Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Seven Precipices: Venezuela After Chavez

"Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and the Guianas" (1906)
Cram's Quick Reference Atlas and Gazetteer of the World

Venezuela has been riven by class conflict for years - it is generally regarded as "the" source of the newest wave of populist, socialist bureaucratic-authoritarianism in Latin America. The United States has been hampered in its ability to influence the situation on the ground, thanks in no small part to its own historical bungling of its image in the region - as is so often the case the US is blamed for a great deal of what is its fault and a helluva' lot besides.
Attempts by the pro-liberalism factions of Venezuela to oust the regime of the late Hugo Chavez failed repeatedly during his lifetime - but following his death last year a sense of possibility has emerged among his enemies. The result? Steadily swelling protests that are beginning to be spiked with violence and the emergence of armed, fortified militias - half yelling "communist," half yelling "fascist," and so far none inclined to moderation of rhetoric.

That's what you already know if you read my earlier brief .  Fair enough. Now onto the new material.

To understand Venezuela we need to understand the tensions in that nation.  They’re not too difficult to comprehend, but nonetheless deserve a little attention. 

Chunk I: Geography + Economy = Ideology

(1) Venezuela is middle-of-the-road economically.

That’s right – it isn’t a wealthy nation, but Venezuela is also better off than about half of polities on Earth with a gross domestic product (per capita) of US$13,600, 97th in the world according to the CIA’s WorldFactbook. Of course in political-economics that is generally the most dangerous place to be – enough wealth to guarantee folks’ fundamental needs (food, water, shelter, clothing) but not enough to improve the quality of life, environment, and community. 

(2) There are a lot of dissatisfied customers.

Reported unemployment is only about 8%, but that belies some heavier problems – almost 32% of people are below the poverty line and the GINI index for income inequality is pretty high, 39 – though this is better than the GINI for the United States and much better than the GINI the year I graduated college – almost 50 in 1998.  In light of the underdeveloped economy, however, the effect is still potentially destabilizing.  There are other relevant numbers too – the inflation rate, already very high (21% in 2012) is in a spring now – 57% in 2013 – while economic growth is stagnant, to say the very least – only 1.6% (GDP) last year. [For these and a lot more data check out the World Bank's World DataBank]

The dissatisfaction is made worse because it comes in two very different forms.  On the one hand are the former owners and managers of the nationalized industries and agricultural firms – many lost everything, virtually all experienced radical declines in income and many have fled to other nations (many meaning, quite literally, hundreds of thousands) – this last bit is significant – a general rule of development is “thou shalt not run off your bankers and educated elites.”

The other form lay in the radicalized poor – the very poor, especially the urban poor, who lack basic services and have, essentially, horrible lives because of it – and their allies.

What happens when you combine either of these forms with cheap, readily available mass communication and social media technologies?  Double-whammy ideological activation in different directions.  Problematic.

(3) Oil.

The seed of growth and destruction are one in the same in Venezuela, it would seem – a classic example of resource curse.  That seed is, of course, petroleum.  Venezuela has vast reserves of the stuff and has been milking it for everything it is worth for a good while – it is the 8th largest producer of petroleum on earth, in fact, something that never ceases to surprise most Americans.  This of course traditionally contributed to Venezuela’s income inequality, a condition which has decreased largely because of the nation’s nationalization of the substance (as well as most export-oriented agriculture) – meaning that decline in GINI I mentioned earlier?  Probably the result of making the owners and managers of the old system poorer more than it is a result of making the poor wealthier.

Nonetheless Venezuela’s oil treasure has muted many of the worst potential effects of the unconventional, shall we say, economic policies of Hugo Chavez’s regime – until something insane happened.  The United States of America began to import less petroleum.  In part this is because the US economy declined so precipitously during the first decade of the post-9/11 world – less business means you need less gas.  In part this is because the US finally started producing, and its consumers purchasing, vehicles with substantially improved fuel mileage.  In part this is because the US radically upped its domestic fuel production in the last few years.  No matter the cause, or who you give credit for it, he effect has been simple – Venezuela is losing is cushioning petro-income.

(4) Foreign investors have long memories.

