The humble mayor

“The street gives you strength. It pressures the other guy.”

As he says this, David Smolansky is looking at me as if I’m an idiot.

I’ve just asked him why he thinks “the street” is so important. Haven’t we been out in the streets for the better part of fifteen years now? What have we accomplished? Is it not possible that Venezuelan politicians use “the street” as shorthand?

He keeps insisting. “The street also gives you credibility in the media.” As he is saying this, the slit in his Slavic eyes gets paper thin.

I double down.

“But … in other countries, politics is not always done from the street. Sometimes, small gatherings are better to reach the public and establish a narrative.”

No, he insists, without the pressure from the street you can’t get anything done in Venezuela.

Even though he is repeating what to me sounds like a tautology, I know I’ve got him thinking.

————–

I am sharing a pizza with Smolansky, the mayor of the Caracas suburb of El Hatillo. Outside, the temperature is below freezing. Venezuela and its chaos seem worlds away.

During our dinner, David shared with me his story – from erstwhile student leader to becoming one of the nation’s youngest mayors.

His journey began as a journalism student, way back in 2007. When RCTV was shut down, David was one of the leaders of the movement that, in his words, “gave the government its only electoral defeat to date.”

“I remember the feeling of powerlessness over RCTV. As journalism students, we felt an urgent need to act.”

One of their first events was “Acostados por la vida,” a protest spurred by the murder of the Faddoul brothers. Students would lie down in the streets as dead bodies, their silhouettes marked against the pavement resembling victims. The event created a stir.

After this, the students were at the forefront of the protest movement, with each innovative step gaining more and more credibility. One day they were protesting in the Metro or on street corners. The other day they were painting their palms in white.

Chávez was caught off guard.

“One of Hugo Chávez’s few political mistakes was to label us as rich kids. He said that nobody would listen to us, that the hills were not going to come down because of our protests. He completely underestimated the student movement that year.”

The opposition won that year, in spite of Jorge Rodríguez not wanting to concede. David remembers that General Raúl Baduel spoke to the students during the tense hours after the polls closed, and he was a significant factor in convincing chavismo to concede. He thinks this perceived betrayal to the cause is the reason why Baduel sits in prison to this day.

After the success of 2007, the students were euphoric, but they came crashing down quickly. “I remember the reception we got in the UCAB Aula Magna … We were heroes. Thousands of students were applauding our efforts. But the next day, I was sitting down for a test.”

As David tells it, the student movement was gripped by a strong sense of “what now?” Politicians did not know what to do with them, and they could not really capitalize on their success. They had to move on with their lives.

Still, when Hugo Chávez surprisingly called for a new referendum in late 2008 to approve, among other things, indefinite reelection, established politicians turned to the student movement once again to spearhead the campaign. The government was not caught off guard this time. “That campaign, with all its dirty tricks, with the unfairness of its timing, was the most unfair election we have participated in. Worse than any other.”

David recalls this with more than a hint of bitterness. “Regional elections had just ended, and political parties were exhausted, depleted. Many of the leaders from 2007 had moved on, but I was younger, and I was still in school. It fell on me and a few others to try and defeat the government. This time, we were not successful, in part because Chávez said that anyone could be “indefinitely reelected.” This gave a powerful incentive to many in the opposition to not support the opposition’s campaign. Chávez threw them a bone.”

It fell on Smolansky to announce to the country that we had been defeated. Nobody from political parties reached out to him. The only one … was Leopoldo López.

Smolansky speaks warmly about Leopoldo, and it’s not surprising. I ask him to tell me something about Leopoldo that few people know. Smolansky stops to think.

“He’s a very unemotional guy sometimes. When you’re in a meeting with him, it’s mostly business. But the one time I have seen him get choked up … was when his daughter was born. I think fatherhood, and now jail, have changed him. Softened him even.”

“In spite of what’s written about him, he’s a team player. Leopoldo really likes it when you talk straight to him. He doesn’t hold grudges, and he turns the page quickly. I really miss talking to him and getting his feedback about my work in the Alcaldía.

What about Capriles?

David strikes a diplomatic tone, yet the undertow of past battles with his mentor’s rival is clearly visible. “He’s an incredibly hard worker, a very disciplined politician. He is also somebody who knows his own weaknesses, who understands himself very well. That is a rare quality.”

I ask him how he views his role inside the opposition.

