Florentino, the Devil, and the opposition

Last night was the closing of the referendum campaign. It closed with huge marches of the opposition and the chavistas. They say the opposition march was the biggest ever — one estimate I heard, from a journalist who was at the Madrid demonstrations around March 11, is over 500,000 people. More, he said, than any opposition march, ever, including the “national strike” of last year and the coup the year before. I cannot verify that, as I was not there. I was, however, at the “No” rally.

That rally was also huge, and I got there late, as people were already leaving. I am not very talented at guessing numbers of people. But there were hundreds of thousands as well, though not as many as at the massive march last Sunday. For a flavour of the “No” rally {it is always hard to know what to call the different groups. The opposition calls the chavistas “oficialismo”, the chavistas call the opposition “escualidos” or “golpistas”} it is necessary to discuss the famous local legend of Florentino and the Devil, which is the story the Chavistas have been using since the referendum was announced. There is even a feature movie coming out with the title: “A battle between good and evil in the plains”, is the byline.

Florentino y El Diablo

Chavez resurrected this local legend after the referendum was announced. The story goes as follows. There is a local music on the plains, based on improvisation, and musicians play a kind of competitive game, a kind of call-and-answer game. In the game, the one who gets the last word and stumps the other, wins. It is like rap, based on lyrical skill and improvisation. The champion of this game was Florentino. One day the Devil came along and challenged Florentino to a game, I think for the soul of Florentino. The one who got the last word as the sun rose would win. And there is a whole song that tells the story, with lyrics for both parts. In the end, Florentino won, of course. So Chavez says, he is like Florentino, the opposition — or the US, as you like — is the Devil, and he will have the last word.

So, yesterday at the party, this music, Florentino and the Devil was the recurring theme, and variations of it and the song were sung, including various musicians doing the call-and-answer with Chavez himself. There were other jokes too… Chavez ripping open his shirt to reveal a big “NO” T-shirt underneath. It was a very festive atmosphere — as the “Si” march also appeared to be, from television and second-hand reports that I have heard — people were dancing, drinking, listening to the music. The beer to be had — Polar, owned by Mendoza, one of the wealthiest families of Venezuela, a member of which {Enrique} is governor of the state of Miranda and leader of the opposition Coordinadora Democratica. The alternative beer, if you want to drink it — Regional, owned by Gustavo Cisneros, the wealthiest man in Venezuela, and one of the main leaders of the opposition. It is not easy to escape enriching the elite, even at a “No” rally.

The Opposition Press Conference

I tried to rectify my non-attendance at the “Si” rally by going to the Coordinadora Democratica press conference this morning. A nice neighbourhood, certainly. A very nice social club setting. And, for the most part, a different set of media than were at Miraflores yesterday. The speaker: the aforementioned Enrique Mendoza.

Interesting stuff. He registered protest with much that the government was doing. There were “hostile attitudes”, for example. International observers reported, in private meetings with the opposition of course, that their work was being “blocked”. How, specifically, he was asked. Well, he could not say specifically, out of respect for the “privacy” of the observers, who expressed worry that they might be kicked out and decided not to complain publicly, the most important thing being that they stay in the country. There are up to two million Venezuelans who will not use the voting machines but will vote with ballots, and Mendoza is worried that these ballots will be used to track voters and intimidate them. There are people who signed to bring the referendum about who now appear to be dead — he did not actually say whether or not they really were dead when they signed, something that seems to have happened — and others are getting “the runaround” from the electoral authorities. He thanked the Carter center and the OAS profusely, several times, noting that without their intervention we would not have gotten to the point we are at. In spite of all these government actions, Mendoza said, he was absolutely sure that the opposition would win.

The question and answer period was interesting as well. A Swiss journalist asked if the opposition could govern within the framework of the constitution or whether they would seek changes if they were in government. Mendoza said no, they would work with the constitution. A Brazilian journalist asked if the opposition would dialogue with Chavez. Mendoza said that a condition of dialogue was that Chavez release the sixty political prisoners — these, presumably, are people imprisoned for their role in the coup of 2002. Picking up where Chavez left off yesterday, another journalist asked about all the Wall Street confidence in Chavez. Did the opposition also have the confidence of Wall Street, Mendoza was asked. Mendoza gave a touching reply. This is a matter for Venezuelans to decide. “When we win on Sunday, we will win something beyond price. We will win a victory for our values, of reconciliation.”

One Venezuela, where the rich and poor can coexist

The CNN correspondent had an interesting question. She said — given that there are no guarantees of transparency, what will you do if the government announces that it has won, when you do not believe that it has. Are you prepared for another national strike, or what. Mendoza answered that there was no point in such speculations, that the opposition is democratic above all.

But the most touching statement came at the end. A question from TV Azteca in Mexico — the FOX NEWS or Globovision of Mexico — asking Mendoza “What kind of Venezuela are you seeking”. Mendoza answered: “We want a Venezuela where people respect one another. Where we are all Venezuelans, we are all together, whatever religious differences we might have, whatever class differences we might have. One Venezuela, where the rich and poor can coexist.” Truly, a moving vision for any country.

It was, overall, an interesting set of evasions and lies, combined with some setting up for the post-referendum claim that there was fraud. As for the voting machines, it seems like fraud will be difficult to do by way of the machines. The system works as follows. You register. You are faced with a touchscreen that very clearly asks are you SI or NO with the buttons clearly marked. You press one. The machine prints out the result. You check if the printed ballot matches what you pressed on the touchscreen, then you put the paper in the box. So there is the machine result and the paper trail, and hence a way of checking one against the other. There might be ways of cheating even with this system, but it is not a system made to facilitate such things… no hanging chads around here.

A last note on “polarization”. I am not convinced that it is so terrible a thing. Chavez mentioned yesterday that they cannot blame him for polarization — the country was polarized well before he showed up. All societies are, to the extent that they are unequal, polarized. When the poor are starving, that is not “polarized”, unless they are fighting back somehow or finding some expression. Then, there is “polarization”. I believe that the world would benefit a great deal if US society was a lot more “polarized” than it is. But there is a problem with polarization too, and you can see it when you look at the statements of the “oficialismo” versus the “opposition” or the “people” versus the “oligarchy” or of the “chavistas” versus the “escualidos”, different sets of names for two groups, none of which are “neutral”. Where there is polarization, there are radically different stories that cannot be reconciled, and evaluating them on their factual or logical merit is often very difficult, because the sources of the facts are themselves combatants. You are right now reading the report of a deeply biased observer, one whose biases are not at all hidden. This is not something that will change after the referendum. But it is important not to miss a key point: here there are two sets of official, irreconcileable pronouncements, both highly visible, both with plenty of power and support behind them. In most of the world there is only one, and the rest is completely marginalized. In which situation is it easier to figure out for yourself what is true… is a real question.

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