There used to be a lot of investment in Venezuela – however most of that investment was into the industries and agriculture.  You know, those same fields that Chavez nationalized? 

Thus another commandment, this of bankers themselves, “thou shalt not throw good money after bad.”

As long as Chavez’s clique remains in power, and the general population continues to see that clique as legitimate, foreign investors aren’t going to invest and risk further nationalization of their wealth. 


In other words, we can understand the economic problems of Venezuela as falling into two broad categories, at least for our purposes – those geopolitical and neo-colonial issues which motivated Chavez and generated the broad public support to allow him to take and hold power (more on that below) and those which Chavez himself wrought. 

Chunk II: Chavismo

I’m going to call it like it is – Chavismo, the term generally used to describe the various ideological tenets lumped together into Chavez’s incompletely defined ideological position, may best be summarized in the following terms:

(1) Service-Oriented Socialism

Oh, socialism – one of those terms that makes Americans, with their love of political-economic liberalism, feel more than a little itchy and twitchy.  But it need not be so – heck, the word has more definitions than you can shake a stick at.  The way I’d put it is that it makes more sense for us to understand socialism as a spectrum, ranging from a condition of no state ownership of productive processes to another extreme in which the government owns all productive processes.  Oh, sure, we could get more philosophical and debate whether or not the state really owns those processes or whether it is merely a manifestation of the general will of the people and whether or not there are serious moral and practical implications for both or either, but that is probably more appropriate for a different venue.  So, um, to be continued.

Regardless, if we regard the United States as a mostly capitalist, a little socialist – a state that has socialized certain services but, even for those, generally still allows citizens to purchase comparable, privately distributed services, we can understand socialism as not alien – it is just watered down.  On the other hand, in Venezuela we have seen a steady increase in socialism since the first election of Chavez almost a decade and a half ago – in other words Venezuela has functionally been moving away from the US in terms of its institutional characteristics. 

How far away? Hmm.  Well, there has been a radical expansion in both the quality and quantity of services provided to the Venezuelan people – some of these are hard to argue against since, for the first time, they have provided normal folks with regular access to healthcare and education.  However, the Venezuelan state has also socialized its productive capacities to a substantial degree as part of its  “solidarity economy” – not just base-of-everything-else industries and services (e.g. water, electricity, media) which are often held in common in our more left-leaning friends’ states across the Atlantic (much to Milton Friedman’s chagrin!), but also of good-producing activities – notably, again, petroleum and plantation agriculture. 

(2) Populism

The ancient Greeks understood the emergence of monarchies, those types of states in which one person predominates absolutely or near-absolutely, as an almost inevitable outcome of high levels of poverty.  See, the poor don’t want much – they want food, water, healthy kids, a roof, and some entertainment.  Even minor improvements to their condition make the lives of the very poor much, much better.  All it takes then is a popular figure to provide the people with access to those things which the normal people want, be it minor healthcare, subsidized food, and cheap distractions and, well, they’ll often follow him or her like a puppy, even into giving up their own sovereignty.  Bread and games, we call it in political science.    So, how do you win power in a very poor country?  You either manipulate and buy the poor or disempower the poor. 

Machiavelli would call thisdichotomy the love/fear dichotomy – if you rule a highly unequal people with principally love (directing fear-tactics at the previously privileged) you get monarchies; if you reverse the equation you get aristocracies.   The former we call populism – giving the public what they want economically and socially in exchange for their political support. 

(3) Personalism

I love the song “Cult of Personality” and, honestly, it is appropriate here.  See, when populism is employed it may be employed to build support around ideological, religious, or ethno-national tenets.  Alternatively, or coincidentally, populism may build support around a symbolic figure, a hero or messiah or some other trope.  When this latter is the case one finds an instance of personalism. 

That said, personalism has another apt meaning as well, one significant in this context.  Specifically it refers to the tendency of some states to put the power to exercise authority executively, legislatively, and/or judicially into the hands of individuals rather than the making those individuals mere arbiters of preexisting laws.  The intent is often to compensate for complex moralistic paradigms, a general distrust of liberal rationales, and/or a distrust of institution in general.  To put it simply, legalistic polities don’t really give a damn if you are or are not moral as long as you obey the law – which means bad people sometimes win and it is considered an ethical outcome.  Personalistic societies insist that, since law and morality are non-equivalent morality must be taken as the first consideration.  This being the case law must be of less concern than the empowering of ethical trustees.   

