It isn’t easy fighting a dictator. Few jobs are harder than being a member of the political opposition in an authoritarian country. Your rallies and marches are banned or disrupted. You have virtually no opportunity to communicate your message on national television. The voting rules are consistently revised to stack the odds against you. The regime creates clone opposition parties that crowd you out at election time. Your most popular candidates are either forbidden from running for office or occupied fighting trumped-up charges in courtrooms, keeping them off the campaign trail. Supporters are intimidated and, in the worst cases, silenced.
So it almost feels unfair to criticize those who take up the mantle of being the opposition in countries where the job is nothing short of herculean. And yet, if they are going to take up this cause, if they are to be the best alternative to an authoritarian, they have a duty to go about their work seriously. I remember feeling this way when I met Rifaat Said, one of the leaders of Tagammu, a leftist secular party in Egypt, in 2006. For years, Said was comfortable bartering with Mubarak for a handful of parliament seats here or there. His party, like most of the opposition parties in Egypt before 2011, had become part of the scenery. He bragged to me that Mubarak’s government provided him with a security detail. If that didn’t show how someone could be co-opted, what could?
Similar complaints can be leveled at opposition parties in many places. One of the freshest examples comes from Venezuela. The political opposition there is gearing up for the fight of a lifetime next year, when a strong but weakened President Hugo Chavez will seek to renew his mandate at the polls. The opposition parties scored a big victory in legislative elections last September, but it is a different ballgame when Chavez’s name is on the ballot. With crime at epidemic levels, one of the world’s highest levels of inflation, rolling blackouts — which is an incredible feat for an energy rich state — and crumbling infrastructure, it would seem Chavez would be vulnerable. It is getting harder to blame the problems on his opponents or the old order when Chavez has had full command of the country for 11 years. Still, the question remains: Will the Venezuelan opposition defeat itself?
An analysis in a U.S. diplomatic cable, made available by Wikileaks, puts it plainly. The cable opens by saying, “Accion Democratica, Venezuela’s largest opposition party, is going nowhere fast. Its leader, secretary general Henry Ramos Allup, is unimaginative, overconfident, and even repellent.” The diplomatic memo goes on to say that one of the party’s chief preoccupations has been hounding the U.S. Embassy for favors or funds. It showed much less interest in unifying the opposition around a single candidate to challenge Chavez, let alone connecting with the majority of the Venezuelan poor. Of course, Chavez may have never come to power had Venezuela’s democracy not been run into the ground by members of that old order. It should hardly be a surprise that those same people help to keep him in power through their fecklessness and vanity.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that Venezuela’s opposition also has a new generation of politicians who appear to be much more intelligent, far-sighted and savvy than many members of the old guard. In recent years, they have made slowly made advances, cobbling together victories in mayoral, state and now legislative races. The names are people like Henrique Capriles, Carlos Ocariz, Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina. In my meetings with them and others, this younger generation of leaders showed a clear-eyed understanding of what has hobbled the opposition in the past and what it will take to get their country back. “Until a year ago, people were asking, ‘What opposition leaders?’ ” Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of Tal Cual, a respected opposition newspaper, told me. “Today, you find the names. Of course, they are young, but after 11 years of Chavismo, they are veterans.”
The old guard still exerts plenty of influence. This week they announced that opposition party primaries would not be held until next February — a foolish decision that will give their eventual candidate very little time to build national support against Chavez ahead of the election. Nevertheless, the broader signs are encouraging: The Venezuelan opposition is growing up. This generational shift can’t happen fast enough, because it’s the only way that Chavez will face a worthy opponent, and the people of Venezuela will be able to vote for the opposition they deserve.