Venezuelan Reckoning Approaches

Val e-diction eloquently summarizes and frames in geopolitical context recent events in Venezuela.

A second Cuba is impossible in modern times, we have been told. The Chile of Salvador Allende was a weird consequence of the Cold War and, in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas made a mistake holding elections before they controlled everything. Hugo Chávez wanted to prove everybody wrong, he planned to go forward at his own pace.

[. . .]

With a Constitution made to measure and sure of governing under a democratic mantle for years to come, he began penetrating and dominating the country’s public institutions. All of them fell to his soft mallet, one by one, slowly, democratically. . .

[. . .]

But then something happened that changed Chávez’s plan. An unprecedented two-month general strike and huge daily marches and demonstrations, led by the same spoiled middle class he knew was incapable of resistance . . . The writing was on the wall, Chávez would have to repeat the Sandinista mistake. He is in a hurry now, the plan accelerated, the phasing shortened, the mallet now a bludgeon, paradise must be conquered by force. Let’s discard the cloak, for it impedes the advance.

Val has it right (“As in Mein Kampf, the truth had long been there for everybody to see”). Chávez is the problem and Venezuela will not be stable or free as long as he remains in power.

There are parallels between Venezuela and Chile. Conventional wisdom holds that Allende was a social democrat in a hurry, that his overthrow by the Chilean army was a criminal act if not indeed engineered by the evil CIA. Allende was elected, after all.

The problem with this view is that it ignores Allende’s behavior: his avowed socialism; his close collaboration with Fidel Castro; and his relentless power grabbing via creation of a private army, property expropriations, and other measures that weakened the rule of law and made Chileans more dependent on the State. As Robert Moss pointed out, Chile at the time of the coup was well on its way to becoming a communist dictatorship. Not only General Pinochet, but also a large plurality if not majority of the Chilean populace supported the coup, because it appeared to be the only way to stop Allende. So yes, Allende was elected, but the fact that a leader is elected does not confer indefinite legitimacy on his actions. Sometimes elected leaders become dictators, and sometimes it’s necessary to overthrow them. It might not have been possible to vote Allende out of office once he consolidated power. The Chilean army’s coup was ugly but the alternative was probably worse. (And the Army, to its great credit, eventually relinquished power.)

While the current Venezuelan situation appears to parallel Chile’s under Allende, Venezuela may actually be worse off in some respects. Chile in 1973 was not so many years removed from having been a reasonably well functioning democracy, whereas Venezuela in 2003 is on the south end of three decades of oil-fueled political decay and seems not to have institutions that can fulfill the same role as Chile’s army. The anti-Chávez opposition enjoys substantial popular support but so far has lacked a core group with the power and determination to overthrow the government. (Either that or Chávez has learned well the lessons of the failed leftist dictatorships and won’t give his opponents any breaks. Thus he made sure to disarm the Caracas police — an opposition stronghold — before they could cause problems.)

The situation is unstable. Chávez won’t compromise and the productive parts of the country can’t spend all of their time fighting him without seriously harming themselves, which is what happened during the recent strike. The anti-Chávez forces tend to rely on democratic tactics like mass demonstrations, and especially referenda, which require much advance planning and are relatively inflexible with respect to schedule. The opposition is also relatively law-abiding. Chávez is completely unscrupulous and can be more flexible tactically. He can wait for the opposition to make plans and then respond on his own terms.

Given that Chávez must consolidate power or eventually be tossed out, the main constraint he faces may be the possibility that the U.S. will intervene if he goes too far. On the other hand, he knows that he’ll lose if he does nothing. So when will he act? He has been increasingly willing to use violence against his opponents. If he continues to get away with it, there will be no reason for him not to escalate. It’s therefore a good thing that the international press, as Val points out, is beginning to pay serious attention to Chávez’s dangerous behavior. What happens next may be a function of how much the press is distracted by the beginning of the war in Iraq. Val reminds us that Chávez reads the same papers that the North Koreans do.

There’s no telling what will happen, but I think Chávez is capable of anything if he believes that he can get away with it. I wish Venezuelans luck. I hope that the international press, and bloggers too, keep enough focus on that country to prevent the worst from coming to pass.


Caracas Chronicles has an excellent three-part series on the decline of Venezuela’s political culture:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

There’s also this article and this one on the newly skeptical tone in international press coverage of Chávez. Note that the first post predicts that Chávez will move against private television stations as soon as the U.S. attacks Iraq.