Last chopper out of Saigon

The recent imprisonment of Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, for nothing more than a snooze-inducing statement of the obvious on Alo, Ciudadano, brought back memories of OAP’s ill-fated attempt at the Presidency back in 1993.

Memory is a fickle beast, but in 1993, OAP was considered sort of an outsider’s insider.

The country was still processing Hugo Chávez’s attempted coup a year earlier, which saw OAP taken prisoner in Maracaibo’s Governor’s residence by Francisco Arias Cárdenas. While most of the political class rejected those acts, there was an unmistakable and increasingly urgent need for change in the air that lent the coup a certain legitimacy.

In the early ’90s, it was obvious to pretty much everyone that the political model established in the Punto Fijo pact had run its course. The "ta’barato" Venezuelan dream had taken a serious beating on Black Friday of 1983, lived a prolonged agony during the crazy days of Jaime and Blanca, and took a fatal blow in the Caracazo of 1989. By the time 93 had come by, the coup attempt seemed more a symptom than an event itself.

That year, a couple of young party politicians (OAP and Claudio Fermín) and a left-wing rabble rouser (Andrés Velásquez) tried to capitalize on the same motif: people were tired of the same old politics.

OAP in particular tried to play the role of reformer from within. His candidacy had been the result of a contested primary with the party’s leader, Eduardo Fernández. The primary was open to all voters and the loser -the early favorite – quickly conceded and offered his support. It was a monumental achievement in the history of party politics in Venezuela, one that has yet to be equaled.

OAP, quickly grasping the need for change, talked about a Constitutional Assembly, about change, about a peaceful revolution. His candidacy, however, suffered a fatal blow when his party’s founder decided to run on a third-party ticket, splitting the Copei vote.

We all know what happened. In what was to become Venezuela’s last really contested presidential election, the three candidates split the "change" vote (OAP finished third), and the election went to none other than Rafael Caldera.

It is not controversial to suggest this made the ascent of Hugo Chávez that much easier. Caldera did not usher in change. He couldn’t distance himself from Puntofijismo – hell, the pact was named after his house! By 1998, Caldera represented everything that people hated about the ruling class – outdated, aloof, elitist.

Looking back at 1993, it may well have been our last chance to reform the system from within. OAP was offering us our last shot at showing that democracy had the tools to fix itself.

It was the last chopper out of Saigon, and we missed it.