(4) International Opportunism

Chavismo is opportunistic internationally.  The decisions of the regime have alienated, well, most states.  This isn’t surprising – populism and a willingness to ignore contractual agreements and proprietary definitions don’t make friends among people who regard law and property as sacrosanct (i.e. those who rule and own stuff).  As a result Chavez’s Venezuela made friends wherever they could find them – indeed, look at the polities that honored him – it is like a who’s who of nations that the United States kinda’ hates.   Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Belarus?  Oh yeah – superfun best-friend time.  This even extends to a willingness to use the great powers disagreements and mutual distrust against them – remember Venezuela’s agreement to let Russia use its airspace and facilities for bombers and naval vessels?

The US government sure as hell does.

(5) Snowball/Demonstration Effect

Finally, Chavismo envisions itself as an internationalist movement with high demonstration effect potential – the idea wasn’t merely to revolutionize Venezuelan society but to catalyze similar movements throughout the developing world.  And, honestly, to a degree this has been the case – certainly Bolivia has been influenced by Chavez, and it is arguable that movements like those transpiring in Brazil right now draw directly on Chavez’s influence.  That said, I suspect Chavismo is taking more credit than it deserves – Latin America and the developing world in general have had leftist movements for a very long time and not all of these, even by a long shot, we delegitimized by the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – most important among them, in my opinion, being the liberation theology movement. 

Chunk III: Anti-Chavismo

Okay, knowing what Chavismo is constitutes a good start.  Yet it is worth a pause to note, further, who has emerged as anti-Chavismo, the groups which we can assume are the principal movers behind the protests which have emerged in the wake of Chavez’s death. 

(1) Those who despise Chavismo economics.

Easy enough – the more ideologically capitalist you are on that spectrum  I mentioned above, the more likely you are to reject the fundamental tenets of populism and socialism. 

(2) Those who despise Chavismo politics.

Chavez and his clique have remained in power through a lot of techniques, some of them legitimate (give enough voters what they want and they vote for you), others less so – there are pro-regime militias, reports of near constant violence, extreme levels of media censorship, extended periods of constitutional suspension and rule by fiat, and the human rights record under Chavismo is just abysmal, honestly.  Add to this the unusual interstate company Venezuela has begun keeping and, well, under such circumstances even if you are sympathetic to Chavismo economic ends there is a damn good chance you’re not fond of the political means.

(3) Those for who hate Chavez and his successors personally.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs – it is one of the oldest metaphors for realist politics that exists.  It also explains part of Chavismo’s problems – the broken eggs in this case weren’t cooked up and served with delicious bacon, but instead were left, brooding, poorer, angry, and with more rather than less free time.  They didn’t forget their educations and they didn’t lose their old international connections to the US, Canada, Europe, and the non-socialist Latin American polities.  And some of them aren’t just angry, but they hate.  Hate makes them willing to accept costs and risks that would otherwise be untenable.  And that makes them very, very dangerous to the regime.

The Timing

Okay, so a fair question – check that, a very fair question is – why now?

Well, in part we can attribute it to the absence of Hugo Chavez who passed away in March of 2013 from complications related to cancer – if you found a regime on the personal charisma of one leader, well, you are unlikely to see the regime endure much longer past his or her death without some sort of serious challenge – as often as not one that is successful. 

I’m reminded of Hua Guofeng. 

When Mao Zedong died in the fall of 1976 he was torn about who to leave the chairmanship to.  His most trusted confidant of any competence, Zhou Enlai, had died earlier that year.  He didn’t trust most of his other competent lieutenants to maintain the Maoist path – mostly moderates like the late Deng Xiaoping – but he also didn’t trust the more ideologically charged leftists (the dominant figures being he folk who would ultimately be grouped under  the less than complimentary nickname of the “Gang of Four”).  As a compromise he appointed the well-regarded, but politically not particularly important, Hua – a man loyal to Mao and his vision of China’s future.  Within two years, however, the final reins of power had been wrested from Hua and the Gang of Four was on trial as Deng and the moderates became the premier force behind the People’s Republic of China.  

