Tuesday, May 31, 2005

This is why my ears were burning 

It seems like just the other day we were discussing that one of the opposition's problems is its being in denial and not recognizing its status as a small minority within Venezuelan society. Further it was pointed out that their strategies seemed to be predicated on them being a majority when in fact they are definitely not a majority. Little did I realize that someone else was thinking the same thing. The following is a translation of what Gerardo Blyde, a Assembly member from the Primero Justicia party, wrote the other day:

The promoters of the idea of electoral abstention, who aren’t lacking in motivation to try it, should think about some things that made me change my mind. The first was a thorough analysis of the opinion polls of all the country’s leading polling firms. They show that two years ago the popularity of president Chavez had fallen and was between 40% and 45% but that situation changed and after the implementation of the Missions [Missions are large scale social program – ow] (especially Mercal and Barrio Adentro) today it is between 55 and 60 percent. The first thing that we have to recognize, in order to come up with successful strategies, is that those who oppose Chavez at this time are a minority, not by such a large margin, but a minority. As long as we keep thinking that we are a majority we will be starting from a false premise, and everything that we come up with will be bound to fail. Accepting this is very difficult, but this does not mean we are resigned to it. On the contrary, it simply signifies a change in paradigms that will have us change how we act as an opposition, as the route of extremist and urgent solutions has led us to become smaller rather than larger.

The second thing we have to analyze are the causes of our decrease that has led Chavez to again have a majority. Analyzing the same opinion polls and focus groups we see the most important causes: the message. While the government goes into poor areas (which decide electoral outcomes by virtue of being the majority) with messages of hope, with medical care, with inexpensive food, and gives the impression of concrete improvements in peoples lives with offers of future housing and jobs, the opposition does not go into the poor areas or if it does goes in to talk about a lack of institutionality and democracy. This message may go down well with the upper classes but it does not find acceptance among the poor who have been for many years excluded from access to institutions. To sum up, the message, to grow instead of only keep speaking to ourselves, should change from criticizing every mistake by the government to being positive and offering hope. None of this excludes defending political prisoner, or those denied the right to work such as the fired oil workers, or denouncing the limitations on freedom of expression, but in addition to that we should try to offer a positive and credible alternative.

The third point to help ourselves increase is to have clear ideas of what the government’s strengths and weaknesses are. Among its strengths are obviously the communication skills of the president and the huge quantity of economic resources that it has to get its message across, meet some needs of people, and create hopes in a large segment of the population and buy consciences of others. Among the weaknesses is the terrible performance of Chavez’s governing team (which still hasn’t rubbed off on the President) and the many unfulfilled promises that have started to dampen the illusion of a better future among some supporters of the government. The immense corruption is another obvious weakness. But the most important weakness is the very high level of unemployment. This has become the principal problem of Venezuelans of all social classes, the need to find employment that isn’t a temporary subsistence level job. We have to show direct relations between the actions of the government and the increase in unemployment. For example, people understand very well that if Chavez fights with the United States that reduces foreign investment and employment opportunities; the relations with Cuba, even when it isn’t particularly harmful, doesn’t generate employment. That is how we have to make the case.

The extreme solution of electoral abstention only is effective when those who try it are a majority. If the reverse is true, those who participate are a majority, they process is legitimized. Remember, the Constitution, for example, was approved with 80% abstention and, nevertheless, it didn’t lose its legitimacy. First you have to become a majority before you can de-legitimize.

All the reasons for not voting are valid if we remain in the past lamenting our situation, but if we see elections as opportunities to grow and organize politically, if we change our message and offer a new hope, this work will bear fruit in the medium term even if we lose the elections that are coming so that we can strengthen ourselves for the elections that are coming in 18 months [the Presidential elections – ow].

The first thing to say is it is interesting and quite a surprise to see at least some segments of the opposition try to come to terms with reality. Of course he does try to sugar coat things a little by playing down the level of support Chavez has (the polls I’ve seen were in the 70% range) but maybe that is a calculated change on his part to make these hard truths a little more palatable to the hard core opposition members. But for the most part the essay is brutally honest and frank. In particular it was perceptive of him to note that the opposition crying about the lack of legality and institutionality isn't going anywhere when the reality is the great majority of the population never had any recourse to the law or institutions.

Quite frankly, the opposition could do a lot worse than to listen to what this guy is saying. But if history is prologue, they won’t.

One more quibble. I don’t know that his focus on unemployment will work. As has been mentioned before unemployment skyrocketed due to the 02/03 “strike” by the opposition and has since come down significantly. So to try to pin something on Chavez that the Venezuelan electorate knows was the doing of the opposition is not a likely formula for success. People simply don’t forget, much less forgive, that quickly.


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