Last Friday saw the end of a nasty and self-destructive struggle for supremacy within the opposition coalition for the right to nominate the candidate for the safest opposition seat in the country: the Este-del-Este‘s Miranda Circuit #2.
The outcome was…discomfiting: an AD-Voluntad Popular stitch up that sold Maria Corina Machado down the river in a nasty, vindictive slight that will not easily heal.
That MUD would win this seat was never in doubt: back in 2010, PSUV was on 15% here. The high profile seat is an electoral caramelito for the opposition, and the procedure to choose its candidate there was a prime chance for MUD to showcase its values to the voters, and its chops when it comes to dealing with the inevitable attempts at government sabotage.
This isn’t just about my political mentor getting screwed. (Well, maybe just a little.) It’s bigger than that, though: this is about the soul of MUD.
All along, the question hanging over MUD has been whether the opposition coalition represents a real alternative to a century-long legacy of populist politicking, or if it’s just a thinly veiled continuation of the business-as-usual power brokering of the past. I’ve been pretty close to the beast over the years, and – muy a mi pesar – I tend to go with the latter. Yet as the deadline for filing candidacies neared, whatever minuscule part of me remained untouched by cynicism and dread from past experiences decided to drink the Kool-Aid, and trust that MUD’s back-room negotiators would rise to the occasion and prove us critics wrong. The future of Venezuela, after all, is in their hands.
Not a chance.
Miranda 2 was the place that elected María Corina Machado, staunch critic of the Venezuelan government and leader of the recently formed, unapologetically liberal and officially unrecognized party “Vente Venezuela”, where she got the most votes of any candidate in the 2010 election. For her troubles, she’s faced a wall of animus. She’s been investigated, taunted, threatened, kicked in the face, spied on, politically persecuted, barred from traveling outside the country and unceremoniously ousted from the National Assembly in 2014. Despite repeated attempts to have Vente recognized before the National Electoral Council, Maria Corina’s political party was denied this status. This is why her party does not have a permanent seat on the MUD.
Until 2015, Miranda 2 was a “plurinominal district” – a fancy way of saying it elected It two A.N. members directly instead of the usual one. But CNE needed to stanch the damage this year, so despite having easily twice the population of a usual circuit, Miranda 2 was stripped of one of its two direct seats. When the time came to decide on candidates for 2015, the MUD unanimously agreed that María Corina would run as an incumbent against whatever chavismo placeholder Maduro decided on, and that she, in turn, would decide on her alternate candidate. This, even though María Corina herself asked for primaries to be held in her circuit.
Freddy Guevara is the leader of Leopoldo López´s Voluntad Popular party, a close ally of María Corina’s Vente, ever since the protest movement of 2014. He has held electoral office for close to ten years in the municipality of Caracas, is a senior member of his party, and so he had a solid claim on a “safe” spot that would ensure him, and his party quota, a seat at the A.N. When his initial intention to run as the second candidate in Miranda 2 was quashed when the second seat was eliminated, the MUD offered Freddy an equally surefire candidacy: the second spot on the party-list roster for Miranda, an overwhelmingly opposition-leaning state.
(Quick refresher, Venezuela has a Mixed-member proportional representation voting system, where you vote both for a candidate in your district, like in U.S. congressional elections, and for a party list, like in Israeli elections.)
This is where things start to get dark.
In a machiavellian power-grab, the jurassic and ruthless Acción Democrática (AD) party, led by Henry Ramos Allup, negotiated a back-room deal with Freddy Guevara as a means of securing an extra seat in parliament for AD. Luis Aquiles Moreno, an old-school AD wheeler-dealer with 61 twitter followers and zero name recognition was third on the Miranda list after Primero Justicia´s Julio Borges and VP´s Guevara. Not content with a potentially losing spot on the party list, Moreno lobbied the MUD and convinced Guevara to take the alternate spot on María Corina´s Circuito 2 ticket in addition to his candidacy as 2nd in the Miranda party-list, in clear contradiction to the previous agreement. Machado herself was never told about this.
