The opposition we need

Quico and Juan Cristobal say: Yesterday we had an interesting but somewhat circular discussion about the ills of the opposition. Though much huffing and puffing ensued, we failed to reach a consensus and were mostly talking past each other. This happens, I think, because we’re hung up on the problem. We’d be better off focusing on the solution.

Typically, when we discuss our screwed up opposition, we start with the here and now, asking, “what’s wrong with the opposition as it is, what makes it so ineffective at fighting Chávez?” The discussions that follow can’t go anywhere because they can only tells us why we don’t want to be here, but they can’t tell us where we want to go, much less how to get there.

So maybe we should work backwards instead, starting out imagining what an opposition able to really take the fight to chavismo would be like and then retracing the steps it’ll take to get us there.

This brings us to questions that, for some reason, we almost never hear asked. If the opposition was serious about putting a real challenge to the Chávez regime, what would it look like? What would its organizations and its structure be like? How would it be different from how it is today?

To my mind, the opposition organization we need will have five characteristics that the current opposition lacks. It needs to be,

  1. National
  2. Organized
  3. Credible
  4. Connected
  5. Well-funded

1. National
First off, the opposition we need is national in scope. An opposition that only operates in a few big cities (Caracas, Maracaibo, Valencia) is not enough. Just remember, last Sunday our win in Miranda was more than offset out by chavismo’s win in Trujillo, our win in Zulia was totally cancelled out by chavismo’s win in Guárico. Fully a fifth of chavismo’s edge came from Portuguesa alone…I mean: Portuguesa!!

The opposition just can’t afford to have “dead areas” like this, whole regions that we just tacitly hand off to chavismo because we can’t organize there.

While the opposition’s absence is most visible in really rural places, it’s easy to forget how absent we are even from much of urban Venezuela. In fact, only 10 million Venezuelans live in the 8 biggest cities, meaning that a further 10-12 million urban Venezuelans live in towns and small cities with populations between 20,000 and 400,000. We’re talking places like Charallave, San Carlos, Carúpano, Valera, and any number of others that the Caracas-based oppo political class just doesn’t talk to.

The opposition needs a nationwide presence, a nationwide reach and a nationwide strategy to get beyond the patchwork approach it has now. Howard Dean had his 50-state strategy. We desperately need a 24 state strategy!

2. Organized
Second, the opposition we need has to step up to the plate and start competing with chavismo in terms of organization. We will, of course, never have the resources to match chavismo’s petrostate control, but we can certainly do better than we have. Ahead of Sunday, chavismo had a proper ground game, patrulleros, people knocking doors in every town, barrio and caserío in the country. They ran robocalls. They had guys out in trucks with loud speaker. They were doing retail politics, hard, all over the country.

In other words, chavismo had the organization to put together a coherent nationwide groundgame. We had Aló, Ciudadano. Yes, we were outspent, but in the end the gap on this score may have been as much about volunteer organization as about money. Partly because it has no nationwide presence, the opposition could only rely on a fractured, patchwork response, with different groups running different activities in the places where they happen to be strong, but nobody really running a coherent national ground game.

3. Credible
A third thing Chavismo has and we need is credible messengers. In their case, they have just one credible messenger: Chávez himself. Like him or loathe him, when Chávez speaks people listen, he commands the respect of the room. Always has.

We have nobody like that. This is not personal – I have no reason to doubt that people like Henry Ramos Allup and Julio Borges are absolutely fine human beings. But they’ve just lost the battle over their own branding.

Unfair as it may be, most swing voters look at them and think “oh gawd, not these dinosaurs again!” They’ve simply been around too long, even the newish ones, to command the respect of a room. The messages they read out almost don’t matter, because they don’t have the credibility it takes for ni-nis to listen to any message that comes out of their mouths.

4. Connected
In fourth place, the opposition we need connects with people with a new message that’s tough but positive, couched in unapologetically moral language that’s not afraid to call bullshit on chavismo’s catastrophic utopianism. Hurricane Feces should make this theme easier to sell, but we still need to develop it, stepping away from the language of technocatic, unthreatening, post-Plaza Altamira apologetics and start telling people “look, chavismo socialism is socially, politically and ethically bankrupt for you for reasons X, Y and Z.” We need to find the kinds of words that connect with people’s real values and aspirations, appealing to their better nature, without patronizing them or lying to them.

5. Well-funded
Finally, the opposition we need has some money to put all of its plans in action. Our funding efforts are virtually non-existent, and we haven’t even begun to tap the power of the Internet. An effective campaign is expensive, and part of the job of opposition leaders leaders – hell, part of the standard with which they should be measured – is in terms of how they bring the cash in. In the last campaign, we had no money. They failed to do their job, so they must assume responsability.

Those are the five ingredients, that’s the thing to shoot for. You could sum it up in one phrase. What we need is,

A well-funded national organization with credible leaders able to connect with people

Shortcuts won’t do. Four out of five is not good enough. Take an attractive message and put it in the mouth of a leader who lacks credibility or a national organization and you don’t connect. Instead, you end up with…Mi Negra! Take a credible leader and set him loose without an attractive message or a national organization and you end up with…El Conde del Guacharo! Take a rock solid organization that has an attractive message but lacks credible leaders or a genuinely nationwide presence and you end up with…the Student Movement! Take a well-funded organization that fails to connect with people and you get … Súmate!

The reality is that we need to advance on all five fronts at the same time.

That’s what we need to take on Chávez. To really take him on. We need to visualize it, to imagine what Venezuela would be like, how profoundly different 2012 could be, if we headed into that election with a well-funded national organization with credible leaders able to connect with people.

Until you know where you’re going, you can’t tell if you’re on the right road or not. If our (well-founded) critique of the current opposition is not to peter out into the usual torrent of anti-politics bile, we need to get clear on what we do want, not just on what we don’t want.

It’s only once you know what the ultimate goal is that it becomes possible to work backwards, tracing a line back from your objectives to the things you are able to do right now to achieve them.

It becomes, in a sense, possible to reverse-engineer the opposition’s program: to start with your goals and set out programs to achieve them, rather than to just bitch.