a manifestation of how the revolution has radicalised the political landscape in Venezuela and changed the national consciousness.

Politics in Venezuela is no longer just something which takes place between men in suits at the National Assembly, but is a collective enterprise staged everyday in public spaces; it is a concept that has been re-appropriated and re-invented by the popular sectors, who are simultaneously democratising and revolutionising their socio-cultural surroundings. Faced with this new political dynamic, the right has been forced to wage its political campaign by engaging in action on traditionally leftist terms, by staging “demonstrations”, forming “social movements” and attempting to assert their presence in non-traditional political spheres in order to keep up with the revolution.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Alas, chirping the words “alternative democracy” and “grassroots social movements” with nauseating regularity doesn’t seem to be fooling the majority of Venezuelans. A recent GIS XXI poll placed Chávez’s approval rating at 58% (cue more hand-wringing in Washington) and opposition favourite, Capriles Radonski at only 8%. This could be because the opposition aren’t making their case with enough vigour, but I suspect it’s more related to issues of substance vs. rhetoric and the minor problem of collective memory.

Not only are the opposition still associated with the repressive and neo-liberal politics of the Fourth Republic, but they are quite simply and inescapably viewed as Venezuela’s corrupt elite. For all their different strategies, the opposition has consistently failed to grasp that the Bolivarian Revolution has squarely placed the long-avoided issues of class and class struggle at the heart of Venezuelan politics. Unfortunately, the opposition represent the wrong interests, no matter how many barrio kids they kiss.

A classic example of this kind of strategy gone horribly wrong is the case of Eduardo Fernandez, who pledged to spend a night in the barrios during his 1988 electoral campaign to show his “humility” to the Venezuelan electorate. The contrived and patronising nature of the stunt (and some rumours even allege that he spent the night in his bullet-proof limousine) just emphasised the gaping class schism between Fernandez and the majority of Venezuelans.

Earlier this year during the Haitian “(s)elections,” ousted leftwing president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, commented that:

“Haitians are so bright, if you are faking, pretending that you love them and using beautiful words, they will smell it, they will get it.”

The opposition’s Achilles heel is to have consistently underestimated just how “bright” the Venezuelan popular sectors are. They think that they won’t smell them. In their patronising attempts to convince the Venezuelan poor that they no longer view them as malandraje (thugs), they reveal that their attitudes haven’t changed one iota. Venezuelans have proved themselves to be knowledgeable agents of change, capable of transforming their own societies and driving the revolution forward themselves. The opposition still regard them as an electoral flock.

There is one aspect, however, where the opposition may have finally got it right. In an interview with Venezuelan newspaper Diario el Tiempo, Carlos Vecchio, the head of Lopez’s election campaign commented that: “With this process (the Bolivarian Revolution), we have learnt what democracy is really worth”.

With this statement, Vecchio may have unwittingly captured the global mood. As hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in Spain, New York, London and many other countries, the issue of direct democracy and citizen participation has never been more relevant – the role of democracy in the struggle against capitalism, the need to wrest the actual concept of democracy from the liberal mantra of “free and fair elections” and reinvent it from below.

Although this process is underway in Venezuela, it is still nowhere near complete. Bureaucracy and corruption still remain the biggest obstacles to the implementation of a veritable socialist project. Yet the content for this sui generis revolutionary process comes from the popular sectors which create it, and the hope for the future of the revolution lies heavily within the ability of these sectors to keep reconstituting and reasserting this creative role through the democratic tools they have honed throughout the revolutionary process. The only hope for the opposition, however, is that Venezuelans are suddenly afflicted by a collective bout of amnesia. For the moment, it seems that they are just doomed to continually getting it wrong and constantly wondering why the answers still elude them. After all, there are some things that not even a private education at Harvard can teach, and Fernandez still lost the elections.