12/20/2012 06:04 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Venezuela's Opposition Needs to Confront the CASTRO-phy Facing Us

The results of the Dec. 16 state and gubernatorial elections in Venezuela made grim reading for the country's opposition.

Supporters of President Hugo Chavez won in 20 out of 23 states. And two of the three governorships that the opposition won went to politicians who were previously part of Chavez's circle.

Prior to the elections, the leadership of the MUD, our coalition of opposition parties, announced that if they didn't win at least seven seats, the results could be called a "catastrophe." Well, then, a CASTRO-phy -- and I will shortly explain what I mean by that -- is what we have.

Certain factors take the shine off the Chavista's victory. Turnout was low -- just 53 percent -- which suggests that protest votes took the shape of abstention. By contrast, in the October presidential election, more than 80 percent of those eligible to vote cast ballots, garnering the opposition an impressive 44 percent of the total. The rate of abstention reflects the depressed mood of many voters following the October election. The machinations of the regime, and most of all the lack of clear information about Chavez's health woes, has generated a crisis of trust that will not be easily repaired.

Still, however much we analyze and rationalize, the painful reality is that the opposition suffered a resounding defeat. For that reason, there is no better moment than the present to reassess the opposition's strategy. We can no longer remain in denial.

In particular, we need to focus our message much more clearly. Here, then, are some relevant "talking points:"

  • Does Venezuela belong to the Venezuelan people or to the Cuban regime? This week, a Reuters report observed: "Cuba has staked its economic well-being on the success -- and generosity -- of Chavez's self-declared socialist revolution, much as it did with another former benefactor: the Soviet Union." Thanks to Chavez's misuse of oil, Venezuela's main export, Cuba receives 60 percent of its energy needs at preferential rates. Adds Reuters:

    "In 2011, Venezuela accounted for $8.3 billion of Cuba's $20 billion in foreign trade. It pays Cuba an estimated $6 billion or more annually for the services of 40,000 doctors, nurses and other professionals... Many Cubans expect that if Chavez fades [Vice-President Nicolas] Maduro will win the election, thereby ensuring the continuity of Venezuela's support. but the mere possibility of a major change is nerve-wracking."

  • "Nerve-wracking" as change may be for the Cubans, for Venezuelan democrats, the prospect of a continued status quo jangles the nerves far more. The opposition, therefore, needs to put the question of Cuban dependency upon Venezuela front and center. And it needs to stress that Maduro was not just the choice of Chavez, but also of the co-authors of our CASTRO-phy, Fidel and Raul Castro.
  • The opposition needs to admit that its stance thus far has been too timid. For example, had the opposition firmly insisted that the presidential election be held on the first Sunday of December, as is usual, instead of October, Chavez would have not been able to carry out his health fraud and we would not have been cheated out of a victory.
  • For too long, the opposition has been trying to play Chavez's game better than he does. The presidential election was based on the flawed idea that whoever promised more to the voters -- higher salaries, more public housing, and so forth -- would win. Within these parameters, the election became a public auction, as if the people were asked to sell their votes to the highest bidder. That was never going to work, given the way that Chavez has structured his control of our national resources, and that the majority of his followers genuinely adore the man and are not for sale. Nor does it take into account that Chavez is willing to "deliver" until he bankrupts the country with an already colossal debt (by which time, he might no longer be with us anyway.) Not directly confronting the philosophy and strategy of the Chavez regime proved to be a major mistake.
  • The opposition needs to stop pretending that Venezuela is a conventional country with a bad leader. Chavismo as an ideology and a movement has consumed our society. What is urgently requires is a movement to fire the imagination, in much the same way as the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s did. It needs to gather into a national alliance business people, labor unions, the churches, the universities, the young. And it needs to counter Chavez's talk of "socialism" with a new discourse of liberty and freedom, and a different political and economic model for our society and our people.
  • The opposition cannot restrict itself to elections, which in any case are controlled by a national electoral board that is totally in the hands of Chavez. Participating in elections will not, in itself, restore the separation of legislative and judicial powers broken down by fourteen years of Chavez's rule. Elections will not, by themselves, bring to an end the subordination of our supposedly independent armed forces to the Chavista program; as I wrote recently, our Defense Minister, Diego Molero, now proclaims that our country's armed forces are "committed to the geopolitical aims of the socialist state and at the service of Chavez." This is obviously a dangerous message to all those Venezuelans who reject the socialist state.

Over the last two years, we have seen, especially in the Middle East, the power of street demonstrations. The extra-parliamentary movement I envisage will need to demonstrate its strengths on the streets, at rallies, and in those parts of the media, on and off the internet, that are not under the boot of Chavez. The Egyptian demonstrators in Tahrir Square have resisted the slide of their country into Islamism. In our case, the challenge is to resist the slide into communism, which will turn Venezuela into a regional threat, especially when you consider the Chavez regime's alignment with some of the world's ugliest regimes and its involvement with criminal activities like the international trade in narcotics.

I will also make a prediction: An election held in the immediate aftermath of Chavez's death will not be won by the opposition. Chavez's successors will cajole and press the people into voting in honor of Chavez's memory.

However, if the opposition acknowledges the mammoth task ahead, and doesn't squander its resources on an electoral fight it cannot win, then we can reasonably hope for two results: firstly, an opposition movement that takes human freedom as its point of departure, and secondly, an opposition movement that is equipped to transform the Chavista state, which is based on fear, into a democratic state that cherishes the right of every individual to express his or her conscience freely.