“I have great relations with Aveledo and his team. The way I see it, I can serve as a bridge between the MUD and Voluntad Popular.” (A few weeks later, Capriles met with Smolansky and the rest of the VP team as part of the rapprochement between the two factions)

The conversation is getting long and I ask him what he thinks is the most valuable quality a Venezuelan politician should have.

He pauses, and thinks.

“Humility.”

Whoa … a Venezuelan politician speaking of humility?

“There is so much I have yet to learn. Even in this conference, I’m learning so much. I’m learning from talking to you tonight.”

“I learned the value of humility early on. In 2007, many of us students let success get to our head. Imagine, being the big guy on campus, defeating chavismo… Then, 2009 came. After our defeat, nobody at the UCAB was there to receive us, nobody was there. That sort of thing keeps you grounded.”

“In politics, it’s important to know your limitations. One day you’re the toast of the town, the next day you’re nobody. It’s not easy, but you need to see yourself in other people, to acknowledge your rival, your ally, your team. That is the one thing that will give you the strength to face up to these enormous responsibilities.”

———

Saint Teresa of Ávila once said that humility means “traveling in truth.” Humility is a virtue because it is grounded in truth. The humble sees himself as he is, warts and all, and does not imagine himself as something other than what he really is – a flawed person, somebody who is eventually going to die and few will remember, someone who needs redeeming.

In spite of his successes, Smolansky struck me as a person who tries to live in truth, an accessible public servant who doesn’t see himself in a different light just because he’s succeeded in the cutthroat world of opposition politics.

As the country faces a crossroad –  who are we? where do we want to go? how do we get there? are we willing to make the sacrifices needed to amend the path? – it is reassuring to find politicians who seemingly value this rarest of qualities.

34 thoughts on “The humble mayor

  1. This is a really nice piece. I personally disimissed Smolansky during his mayoral campaign, but so far he seems to have done a good job.

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  2. I’m actually from el Penon, though I have vague recollections of David (also, I was a year older).

    I remember talking to him briefly during the 2009 referendum campaign. It was after a debate held at USB between oppo students and chavistas. The chavistas brought a small crowd of 10-20 supporters who were very loud during the whole debate and were trying to provoke the rest of the audience. They would boo at David and his teammates and go bananas whenever chavistas used any of their hackneyed slogans.

    It was painful to see how David was trying to be reasonable saying things along the lines of “I’m not right wing, I actually support some of Chavez’s social plans etc (…) I just think it’s bad for a democracy to get rid of term limits”. Meanwhile, all arguments by chavista students circled around the oppo students being pro neo-liberalism (“But you guys campaign with Ledezma, Ledezma was one of the perpetrators of the Caracazo genocide, (…) you guys don’t want reeleccion so you can get to the presidency to reprimir al pueblo”).

    It became pretty obvious to me the student movement did not have much guidance from political parties. That’s why I was quite shocked Smolansky was in charge of delivering the speech after the defeat (I couldn’t find the video on youtube)

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    • “I’m not right wing, i support chavez’s policies”, the eternal “right wing is bad, left is good” dualism.

      That’s why oppo will never rise to power. They can’t STAND by their own beliefs. They need to use Chavez’s system and pinky swear they will do it “right” this time. They are deeply afraid of being tagged as “rightists” and “Liberals”.

      Chavistas do not suffer from that. If they have an idea -doesn’t matter how nuts such idea is- they will stand by it. “Rodilla en tierra”.

      Consistency could be a dogma to preach inside opposition.

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      • “A Communist is a socialist in a hurry” John Birch Society

        What have 54 years of Socialism, and the last 14 of Communism gotten Venezuela?
        food lines and a bankrupt country, and people still think a well run socialist country is the
        answer for Venezuela.

        The fastest growth in Venezuela’s history (Venezuela in the 50’s was the China of the world)
        was under Marcos Pérez Jiménez,

        “If at 20 your not a socialist, you don’t have a heart, if at forty your still a socialist
        you don’t have a brain” Winston Churchill

        HRC is a “socialist technocrat” he thinks he can be a “Better Chavez” a more efficient
        socialist, but not a communist in a hurry. he will fail because he has the Venezuelan
        infatuation with socialism.

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        • Hi albinboy,

          I live in a socialist country, and it works amazingly. I can’t really buy what you say because, well, reality doesn’t fit with your ramblings.

          As a matter of fact, every time I visit the US I get depressed, just watching how unequal and ugly everything is down there. Here children have more opportunity to succeed, better healthcare, better education and better food than in the US. Not to mention no guns, no crime, no rubbish telly, no church… It is surpassingly nice, socialism.

