Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba would have made an excellent chavista.
The son of union organizers who grew up in a working class neighborhood in Caracas, he was a card carrying member of the communist youth party by the time he was 13. He would go on to burnish his credentials as the host of a decade-long television show that gave voice to the city’s poorest.
But instead of falling under the spell of the late Hugo Chávez and his 21st Century Socialism, Torrealba, 58, has become a chavista nightmare: an effective opposition organizer, communicator and bridge-builder who knows how to speak to the administration’s blue-collar base.
Since 2015, Torrealba has been the secretary general of the coalition of opposition parties known as the MUD, and he’s credited with helping the group capture congress in December — its first electoral victory in more than a decade.
Process not Event?
Now that Venezuela seems to be lurching toward a political and social crisis that many fear could turn violent, Torrealba is staking out an unpopular position in the polarized country: moderation.
As he sat down for an interview on a recent weekday, he apologized if his message was not “sexy enough to sell newspapers.” But unlike other politicians he doesn’t use words like “upheaval” or “catastrophe.”
“We’re not working toward a showdown or a sudden collapse,” of the Nicolás Maduro administration, he said. “We’re working toward a transition, perhaps a prolonged transition, and what does that mean? Coexistence, coexistence, coexistence.”
That’s not what a lot of people — particularly in the opposition — want to hear. Struggling under the world’s highest inflation, shortages of food and basic goods, rampant corruption and a crime wave that has made Caracas one of the world’s most murderous countries, many want to see Maduro and his cronies swept out of office as soon as possible and tried for their perceived crimes
The administration is politically weakened but not in a state of dissolution...What’s in its terminal phase is Maduro — not [chavismo] as a political project. Jesús Torrealba
Torrealba believes that’s neither feasible nor convenient. Even as the administration is on the ropes, it’s still a powerful force. The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) captured more than 30 percent of the congressional seats, and the administration still has vast oil wealth at its disposal.
“The administration is politically weakened but not in a state of dissolution,” he said. “What’s in its terminal phase is Maduro — not [chavismo] as a political project.”
And if the opposition uses any questionable tactics to speed up Maduro’s ouster, it will only backfire.
“If we manage to have a transition that’s peaceful then, in many ways, we’ll have to build the country back up from zero,” he said. “But if, unfortunately, the transition comes about through different means, then we have to rebuild the country from less than zero.”
In a sense, Torrealba has the background and “moral authority” to preach moderation, said Jesús Seguías, a political analyst and pollster.
“He was a radical in his past,” Seguías said of Torrealba’s journey through leftist politics. “So he knows enough to know that this is not a time for radicals — it’s a time for moderates.”
Instead, Torrealba foresees political, economic and global forces shoving divided Venezuela into an era where the long-warring factions are going to have to work together as the balance of power shifts. But in order for that transition to happen peacefully, entrenched powers need guarantees.
“The administration must know that after [the opposition] wins power that what’s coming is cooperation and not persecution, not a witch hunt,” he said.
Referring to officials who may face drug trafficking or corruption charges in other countries, he said those offenses shouldn’t be swept under the rug.
However, “those people should be afforded an impartial trial by autonomous judges here in Venezuela,” he said. “So that they know, with certainty, that their future isn’t one in an orange jumpsuit in another country.”
Talk of clemency and magnanimity seems a bit delusional. The socialist administration has been in power for 17 years and shows no signs of ceding ground. Since the opposition won congress, the president and his compliant courts have stripped it of most of its real power. And now, as Torrealba and others are trying to trigger a presidential recall, the administration says the constitutional measure won’t happen. Maduro has vowed to stay in office until his term ends in 2019.
Torrealba has seen the administration’s uglier tendencies first hand. Last month, as he attended a protest against power cuts, he was attacked by a group of chavista sympathizers and had to swing his way out of the fray.
The bald and burly Torrealba later Tweeted that the attackers “didn’t even mess up a hair on my head.”
Asked how a power shift might occur when the government has said there will not be a referendum this year, he turned the question on its head: “I ask you, do you really think this government can last until the end of 2016 with this explosive situation we’re in?”
The economic situation has led to real hunger, along with looting and lynchings on the streets. Maduro has lost his base of support and has approval ratings are in the low 20 percent range. To complicate matters, many of the politically connected wealthy, known as the bolibugueses, are also fleeing. And South America itself has undergone a radical change; Maduro’s administration has seen its allies in places like Argentina and Brazil swept out of office.
“This political crisis isn’t happening in isolation, it’s within the context of an economic cataclysm that’s generating social tension,” Torrealba said.
At this point, the ruling echelon of the PSUV party “needs to make a decision and make it soon: Do they go down with Maduro or do they save themselves and their political project with the hope of coming back to power in the future?” Torrealba asked.
He goes further, saying it would be healthy for the country if chavismo was able to survive and reinvent itself as a “legitimate opposition.”
“That would force us [the opposition] to have good administrations and not forget the promises we’ve made on social issues and to the poorest,” he said.
Nicmer Evans, a political analyst, acknowledges that Torrealba has been a force of moderation within the opposition, but he said he’s still too fixated on the executive branch.
“The only solution they see for the crisis involves Maduro’s exit, but that very attitude is what’s delaying the search for real solutions to the crisis,” he said. “So the crisis rolls on and they [the opposition] aren’t in a position to offer much in the way of solutions.”
What Torrealba is certain about is that the working-class hold the key. For a decade starting in 2005, he hosted a television show called El Radar de los Barrios, or, roughly, “The Radar of the Slums,” that allowed blue-collar neighborhoods to talk about their problems.
Blue Collar Power
It also gave him the vantage point to watch the socialist administration buy the loyalty of the working class with ineffective projects and populist giveaways.
“That’s when I saw that, for this authoritarian project, poverty was not a condition to be resolved, but a condition that brought them both political and economic gains,” he said.
When he began working with the opposition coalition he became an advocate for those poorer areas.
“The barrios occupy 170,000 hectares (420,000 acres) and have 16.5 million people,” he said. “If they were a country, they would be Latin America’s eighth largest, tied with Chile... If you can’t win elections in the barrio you can’t win elections in Venezuela.”
If Torrealba ever sought votes, he’d likely find support in the neighborhoods he used to cover as a journalist. But he says he never has and never will run for office.
And not running for office, he says, allows him to say things that traditional politicians can’t, including expressing doubts about the future.
“We’re not condemned to success,” he said of opposition aspirations.
“The biggest political party in Venezuela right now is the party of the discontent,” he said. “Can we at the MUD assimilate them? Maybe, but not necessarily.”