Venezuela, without a doubt, has experienced the most dramatic democratic erosion in Latin America (PDF) since the region’s third wave of democratization began. Free and fair elections are off the table, all state institutions are controlled by the government, civil and political liberties are no longer respected, and the opposition is being jailed, exiled or threatened.
Nevertheless, some opposition leaders and parties have persisted in their efforts to motivate and mobilise the Venezuelan people to pursue a peaceful transition. Many of them have spent their days in the streets demonstrating for state and policy reforms or doing the rounds in neighbourhoods to bring a message of hope to the most marginalised voters of the country. Many continue to insist on building an electoral majority to dislodge President Nicholas Maduro at the polls.
But while this insistence on observing the electoral process to achieve a change of power is commendable, there have also been some worrying trends within the opposition. One of them is its growing public support for Brazil’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro voiced by some opposition leaders, which casts doubt over their commitment to democracy.
Bolsonaro is a retired army officer and back-bench congressman, who in his 26 years as a legislator, only managed to pass two of bills he proposed. While he has not impressed the public with his work, he has done so with his non-democratic views and contempt for human rights.
Bolsonaro has praised torture as an effective political strategy and endorsed the crimes of the former military dictatorship in Brazil. He has promised to give the police forces in Brazil expanded authority to kill suspects, saying that a “good criminal is a dead criminal” and has openly humiliated and threatened women, LGTBQ, native and black communities. Based on this rhetoric many fear Brazil’s young democracy is now at risk, and rightly so.
Given Bolsonaro undemocratic tendencies, why did several Venezuelan opposition leaders not only congratulate him on his victory, but also explicitly invite him to help Venezuela transition to democracy? Why would Venezuela want his support in recovering democracy, while he is a clear threat to Brazil’s own democratic order?
The opposition cannot campaign against Maduro’s authoritarian government, while allying with leaders who seem to be or are authoritarian themselves. Opposition leaders need to understand that they cannot have it both ways. They cannot expect Venezuelans to be patient during the country’s most severe socioeconomic crisis or ask the international community for support, when demonstrating this self-contradictory and opportunistic behaviour.
Cooperating with Bolsonaro, or with factions of the Trump administration who have already contributed to democratic backsliding in the United States, or discourses inviting an open invasion of Venezuela, only harms the country and kills any hopes for a transition. In fact, these actions are only a gift to Maduro who can now, with “proper” evidence, say that the opposition conspires with the “global right” against him.
If the opposition is committed to a democratic transition and consolidation, it needs to be consistent in upholding its democratic commitment. This means rejecting any cooperation with leaders or parties, governments or organisations, who spread an authoritarian rhetoric full of hatred and polarisation.
Venezuela has suffered vastly from this same damaging discourse, which is precisely the reason why opponents to Maduro’s dictatorship should forcefully refuse any association with this kind of rhetoric.
Surely, leading a transition is not an easy task, let alone a linear path and certainly, politicians are allowed to make mistakes. However, it is their duty to recognise these mistakes and change their strategies when necessary.
The time has come for the Venezuelan opposition to do so. If leaders from the opposition want to govern the country one day, they need to earn the respect and trust of their voters first. If they want to replace an authoritarian regime that has polarised and politicised all aspects of life; if they believe that Venezuelans deserve to trust state institutions again; or if they want migrants to eventually return to their country and families previously divided along political issues to reunite, they need to start being consistent and demonstrate that democracy is worth fighting for – even if this implies turning down attractive but damaging short-term alliances.
An alliance with Bolsonaro is not the way to go. Building global networks with leaders committed to democracy, learning from their past mistakes, overcoming internal divisions and reconstructing a unified discourse, proposing concrete state and policy reforms, or supporting forcefully displaced citizens at the Venezuelan-Colombian or Venezuelan-Brazilian border, is.
As German sociologist Max Weber has argued, politics should be a vocation and should be “made with the head, not with the other parts of the body, nor the soul”.
In this sense, Venezuelan opposition leaders should think carefully before acting impulsively. They should recover and uphold their moral convictions.
One thing is for sure, being anti-Chavez, anti-Maduro or anti-PSUV does not make any opposition politician democratic per se. Standing up against bullies, misogynists, racists or fascists, does.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.