          You have a few facts extremely wrong. Venezuela was never the “China of the world”. It never was a manufacturing economy, or a military power, or had the economic weight China has today by any measure.

          The highest GDP growth rate lasted quite a bit longer than 1958.

          This is something I have said to a few here: Venezuela is not a model for anything, not even the battleground between competing visions of the world (as in, right vs left, or capitalism vs socialism). Lift your eyes and see that there is a measure of socialism everywhere and it has been enormously successful.

          The current regime in Venezuela is not socialist, not communist, not anything. It’s just a gang hanging on to power.

          PS: isn’t the John Birch Society a bunch of nutcases, racists, survivalists and fruitcakes?

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          • Venezuela had the highest growth rate in the world in the 50’s that was my comparison, as does China today.
            .
            “The current regime in Venezuela is not socialist, not communist, not anything. It’s just a gang hanging on to power”

            Isn’t that what Communism is all about? Starlin was a bank robber before becoming a communist.

            Socialism exists to varying degrees in many countries around the world, but carried on the back of the of the capitalist part of the economy that makes it possible, or the natural resources of the country that provides a backstop.

            By your use of the word “telly” I take it you are from the UK, in the 70,s The UK was broke, the government owned everything Phone company, Railroad, Gas, electric , water, British Airways,
            British steel, Ports, Car companies, etc, now even the Post office is privatized, all thanks to Marget Thatcher, who’s policies have been continued by every government since. and now the UK is set to have the largest economy in Europe!

            Or maybe your from Canada, that has the second highest number of illegal immigrants living in the US after Mexico.

            Elon Musk, “space X Tesla Etc, with his Canadian passport (from his Mother)
            went to the US to be rich, not Canada.

            As for “Guns” the rich an powerful in every country have access to guns, in the US
            a poor man has a right to have a guns to protect himself as much a anybody.,
            that’s why its in the constitution, because the British masters only allowed the Lords an their
            Friends guns.

            Every year over 50 toddlers drown falling into buckets of water, in the US,
            should we ban buckets ?

            As for the name “John Birch” he was the first American to die in
            the Korean War, fighting Communism.

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  3. Good picture. However, very depressed at the quality of our politicians. With such politicians, I guess we will never be able to stop our never ending decadent process. I just wonder, besides organising rallies, throwing rocks and holding meetings between each other, has any of these so called “new generation” of politicians actually hold any position where they had to be productive? Yes, as in productivity in business. How can we ask these people to run political organisations, let alone a country, when they never even manage a lemonade stand? What is the experience of these politicians? What have they achieved? Do they have any clue how run an economy relying mainly on natural resources? If so, how did they get this experience? When? Why do they all go straight from universities straight to politics? Until these questions have the right answers, there won’t ever be a critical mass
    that can defeat the govt. These politicians fail to articulate ideas and execute. Not surprising given their lack of experience. And what did they go and do? Talk to old opposition politicians, being the “bridge”. Ha… Bridge between what!? Bridge between “cascarones vacios”. What for?
    Mediocre politicians = mediocre results

    Don’t fool yourselves, less bad than the govt. doesn’t mean good.

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      • Maturity requires that we forego any illusion of instant self taught omnicompetence and perfection in any human being no matter how well intentioned , what we can aspire to is to scape the rule of the worse , the rule of the absolutely ignorant haughty self righteous sectarian who thinks tnat confrontation and destruction of all of the achievements of the past , must serve as the absolute raison de etre of their efforts . Not commonly known or advertised is that behind the public speeches and sometimes overly discreet announcement of the oppo leaders there are expert teams on all sort of fields who have a prepared guideline of what has to be done to returns rationality to public governance . Humility is what we have been missing the most in Chavismo , Chavez was an ignorant pretentious conceited hubristic know it all whose imbecile decisions have one by one fraught the ruin of a once prosperous country . I personally know of so many that the regime keeps quiet that I am tempted to write a book or pamphlet about them . He could do no wrong , he was both omniscient and infallible , overbearingly conceited , every decision passed through him and he imprinted on each decision his own brand of ineptness. Ive talked to experts from inside the whale who inform me that not once were their views and recommendations heard when the top bigwig was about to take policy decisions , that always his own self conceited impulses guided his decisions , no matter how absurd.