Banking on the fact that María Corina would get barred from running for office, Moreno´s plan was for Guevara to take over Machado’s candidacy in Miranda 2, effectively making room for Moreno to be bumped up to the No. 2 spot. That No.2 spot is a “puesto salidor” – a safe opposition win that would guarantee him, and Acción Democrática, a seat in Parliament.
For Guevara and AD, this was win-win: Miranda 2 was probably the safest oppo seat in the country, and her candidacy was threatened by well-known threats of inhabilitación. Her spot was basically sold out to Voluntad Popular, a young party whose strong ascent into the national spotlight has been fueled, yes, by Leopoldo´s imprisonment, but also, in part, by its association to Machado during La Salida.
Upon receiving news of her expected inhabilitación – disqualification from running for office – Machado moved quickly to designate Isabel Pereira, a PhD. sociologist with an impeccable, decades-long record of public service from civil society, to take her place as the main candidate in Miranda 2.
This shouldn’t have been controversial: all other MUD candidates who were unjustly barred from running for public office were allowed to designate their alternates. Voluntad Popular leader Leopoldo López, himself a victim of an unjust barring from running for office, sent a letter from his cell in Ramo Verde requesting that Machado be allowed to designate her own substitute, which was publicly read out by his wife, Lilian Tintori. But in the case of María Corina, the deal struck between Freddy Guevara and Acción Democrática stuck somehow.
Days later, MUD Secretary General Chúo Torrealba announced the mortal remains of the Christian-Democratic party known as COPEI would be expelled from the MUD alliance in order to minimize the opposition coalition’s exposure to potential government meddling following its own party-jacking. In the same announcement, he also said that Isabel Pereira, Machado’s choice of replacement, had refused to accept offers of running for office in place of some of the 30+ COPEI candidates that had been excluded from the ballot following the MUD’s decision. Pereira and Machado, in a subsequent press conference, explained that they, on principle, refused to take up an offer that would, in practice, pawn off COPEI’s legitimately allotted candidacies to the highest bidder. (Which is what ended up happening anyway.)
Eventually, the MUD formalized its roster of candidates. AD, a foul-smelling carcass of its long-forgotten glory days now besieged by PR scandals and dubious ties with chavista money, can now boast an additional pretty seat in Parliament held by an unknown operative of shady character and no electoral merit, to the detriment of the Miranda state electorate, Machado´s candidacy, and the MUD’s moral standing. Maria Corina got the royal shaft, and her party got the memo: you are irrelevant to the opposition establishment. Diosdado had a field day, voters got their marching orders, and all is good and set in the land of Unity. As it has always been.
Now, I am not naïve. I am fully aware that, despite the MUD’s terrible image and growing discredit with rank-and-file opposition voters, in today’s context we have no choice but to tolerate a level of centralization in its decision-making. I understand that principled positions have no place in a winner-take-all, all-or-nothing scenario like the one we face. So, to be clear, I’m not calling for a boycott, God knows we’ve had enough of that.
But episodes like the Battle Royale for Miranda 2 show that what we face as an electorate seems less and less like a crossroads and more and more like a dead-end. Because as long as we are forced, in the name of the collective good, to vote for candidates of questionable moral standing, capable of brokering deals that bank on someone’s government-sponsored misfortune in order to advance an individual agenda, we remain accomplices to this country’s decadence.
Yes, Maria Corina got screwed. She’s a formidable figure and she will survive. But the issue goes beyond what is objectively a grave injustice. I know that, relative to the nightmare that Venezuelans live today, divisions within the opposition can seem like petty and pointless afterthoughts. For now, as voters, we might justifiably conclude we have no option but to look the other way: we must win the majority in the National Assembly, come hell or high water. It’s comforting to have a tangible benchmark to once again pin our hopes for a free and democratic Venezuela on.
But, at some point, we will have to take a break from the electoral trap of immediate gratification and face a deeply uncomfortable truth: all those chavista attacks on MUD as just the continuation of 4th republic cogollocratic decision-making in the 21st century are effective because they’re true, damnit. You can chafe all you want at being lectured on democracy by people who wouldn’t know a democracy if one reared up and bit them in the ass, but once you’re done chafing, it will still be true.