It wasn’t that Hua was a bad leader, or incompetent, or stupid.  He simply wasn’t the man for the job.  Indeed, by helping the moderates with the disempowerment of the Gang of Four he, in essence, negated the rationale for his holding position in the party – making the moderate domination of the state, and the emergence of the Dengist reforms, nearly inevitable. 

Nicholas Maduro, the current president of Venezuela, bears many shades of Hua.  Endorsed by Chavez in the days before his death and supported, at least officially, by his primary competitors for power his ascension to the presidency was smooth – and legal, given his role as vice-president.  Chavez’s endorsement also carried him through the next presidential election, only about a month later – but barely.  Winning only about 1.5% over his primary competitor, substantially less than Chavez’s last win of around 5% and radically less than his substantial margins in earlier elections, Maduro won only by the skin of his teeth – or, if reports of electoral incongruities are to be believed (I have found mixed statements on this so I leave it open – but the close margin means even small variations in free and fair elections geographically could have serious implications), lost.

That said, dissatisfaction clearly isn’t enough.  We have yet to deal with  a lag – the current crisis didn’t begin until almost a year after Chavez died and was elected – indeed, protests didn’t emerge until February 12th of 2014, to be specific.

Easy enough – the kindling was stacked, it would, apparently, only take a match to light it.  That match as a series of particularly brutal crimes (including the murder of a former Miss Venezuela) that initiated widespread anti-crime and corruption protests that, in essence, merged with student protests that were taking place in commemoration of overlapping events – National Youth Day and a national holiday commemorating the Battle of La Victoria from the Bolivarian revolutions in the early 19th Century.  From that point the protests gradually became coopted by the opposition leadership which coordinated overlapping, multiple city protests.  These continued to swell – the government attempted to abate them by arresting key leaders (most notably Leopoldo Lopez) and attempting to radically increase censorship (going so far as to shutdown opposition media sources completely in some cases).  There were also attempts to undermine the protests by raising the minimum wage however this did little to abate the staggering national inflation of Venezuela.

Increasingly the government has deployed police and military forces, particularly when opposition protestors constructed barriers, armed, and/or armored themselves.  Incidents of violence are on the rise between state and protesting forces but nonetheless remain less frequent than might ordinarily be expected – thank goodness.

International Reaction

I’m going to summarize this pretty simply – the more left-leaning a government is, the more likely they are to support the government of Venezuela; the more right-leaning, well, the protestors.  The United States saw several State Department officials ejected when the Venezuelan government started scapegoating, attempting to explain away the protests as an American conspiracy – probably a very unwise political move given that it was this action that brought the crisis in Venezuela into American media’s active consciousness.  Above all, however, the international community has called out for peaceful resolution and meaningful addressing of the protestors’ concerns.  And, of course, attention to Venezuela has waned as the Ukrainian crisis has heated up - once again, if it happens in Europe, it leads.

Emergent Outcomes Possibilities and Probabilities

This is a tough one to call – those election numbers, 50/50 – well, they’re scary.  That means there is a powerful, meaningful ideological division in Venezuela, one that is unlikely to be alleviated soon and, equally, one that may harden given the fact that Venezuela’s problems are simply not going anywhere in the foreseeable future.  Honestly, I see two potential outcomes and I wouldn’t want to put money towards either one.  Option one – the protestors and state come to blows and whichever side the military comes down on, well, wins.  And honestly, I’m guessing the military comes down on the side of government given recent trends in behavior.  Option two – the protests continue, sometimes more dramatically, sometimes less dramatically, but never going away as the government’s approval rating continues to shrink, not only thanks to the its near-inevitable failure to deal with Venezuela’s economic problems but also because of mismanagement of the protests (in the age of social media state censorship does not win battles over the future of nations).  As a result the protests destabilize the state to the degree that emergence elections are held, allowing opposition leaders to take control – a position they will only continue to hold if they consciously deal not only with the economic problems but also with the fact that the politically activated poor and military of Venezuela must be included in any reform-of-regime efforts. 

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