        Borges once wrote an unkind thing about the spanish character , he intimated that they were not always the most intellectually gifted of men , and he based this idea in the fact that the were always so cocky sure of themselves , so opinionated and ‘aplomados’ in the way they advertised their opinions .He believed that smart men were always very aware of the fragility of human reasoning capabilities and wary of being too sanguine about adopting opinions that carried an unintended element of oversight or error .

        I hope that in future all those who assumme the mantle of public authority are modest and cautious in what they do and practice the virtue of humility , of thinking that its too easy to err , that the wise man is one who doenst take overweening pride in being always right or in denigrating other men for not thinking like them.

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        • Politicians should have their own form of the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”

          I agree that humility and caution are positive attributes in politicians. However, they should also have a solid and principled foundation upon which they can formulate public policy.

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  4. Maduro reminds me of the play “Wit”, a story of a Professor dying of terminal cancer, philosophizing about life and death, until the her very last moments when all her pretentious euphemisms become stunningly irrelevant! Such will be so before the death of Chavism!

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  5. Major in one of the two wealthiest municipalities in all of Venezuela says one needs to be humble.
    Blogger is profoundly impressed by the vision, the scope, the character.
    I am moved to tears.
    Estamos jodidos.

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    • Bueno, ellos van a tener patria también en España. Habrá que ver que tanto los dejar destruir los Españoles si llegan al poder

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  6. Dear Blogger,

    You proposed “we all” benefited from government mismanagement in some measure. Well, I didn’t and, I would argue, almost no one in Venezuela did, since in the end the population has paid more than they received in subsidies.

    BUT here you go, I just posted an example of someone who actually did benefit in real terms. PODEMOS in Spain. I think you have blogged about them before.

    I dare say, if you add up all the money spent in fellow travellers, conferences and other amenities you will end up explaining where a few million went.

    In any case, you see why it is difficult to see your point. Even if I strain my eyes, all I can see is electoral pork barrel disguised as cheap air tickets and subsidised maize dough.

    Changing subject: congratulations for finding a normal human being (as in, with self-doubt and concious of the need to learn and listen) working as a politician in Venezuela, I thought they were extinct.

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  7. Kudos to Juan, the optimistic-whether-you-want-it-or-not writer! branding resonated with me.

    Kudos to David, a leader that went for it, and seems to be learning as he goes! his vision and values seem to be well better alligned that the incumbents,

    ….I do not see it as a pitfall, better than the government is that, better!

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  8. Good interview, Juan. But if I may suggest, you want to avoid such descriptions as “the slit in his Slavic eyes gets paper thin”. (Awful! Reminds me of the dreadful comment from UK’s Prince Philip to British expatriates in HongKong, about the risk of developing slitty eyes.) You might also want to rethink references to mystics who engaged in self-flagellation and reported hallucinations. I’m talkin’ about St. Theresa of Avila. I mean, it’s heartwarming to know that, throughout the ages, religious orders have provided shelter to people who are not balanced but have great contributions. But let’s face it, would you use these same individuals as shining examples to follow, when describing political gutters? No sé, digo yo.

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    • St Theresa of Avila was far from unbalanced Syd. Sorry you dislike religious references (not the first time you react aginst them) but I’m not going to refrain.

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      • sorry, Juan, but I shy away from following anyone who espouses self-flagellation, raptures and levitations. I mean if those behavioural preferences are not harming anyone, then why not follow that mode of behaviour, if that’s your thing. But please, if you’re trying to sell that as balanced practice, don’t count on me. And in case you need to tar and feather to justify your use of religious philosophy in your political expositions, how about including others on this board that have also reacted against the religious slip-ins?

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  9. 2015 started very badly to South American Chavistas.

    Brazil: massive power failure (3 million people affected) followed by very impopular economic policies being enacted. The president disappeared, no one knows where she is. 21 days since her last interview.

    Argentina: “The most delicate political moment faced by Kirchnerism in more than a decade in office”
    http://en.mercopress.com/2015/01/21/amia-nisman-a-situation-of-unpredictable-consequences-says-rosendo-fraga

    Venezuela: Chavismo facing its last days.

    2015 will be a great year, and we are still in the first month!!!

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    • With all that hydroelectric power, not to mention Bolivian natural gas available, and there are power failures? But considering the corruption scandals in Petrobras, one should not be so surprised at the power failures. Did power pricing keep pace with cost, or is electric power a freebie in Brazil like gasoline is in Venezuela?

      Regarding Evita III’s current problems- couldn’t happen to a more deserving person.

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      • “With all that hydroelectric power, not to mention Bolivian natural gas available, and there are power failures?”

