There's an old joke about the rabbi who explained to his congregants that Adam and Eve were the first communists, because they wore no clothes, had one apple between them, and thought they lived in paradise. Well, that pretty much encapsulates what Venezuela's current rulers would like its people to believe about the state of our country right now. But the mask is slipping, just as it did in the Garden of Eden.
For the opposition, the critical question is how to avoid responding in kind to extreme provocation by Maduro's bullies.
When you go shopping in Caracas these days, empty shelves in stores speak volumes about the shortage of basic goods. The entire country, especially outside the capital, is plagued by power outages as often as three times a day, for several hours in all. Remember, this is taking place in a country with the largest reserves of oil in the world.
Venezuelans are learning through bitter experience that fulminating against American plots, hailing alliances with Cuba, Iran and similar authoritarian regimes, and dragging out the specter of the late Hugo Chávez at every opportunity – all hallmarks of Nicolás Maduro's new regime, which came to power in a fraudulent election a little over two weeks ago – won't put food on the table. A poll this week conducted by a Caracas newspaper showed that for the vast majority of people here, crime, inflation, crumbling public infrastructure, and the non-availability of goods we once took for granted are causing huge anxiety.
However, whereas the citizens of this country think in practical terms, Maduro and his cohorts think in rigidly ideological terms. They cannot offer new answers, only tired dogmas. And that is why, in spite of all the hardships we face, there is also a spirit of determined optimism.
It was, appropriately, Karl Marx who observed that a thing is best understood in times of crisis. After fourteen years of chavismo, Venezuela is undergoing its biggest political and economic crisis since oil became the motor of our development almost a century ago. And what is abundantly clear is that most Venezuelans are fed up with being governed by an ideology that has – much like Soviet-style communism – completely failed. Hence the popular feeling that meaningful change is possible, even imminent.
For as long as Chávez remained in power, this realization was delayed. In part, that was because the relatively high price of oil during the Chávez period allowed his regime to lavish money on its so-called misiones – social programs whose principal aim was to win the political loyalties of their beneficiaries. Additionally, whatever his numerous faults, Chávez was possessed of a charisma and wit that none of his followers, least of all Maduro, can count on.
Even more fundamentally, the view that Maduro is an illegitimate president with an illegitimate government is growing in leaps and bounds. Around 6,000 violations were recorded by independent witnesses on election day. Alfredo Weil, a respected local pollster, believes that the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, actually won the election by four points. Opposition calls for a comprehensive recount of the votes have been blocked by the National Electoral Council, or CNE, which faithfully follows every edict issued by Maduro.
Whereas Chávez used a mixture of persuasion and repression to make his case, Maduro cares little for the former and frequently resorts to the latter. Last week, the Minister for Prisons, Iris Varela, warned Capriles that a prison cell was being prepared for him. In the interim, intimidation of public sector workers whose loyalties are in doubt has resulted in over 4,000 complaints against the government. One has to seriously ask whether the fate of these latest additions to the growing roster of Venezuelan dissidents will be similar to that of opposition politicians in the National Assembly, who this week were the targets of a ferocious physical assault by pro-government parliamentarians and their bodyguards.
Slowly but surely, the regime is seeking to squeeze the space for lawful opposition. Just prior to the attacks in the National Assembly –a shameful scene that was not witnessed even during Chávez's rule– the National Assembly President, Diosdado Cabello, warned opposition legislators that if they didn't bow to Maduro's legitimacy, they would be forbidden from speaking. One of them, the infinitely courageous Maria Corina Machado, reported that she saw Cabello smiling and laughing as she was pulled to the ground, punched and kicked.
Yet the government cannot control people's thoughts. More and more Venezuelans understand that this last election was a sham, that this government has no mandate to rule, and that it cannot provide the voters with the economic or physical security they so desperately crave.
That is why we find ourselves at the most important crossroads in our recent history. When we look at the example of the Arab Spring, we realize that repressive regimes don't just take a bow and leave the stage. They engage in massive violence first and then, assuming that they collapse, all too often leave a political vacuum that encourages even more extremism in their wake. For the opposition, the critical question is how to avoid responding in kind to extreme provocation by Maduro's bullies.
An overwhelming majority of Venezuelans are determined to stay a democratic course. And, in Henrique Capriles we have a leader who has proved beyond doubt that this regime will resort to any methods to remain in power, and at the same time steer unyielding resistance through a peaceful responses.
The only discouraging element is the apparent indifference of an inter-American system in which the flow of oil seems thicker than any democratic principle.