Most newspaper readers in the English speaking world know alarmingly little about Venezuela in general, so it’s hardly a surprise that their notions about Venezuela’s opposition movement remain vague and contradictory.
On the one hand, almost every newspaper article on Venezuela has some throw-away phrase about Venezuela’s “diverse and disjointed opposition, a loose coalition of businessmen, labor unions, NGOs and political parties.” At the same time, when I talk to Europeans about Venezuela, it’s clear that they have a vague notion of the opposition as a kind of undifferentiated mass of nasty rich assholes, reactionary, heartless and antidemocratic.
I find that this basic misunderstanding of what the opposition is, how it’s made up, and how it operates, makes it very hard to hold any kind of sophisticated conversation about Venezuela. Because it’s true, the opposition is remarkably diverse, fragmented, and in some ways chaotic. There isn’t one clear leader, and it isn’t clear that any one leader could ever lead the whole of it. And it is true that a substantial part of the opposition is prey to all of the same vices that rendered Venezuelan democracy disfunctional from the mid 70s to 1998.
What is lost in the standard journalistic vision is the key current within the opposition, a current I consider myself a part of, with a long if untold history of citizen activism, democratic idealism, and an earnest desire for real, systemic change. This section of the opposition – which I call the Democratic Movement, to differentiate it from the anachronistic pols and the opportunists – is known in Venezuela as the “comeflores” – the flower-eaters, literally, for our moderate posture and our stress on basic democratic values like tolerance, open debate, and respect for those we disagree with.
This label – comeflor – actually started as a slur pointed by the radical wing of the opposition towards us. The radicales, like all radicals everywhere, think of us as pathetically naive idealists, cannon-fodder for the totalitarian designs of our opponents. As far as they can see, the logical response to a government like Chavez’s is to prepare for war. For our part, we believe that the logical response to a government like Chavez’s is to build the peace, one day at a time, one act of tolerance at a time.
Comeflorismo antecedes chavismo. Elias Santana was organizing neighborhood committees to empower communities to exercise their democratic rights long before anyone in the country knew who Hugo Chavez was. Andres Velasquez was unionizing steelworkers when Chavez was a cadet in the military academy. Teodoro Petkoff was leading the democratization of the country’s leftist movements when Chavez was in High School. Chavista mythology not withstanding, the struggle to truly democratize Venezuela is both far older and far more ideologically coherent than chavismo could ever hope to be.
Me, I think we should own the label comeflores. Sure it was meant as a slur, but what a nice slur! The label places us squarely in the tradition of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of Mandela and of the Czech velvet revolutionaries and the anti-Milosevic movement in Serbia. Each of them faced an opponent more ruthless and brutal than Chavez, each faced an opponent with a far bigger body-count than our opponent has. Each understood that the time to start to build their democracies is right now, and the way to do so is to put into practice the ideals we seek to establish in the government.
Little by little, this view has gone from the naive fringe to the center of the opposition movement. People like Elias Santana, once seen as a hopeless dreamer, have been vindicated again and again by the turn of events. Santana – the closest thing we have to an MLK figure – is today perhaps the intellectual father of the opposition. His quiet activism has left a real trace in the way more and more Venezuelans see the struggle against Chavista autocracy. His endlessly, tediously repeated motto – “sin violencia, dentro del marco de la ley” (without violence, within the law) – has gone from fringe to center in less than two years. If the current crisis passes off without significant violence, the country will owe him and those who’ve taken on his message a huge debt of gratitude.
This is not to say that the shrill voices of reaction have been silenced. They haven’t. They exist, and they are a threat. Every non-violent democratic movement has had to contend with a similar fringe. And the successful ones have defeated it through the strength and effectiveness of non-violent tactics. I believe Venezuelans can do the same.
So here’s to Elias Santana, and Chuo Torrealba and Leonardo Carvajal and Teodoro Petkoff and Ruth Capriles and Luis Ugalde and Vladimiro Mujica all those who’ve worked tirelessly since 1998 to show Venezuela that it can re-join the community of free nations without a bloodbath. They haven’t quite pulled it off yet. But they’re closer than they’ve ever been, and they’re getting closer each day. Ultimately, they are the country’s best and only shot at a decent future. Should they fail, the country’s choice will be between the authoritarianism of the left and the authoritarianism of the right.
They must not fail.