        All that hydroelectric power is not enough anymore, new dams and transmission lines are necessary. I don’t know if you can understand Portuguese, but there’s a summary in this link below about what should already be online, yet are not due to delays and the usual good old socialist incompetence.

        http://g1.globo.com/bom-dia-brasil/noticia/2015/01/pelo-menos-35-das-obras-de-geracao-de-energia-estao-atrasadas.html

        “But considering the corruption scandals in Petrobras, one should not be so surprised at the power failures”

        Sure, because the same party ruling Petrobras also rules everything else.

        “Did power pricing keep pace with cost, or is electric power a freebie in Brazil like gasoline is in Venezuela?”

        It used to be normal, but in 2013 our beloved president tried to be “unorthodox”, scaring away private investment and making the country more vulnerable to blackouts.

        http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-02-07/brazils-cheaper-electricity-comes-at-a-cost

        “Regarding Evita III’s current problems- couldn’t happen to a more deserving person.”

        I couldn’t agree more.

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        • In Venezuela the deficiency in the production of electrical power wasnt about the money, it was the result of pure govt neglect . Even if the rates were a joke and the relevant govt agency did nothing to collect them there was money from the oil boom to pay for the investment needed to keep up with growing electrical demand .

          Towards the end of the 90´s it was generally known that existing power plants/grid would need to be repaired , upgraded or expanded to keep up with rising demand , the plans were there , the scheduling was there . People in the business expected these plans to be executed but years passed and nothing happened , they just had their mind on other stuff , winnning endles elections for the dear departed leader to feed his hungry ego. , then the crisis erupted and we begun having brown outs , black outs and whats worse irreparable damage was done to Guayana installations as the govt ordered them shut down to keep the electricity flowing in the big cities . this was criminal !! Ever since they have been playing catch up paying thru the nose because when you do things on an emergency basis the resultant chaos in the procurement and contracting of new facilities make fraud easy and costs rise exhorbitantly . Much more than if investments had been done on time. Climatic conditions now have made things worse but they would have been more manageable if the plans had been prosecuted on time .

          The problem is not just leaders who are despotic and power obsessed and who play with demagoguic measures but the fact that they are so INCOMPETENT at doing the basic tasks of government .

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        • Thanks for the detailed reply. I will muddle through the Portuguese, and what I don’t get, Google Translate will help. In my limited contact with Brazilians, I found I was able to ma’ or meno’ understand and be understood. I had a TA from Brazil in a Computer Science class, and we were able to communicate pretty well via my Spanish and his Portuguese. Whereas the language as spoken in Portugal is more difficult. I can catch about one word out of five of Amalia Rodrigues’s singing.

          Regarding electricity pricing, it seems to me that 15 cents/kwh was a little high, especially since Brazil has so much hydroelectric, which should be cheaper, as there are no fuel costs. As such, I don’t see it was necessarily such a bad thing to reduce the price. I suspect that the 15cents/kwh price reflected some graft. I also suspect that Brazil shares with Venezuela the problem of users tapping into lines without paying. At least Brazil’s electricity charges, whether the old 15c/kwh or the new 12 c/kwh, are more rational than the Venezuelan policy of not raising electric rates for years and years, in spite of high inflation. The main reason the Venezuelan electric system couldn’t increase its capacity as planned was that it was starved for revenue.

          Back in 2010, when the Guri reservoir had drought issues, there were a lot of good articles here and at Devil’s Excrement, and Venezuela News and Views on the electrical issue. Web data on electrical generation is no longer available.

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  10. humility and consistency.

    march 2014

    Yesterday
    “…Los rectores del CNE también aprobaron la solicitud presentada por Alejandro Plaz para que el organismo comicial preste apoyo técnico y logístico al partido Voluntad Popular en la realización de sus elecciones internas para la escogencia de las autoridades de esa organización…”

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  11. “Humility is not thinking less of one self, it is thinking less about one self.”
    Don’t remember exactly who said this, but I think it applies. The concept of humilidity in Venezuela tends to get muddled up with self pity and inflating ones ego with comments such as ‘I come from this side of town, there for I’ve had the hardest life and am thus superior.’

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  12. I must say I had the chance to dine with David early on in January in El Hatillo, and was totally inspired by his attitude, team, and results. From all the people I met in Caracas, he was one of the few not playing the victim role. I, and some other scholars visiting Venezuela those days, came out inspired from that dinner. Not a very common feeling in Caracas nowadays.

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