The first few months of 2019 were so tumultuous and so unpredictable that an observer could be forgiven for thinking that this was going to be the final year of the Maduro dictatorship. But the convulsions that shook the country in January and February eventually gave way to an all-too-familiar stalemate. These two states marked 2019: the wild volatility of the first half of the year brought on by Guaido’s explosive arrival to centre stage, and the brutal effectiveness of the Maduro regime’s efforts to neutralize all of his efforts.
As I look back on 2019, one characteristic in particular stands out for me, though. For me, 2019 was the year of false hope.
Leaders have to walk a fine line between giving their followers hope and giving them false hope. I don’t claim to know exactly where that line is, or how to navigate it. I think that Guaido’s falling popularity since the start of the year is partly a result of the failure of this tactic: of promising everything and more to people on a silver plate, and then failing to deliver.
This promotion of false hope reached the level of magical thinking on a few occassions. Back in early February, the opposition was ramping up its attempt to deliver trucks carrying humanitarian aid into the country from Colombia. The Maduro regime indicated unequivocally on a number of occasion that it would not allow the trucks to enter the country. Guaido’s catchphrase in the days leading up to the highly-publicized February 23 attempt was “la ayuda humanitaria va a entrar si o si” (roughly, “there humanitarian aid will enter Venezuela no matter what”).
I think that even in the best light, Guaido’s extreme optimism rested on a gamble the odds of which were never very good for the opposition. In order for the aid to enter Venezuela si o si, the Venezuelan soldiers at the crossings would have to let it enter. Staff the border with loyal soldiers and order them to stop the trucks at all costs and the aid would not enter. For the Maduro regime, it was that simple.
The relief effort was never a sure thing, but Guaido spoke of it as if it were. And his rhetoric, along with the false hope that he’d given people, eventually went up in smoke.
Another example of this kind of magical thinking is another phrase that I heard Guaido say a few times in the first half of the year: “El gobierno de Maduro ya esta derrotado” (“The Maduro government has already been defeated”). That wasn’t true on June 1 when Guaido said it, it’s not true now, and it won’t be true tomorrow.
I don’t envy Guaido’s job for a minute, and I can guarantee you that I’d do a much worse job at leading the opposition than he’s done this year. But I also wish that he hadn’t so eagerly played with the hope of a people who’ve lost so much already. I wish he and the rest of the opposition leadership was more direct with Venezuelans, and that they didn’t speak in platitudes. Rather than la ayuda humanitaria va a entrar si o si, “There is no guarantee that the soldiers at the border will allow the aid in: we have to work hard to make that happen”. Rather than el gobierno de Maduro ya esta derrotado, “The Maduro government has not been defeated: we have a tremendous amount of work and sacrifice ahead of us to make that happen”.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of The Washington Post:
The truth, no matter how bad, is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run.
On a Personal Note…
This was my first full year working with Bellingcat. As an investigator and trainer for Latin America, I got to travel around the region giving workshops to journalists and human rights activists on how to use open source information and tools to conduct their own investigations. I also got to collaborate on projects that shed light on corruption and state crimes in Latin America.
My work with Bellingcat is incredibly rewarding, and a year on I still can’t believe how lucky I am to be doing it.
On top of this great job, I’m also working on finishing my PhD. I’m in my fifth year now, in the thesis-writing stage. I spent so much time doing Bellingcat work that I neglected the PhD a bit. In 2020, I’ll work to bring a bit of balance to that relationship.
Those two endeavours kept me so busy that on quite a few occassions I did not write a daily update. I remember in 2015 and 2016 I’d never dream of skipping a daily update. But there were more than a couple of days this year when I was so exhausted that I chose sleep over the daily update.
The quality of the updates has also fallen, and for that I apologize. This is not the result of a lack of interest, but rather a lack of time and mental energy. I’ll work at making the number of sub-par daily updates fewer in 2020 than there were in 2019.
Anyway, thanks for making it this far in this last post of 2019 (and if you just skipped to the end, that’s OK too!). Happy new year, and I wish you all the best for 2020!