I’m sitting in a small conference room in e basement of a. Santiago hotel. A delicate breakfast is placed before me, and thirty people are gathered for an intimate conference on Venezuela. The attendees include former Chilean Cabinet members, members of the military, and powerful businessmen. The air is staid and the coffee may be bland, but the chemistry in the room changes as Maria Corina Machado enters.
She makes her way in, personally greeting all the guests. I guess this is what pros like to call “working the room.” They have to come to listen to her talk about the Venezuelan crisis, but mostly, they are curious to meet this standout of Venezuela’s opposition. She takes her place, center stage.
It’s my first time listening to Maria Corina live. Charming as she is in person (I picked her up at the airport, and she greeted me with a box of Torontos), I was looking forward to seeing her try to convince a group of skeptical, war-weary, experienced diplomats that our cause was a serious one. I wanted to see if Mario Vargas Llosa – who a few weeks ago described one of her talks as “one of the smartest, most moving political speeches I have ever listened to” – was full of it, or if Maria Corina actually deserved such high praise.
She delivered alright, big time.
Maria Corina touched all the bases. She was smart without being wonky, detailed without being overbearing, and sentimental without being hoakey.
One of the more interesting aspects of her enthralling speech is how every issue – the economy, the election, the violence she suffered at the hands of chavista deputies – is framed in the same way: it’s all a pattern through which a group of people dominates – subdues even – a majority of Venezuelans. Venezuela’s tragedy, she warns, is that the group in power has cut off our freedoms, the freedom of the majority. They are getting away with it, and they rub it in our faces – in her case, literally.
Maria Corina is unequivocal – the opposition is the majority, the election was stolen, Capriles is the President elect, and don’t you dare say otherwise. She does not beat around the bush. She even calmly deflects the obvious questions. When she is pressed about Chávez “caring for the poor,” she says that, indeed, he cared a lot about the poor remaining very poor.
She talks of the disaster that Venezuela’s economy has become, emphasizing how the root cause is the government’s control of Venezuelans’ decisions – again, the meme is control. She talks of government abuse of public resources – mentioning that she witnessed how ambulances and police cars were used for campaign activities – as a way of reminding people they can get away with it. And she included “fear” and – a new term I had not heard – “spiritual control” as the government’s main weapons for holding on to power.
The reaction was enthusiastic. It is hard to say if she was able to change the minds of the skeptical Chileans in the room, but I doubt anybody could have done a better job than this.
Later in the day, we held a meeting with the Venezuelan community in the “Honor Hall” of the old Congress building in downtown Santiago. Accompanied by the gallant Eduardo Gómez Sigala and Carlos Ramos – both of whom gave good speeches – she dispensed with formalities. This was her crowd (she was greeted by a spontaneous chant of “valiente! valiente!”), and she gave them lots of red meat.
Aside from touching on similar topics, she let the emotions run free. She talked of how stirring it was to hear the notes of the “Gloria al Bravo Pueblo” while far away from home, and about how, when she first went back to the National Assembly after getting her nose broken, she felt accompanied by all of us. She framed the struggle as “épica y ética,” saying it was a monumental fight against a petro-state, and as a fight for our very souls and the integrity of the Venezuelan family. Many people openly wept. (This grainy video of the speech does not do it proper justice)
In 1993, I got to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton defend her health care plan at the University of Colorado. It was an unforgettable speech, beautifully structured, full of content and wit. That day Hillary didn’t skip a beat, and the rest, as they say, is history … still in the making. And while I never heard Margaret Thatcher give a speech, I assume her political talent came across as well when you listened to her.
Maria Corina … she’s in the same rhetorical league as those other two ladies. She’s simply that good. Great speakers have a preternatural ability to draw you into their argument. They never bore you, and you never feel like they are improvising. Every word that comes out of their mouths seems like it belongs right there and no place else, leading to the next word almost seamlessly. You don’t see them pulling the strings of an argument, because they are committed to what they are saying. They are consummate performers.
I don’t know how they do it, frankly. As a lecturer, I sometimes phone it in, and my students can tell. But these folks, they are usually “in the zone.” They have “it.”
Maria Corina’s visit was not an easy one. Some of her interviews were tough, and she found her arguments met some stiff resistance. And while she met with sympathetic politicians and presidential candidates, one particular big fish refused to meet her because she was too busy courting radical chavismo.
Obviously, Maria Corina has her shortcomings. She was in her element Friday evening, but less educated crowds will always be a challenge for her. And even though she made good impressions all over, she ran into the same brick wall many beautiful, talented, charismatic women have faced before her – sexist doubts about her abilities. For example, one Chilean I spoke to who is sympathetic to our cause assured me the cast on Maria Corina’s nose was fake, and that it was all a ploy to justify getting plastic surgery.
It’s never going to be easy for Maria Corina, just like it’s never easy for women in powerful positions. Then again, it’s not easy for any of our opposition warriors.
Luckily, Maria Corina has a healthy dose of “it” to help blaze her trail.