The only thing keeping Maduro in power is the opposition
Can anyone win in an illegitimate election? This is the big question in Venezuela today, as commentators and citizens alike debate whether to participate or abstain in upcoming elections, where one candidate, Henri Falcon, has defied the opposition coalition’s decision not to take part.
In short, the answer is “yes”. Paradoxically, the very lack of legitimacy that undermines these elections has also created the conditions for a viable candidate to garner broad support and unseat Nicolas Maduro. But for that to happen, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) must back Falcon, and begin to convince a desperate and disillusioned electorate that voting can make a real difference.
The most obvious reason why an opposition candidate can win is that, according to one of Venezuela’s most reliable pollsters, around 75 percent of those eligible to vote would be willing to vote against Maduro. Or to put it another way, “never, ever in the history of Chavismo over the last 20 years, has it been so clear that people want real change”.
Sadly, the complexity of this picture tends to be obscured by infantile narratives of opposition good guys versus government bad guys, where in reality the largest political group in Venezuela is the 51 percent supporting neither. Essentially, since the death of Chavez, most Venezuelans have been voting for the side they deemed to be the lesser of the two evils, but the cynicism and incompetence of both sides has gradually worn down even this minimal enthusiasm. Support for Maduro has been ravaged by devastating economic, political, and social deterioration. Runaway inflation has eroded purchasing power and instilled a sense of intractable economic chaos. A dysfunctional currency regime has destroyed local industry, enabled massive corruption, and – combined with declining prices and production of oil – provoked serious scarcities of vital food and medicines. The resulting social hardship has fuelled unrest and emigration, but the conventional political channels for change have been blocked by anti-democratic means.
As for the opposition, no amount of hagiographic foreign journalism can erase what most Venezuelans already know:
The MUD’s leaders are overwhelmingly drawn from the richer, whiter side of society and have never shown any sign of understanding or caring about the poorer, darker majority in the way that Chavez did.
These leaders themselves have been all too willing to support anti-democratic measures, not least the 2002 coup and subsequent oil strike.
Despite having nearly two decades in opposition to shape a coherent platform for government, they have never advanced beyond their one unifying goal of removing the incumbent.
As veteran pollster and analyst Luis Vicente Leon has noted, this opposition acts with all the self-obsessed short-sightedness of a teenager, and its leaders and parties inspire neither support nor sympathy. The key reason behind the MUD coalition’s decision not to participate in the upcoming elections was that two of its figureheads, Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles, are barred from running. Even without considering wider democratic failings, they are quite right to claim that this one fact makes the elections illegitimate. They are, however, quite wrong to think that the participation of one systematically disadvantaged candidate could lessen this illegitimacy, which is abundantly clear both at home and abroad.
Moreover, rather than being a traitor for deciding to run – or worse a Trojan horse for Chavismo – Falcon’s middle-ground status could prove more appealing than the usual MUD candidates to Venezuela’s unrepresented majority of disaffected “neither/nor” voters and disgruntled Chavistas. Falcon was indeed associated with Chavez even prior to his presidency, later becoming a regional governor with the ruling party’s backing. But he very publicly broke with Chavez in 2010 as his government’s serious failings became clear, moving instead to the centre-left Fatherland for All Party (PPT). Later, as campaign manager to opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in 2013, he was instrumental in helping the MUD reach a wider constituency by recognising Chavez’s social-policy successes; Capriles’ loss by a single percentage point is still the closest the opposition has come to regaining the presidency. Falcon is also from a poorer, more mixed background than most opposition figureheads, as well as being – like Chavez – a former soldier.
Though opposition and government alike could depict him as a turncoat, this varied background means that he knows both sides of Venezuela’s stark political divide, has experience of public administration, and has already come close to engineering an opposition victory in far less favourable conditions (following Hugo Chavez’s death).
Since launching his campaign he has also made clear commitments that speak to public concerns: to tackle inflation through dollarisation, to reduce the potential for corruption by serving a single term, and to promote a peaceful transition both by releasing political prisoners and by disavowing persecution of Chavista officials. This moderate approach is strategic and pragmatic rather than moral or ideological, which is precisely what is required in a context of entrenched polarisation where the candidate could pick up support from all sides given the overwhelming unpopularity of his opponent.
Even without MUD backing, Falcon already leads Maduro by 16 points in head-to-head polling. But the real danger to Falcon’s bid – and the main reason that he needs MUD support – is that this election will be decided by turnout rather than voter preferences.
As it stands, only 41 percent of voters are “very willing” to vote – a figure usually around 70 percent at this stage – whereas a further 20 percent are “very unwilling”. Within the hard core of definite voters, Chavistas are significantly over-represented, whereas those determined not to vote are almost entirely opposition supporters.If this situation prevails on election day – even more so if the opposition calls for a boycott – staunch Chavista voters will show up in the greatest numbers and return Maduro to the presidency with a low turnout. If, however, the opposition were to back Falcon or simply participation, a relatively modest 54 percent turnout could produce a Falcon victory.
MUD backing would also have an important effect on momentum and hope, particularly with election day over two months away. Though the MUD is far from representative of the entire opposition, its stance sets the tone for critical media that are far freer and more influential than commonly believed. And in Venezuela, this hope is more than a warm fuzzy feeling, as it can serve to assure Maduro voters direly dependent on the benefits of political patronage that supporting an alternative candidate represents a risk worth taking. MUD backing is also crucial in terms of the final barrier to popular hope and participation: fear of electoral fraud. One of Falcon’s conditions for running was that the process would follow the same standards as 2012 and 2015 elections, with every step open to international observers.
It’s time to diversify and decolonise our schools’ reading lists
Recently, a Duluth school district in Minnesota decided to drop Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” from its required reading list because of the books’ use of the n-word (The books will remain on a list that students have the option of reading). While this is an important step in the right direction, it barely scratches the surface of a more deeply troubling issue. Many white-authored classics are racist and damaging to students of colour, and their usage of racial slurs is merely the tip of the iceberg for why texts such as these should be left off of literature syllabi. Both “Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” incorporate the common white-saviour/”magical negro or native” trope whereby indigenous, brown and black characters exist as mere devices to help white characters attain moral enlightenment. Jim in “Huck Finn” and Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” like other indigenous, black and brown characters in the predominantly white-authored literary canon, are flat and grossly stereotypical. They lack their own agency, autonomy and humanity, and exist in deplorable conditions only to be pitied by more vividly drawn white characters, victims whose victimhood is the crux of the frequently employed white saviour plot. The more helpless these characters are, the greater, more courageous, more impressive the white saviour’s rescue seems. Some critics argue that the Duluth school district’s decision was a mistake because “Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” teach students about racism. This is only the case, of course, if by “students” we mean white students. Indigenous, brown and black students don’t learn anything about racism written from the oppressor’s point of view, and the portrayal of such flagrant racism hardly reflects the reality of what many indigenous and students of colour endure in their daily lives. Instead, white savior books reinforce the extremely demeaning and derogatory notion that indigenous, black, and brown people exist only to serve the needs, goals and aspirations of white people – which when read could increase students.