It’s a rainy Caracas afternoon. Outside, the city begins to process the results of the recent mayoral elections that left the opposition dazed and confused. But the mood at Voluntad Popular headquarters is exultant. Years of tough political work have paid off with a number of mayoral positions for the young party, some in key districts.
In the midst of this resaca, Leopoldo López – founder of the party, former mayor of Chacao, former presidential contender, and sometimes enfant terrible of the opposition movement – sat down for an exclusive interview with Caracas Chronicles.
Leopoldo combines the physicality of a jock and the sharp brain of a public policy nerd. His energy and intensity can be infectious, but to some it can seem off-putting – too alpha-male for a society that doesn’t take easily to overachievers.
The conversation veered from how his party found its niche (more on that in a later post), to what the opposition must do now. With regards to the second topic, I ask him how the opposition plans to manage the coming economic crap storm.
“Basically, we need to build a dam around us … so that the debacle goes straight to the government.”
The answer throws me off a little. “Building a dam” basically suggests that the opposition, the Empire, capitalism … all of these will be blamed for the crisis. We will have to actively convince people … that the economic crisis is the government’s fault! Communicational hegemony has become so deeply embedded that even the obvious is in need of stressing.
We shift to talking about strategy.
“I have no doubt that if Henrique had taken the streets following April 14th, like many of us advised him to do, he would be President right now.”
Leopoldo’s talking points, which he has been repeating nonstop, sound like a battle cry for the opposition leadership. He thinks we won the April election and we weren’t prepared to defend our victory. As he keeps repeating, the strategy from now on should be a combination of street protests and elections, “calle y voto.”
To some, this means the knives are out, but he doesn’t see it that way. He and Capriles have not become enemies. He is asking for an honest, “humble” assessment of where we are and where we go from here. He clearly believes elections have consequences, and that December 8th should be no exception.
That is where he is now, in the tricky place where one recognizes Capriles’ many talents but does not shy away from criticism. He thinks the time is ripe for a debate on the right strategy moving forward, what with no elections on the horizon.
I tell him that, of the main opposition figureheads, he seems like the one who understands the country best, like the one who has thought about the issues more clearly. Does he feel the dynamic in the last few years has prevented him from engaging in a battle of ideas? Is he afraid to criticize others for the sake of unity? Is he scared to reveal himself as the smartest kid in the room?
He pauses, and squints. “I think the electoral dynamic the MUD has been trapped in for the past few years … has made it very difficult to have a real debate.”
Concerned over the possibility of being labeled an “attack dog” or coming across as overly wonky, he felt the need to dumb down the rhetoric. It’s obvious he has been hamstrung by what he considers an ill-gotten reputation for not being a team player, something he claims was part of a pre-meditated campaign to get him off the game.
That seems in the past, though. He stresses the need to lose our fear of debating ideas. Aside from his op-eds on oil, he wants to debate other issues: crime, mostly, as well as broader economic issues.
Of all the strategy options on the table, López is a firm believer in the Constitutional Assembly. There are four other options in the Constitution: resignation, constitutional reform, constitutional amendment, and a recall referendum. López prefers the all-powerful Constitutional Assembly.
The advantage, he says, is that a Constitutional Assembly is better equipped to survive anything chavismo might throw our way. It’s a goal that stands the test of the contingency. It’s also, he says, the best tool we have to unify the country. And finally, it is the only of the options that lets the majority revamp the country’s downtrodden institutions.
How will we make it? He says with current levels of voter participation and volunteerism we can collect 30 percent of the voter registry, double the amount required to trigger a Constitutional Assembly referendum. As for winning the Assembly, we are obviously not there yet, but he suggests the proverbial “dam” linking the looming crisis to the government might be enough.
In spite of his obvious disdain for the government, he is no radical, admitting there are elements within chavismo that we need to talk to and bring to our side, people that are an integral part of the system but whose interests can be better served by a transition. I was quickly reminded of Quico’s “suit up” strategy.
Alarmed, he warns against elements within the opposition that are getting used to the idea of living with Maduro until 2019, something he rejects outright. “It wouldn’t be right. The struggle against poverty, against drug smuggling, against irregular groups tearing into the fabric of our country … can’t wait six more years. It would be immoral to not do all we can right now.”
The gist, I tell him, is forging a consensus around this idea. Is your relationship with the rest of the opposition strong enough to withstand this debate?
He is almost surprised to hear me suggest this, as if it had never crossed his mind. Si vale, unity will be preserved. “We need to find a consensus on the strategy, and we will.”
Leopoldo is a complicated figure. Just as you’re tempted to dismiss him for his success and accompanying hubris, you are reminded of the real struggles he has gone through – namely, his being disqualified from political office without a fair trial. And lest you be tempted into thinking it has all been too easy for him, you learn, as I did, of the many days and nights courting voters in places like Elorza and Caripe.
Now, with significant political capital, and with an opposition in flux, he appears liberated, free to speak his mind and engage his allies in a spirited debate. In spite of the significant challenge he faces in convincing the rest of the opposition that his strategy is the right one, he has the wind in his back.
The next few months will show to what extent he is able to forge a new consensus around what he calls “a very changed MUD” … and whether he can do so without leaving too many scars along the way.