To evaluate the wisdom to keep blogging after February 15 was to answer a simple question unambiguously: is Venezuela now a dictatorship? This examination is required because the Venezuelan situation has changed dramatically during the regional election campaign of fall 2008, reaching a nadir on February 15 2009 and moving into uncharted waters since then.
For me the answer is simple: Venezuela is indeed a dictatorship (see note at the end). The exact date can be left to the individual choice depending on the values this one espouses. However the mistake that many make, whether they do not support the fact that Venezuela is a dictatorship being irrelevant, is that they do not quite realize that we are in front of a very new type of dictatorship, one conditioned by the realities of an era of mass communication, an era which Venezuela had fully entered before Chavez became president. In fact, it is not a long stretch to consider that mass media, vulgarization of the news and sensationalism have played an essential role in allowing a monstrosity such as chavismo to metastasize the Venezuelan polity. For those who forget easily, this brave new world was brought to our attention when CNN waited on the shores of Somalia for the Marines to land. Politics have never been the same since.
My dates are simple: Venezuela slid into an authoritarian regime in February 2004 and became a dictatorship when RCTV was closed. The intentions of the autocrat to became a dictator had been set long ago when this one and his acolytes killed any vestigial independence of the judiciary system, a process started in 1999 and still quite not completed today although irreversible with the arrival of Luisa Estela Morales at the head of the High Court. However the very recent new change in the supervision of judges by folks stranger to the judicial world, that is, folks obeying to the executive branch, allow us to assume that in the next few months the process of creating a partial justice will be completed, thus removing any democratic pretense that some rather simple minded souls persist in attributing to Chavez’s movement.
The closing of RCTV in May 2007 was not the entry into dictatorship because a media was closed. No, not at all in spite of the glaring symbolism. The entry into a dictatorship was marked then when we saw that justice had ceased to exist in Venezuela as the rights of RCTV were obviated carelessly by the state. The entry into dictatorship was also marked by the symbol RCTV provided for the transition from a pseudo revolution that Chavez had tried to make us believe was taking place to into a de facto regime opposed by the thinking country. Like all failed revolutions, the Bolivarian one could only end in civil war or in dictatorship. As such it has chosen the second exit while the first one is far from ruled out. Closing RCTV Chavez indicated to us that his will was the master of the country and as such democracy was over.
What is confusing to many, including for my colleague Quico Toro who has written a particularly inane post on the topic, is that the dictatorship of Chavez still displays elements of democracy. There is no confusion to be had here: Chavez tolerates still some expressions of dissent, some civil liberties because simply he cannot afford to take them away, yet; or ever for that matter. We are in the XXI century and taking over all media is difficult. Internet cannot be controlled like it is in China or Cuba because it was free in Venezuela before Chavez came to power. To control it Chavez would need to close it and reopen it under his conditions, something more likely now that he controls the main Venezuelan ISP, CANTV.
But Chavez would also need to take away all the satellite dishes that dot Venezuela, including many of the poorer areas who still vote for him. As such Chavez has had to limit himself to close down the most vocal media: RCTV first and Globovision probably before this year is through. They will remain on cable for a while but we can expect at some point that the cable TV laws will be changed, probably after Venezuela leaves international institutions such as the OAS or the ICC. Internet will be more difficult to control but filtering cyber cafes should not be too difficult and offering a cheap but limited access to Internet through CANTV could be a way to limit Internet access of real news to the population sector chavismo cares about the most.
Other civil liberties associated to democracy are advanced to prove that Venezuela is not a dictatorship, such as the freedom to travel. And yet there is already plenty of evidence that traveling is an increasingly difficult proposition for the average Venezuelan, from getting a passport to the access of international currency required for travel.
True, large scale political prosecution is not obvious and yet it exists, or have people forgotten about the Tascon List who has since 2004 created a set of second class citizens? Selective prosecution is now a routine occurrence, from the fired PDVSA employees which are persistently tracked down in any job they may hold, to the harassment of politicians elected to office in November 2008.
But more worrisome than any of that has been the creation of a series of governmental tools that can be used whenever the government will see it fit. Laws like LOCYMAT or some of those decrees in the latest enabling law of 2007-2008 are designed as punitive tools. There are laws that can be used when necessary to bankrupt any private business that incurs the displeasure of the regime, or simply the envy of anyone within the regime.
Thus even though on paper we can still hang out around at capitalists malls, travel to Aruba for the week end, buy Tal Cual, at least in main cities, and other such pleasures, the fact of life for those who live in Venezuela and are in disagreement with chavismo vision of the world is that our personal and private lives are increasingly affected by the state policies. And this, at any era, is a hallmark of dictatorship.
The concept of dictatorship has evolved through history. After all the word tyrannos was not necessarily a bad word in early Greece. I was reading “El Dictador” by Ramon Guillermo Aveledo over this Easter Holiday (1). He chose to resume the lives of some famous dictators as a way to illustrate what a dictatorship means, I suppose. The book is simple, memory refreshing, well written though not as deep as one would have wanted it to be. However as you read it you do see that the common thread of all of these dictators was an unquenchable thirst for power, a thirst which might not even had existed explicitly at the onset of the dictatorship. But all of them developed a clear sense of uniqueness, perverse if you like, through their tenure which led them to hold power until their death, in bed or in front an ad hoc executioner. Chavez of course has shown all the signs to try to join that group, all historical parallels taken into account (even though this is not directly addressed by the author).
Indeed as I have written before, the best example to illustrate the perplexing type of regime that Chavez has set in place so far might be France’s Napoleon the third, 1851-1870, and as such worth revisiting today. This period of French history still needs a more thorough evaluation as it is still too clouded by the criteria of the times. After all in 1851 “Republic” was a bad word and even alleged democracies like the US were far from perfect as the slave problem was unresolved and the native populations dealt with ruthlessly. When Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, elected in 1848 president of France, made a coup to ensure his reelection, nobody outside of France protested much. Many were in fact rather happy to see the second republic gone and knew that times had changed, that the new Napoleon the third was not going to be able to be the conquering hero his uncle had been (though it is not even certain he was his nephew).
For all practical purposes the Napoleon III regime, the second empire, was a dictatorship though many did not see it as such at the time. After all there were elections which by European standards were still better and more democratic than in the rest of Europe except for Britain (2) and a couple of minor exceptions: the republican party did manage to elect some representatives, and every six years it did manage to increase its representation in spite of all the electoral hurdles put up by the regime. Censorship existed, but then it existed elsewhere in Europe and Paris publications were certainly much freer than those of most European countries. Not only French people could travel, if they could afford it, but the “who’s who” of Europe traveled to Paris once Napoleon had shown he was there to stay and France economy grew significantly. In fact, in the French history manuals that I got at school, the “second empire” is depicted as a time of prosperity, growth and modernization, with the darker side of it much less stressed than what it might be in today’s books. True, there was no gulags (3), not even significant political exiles: the most famous one, Victor Hugo, was a self imposed exile while many of the Republicans were back in France trying to run for election, or discretely conspiring.
But it was a dictatorship alright. The first decade was repressive enough and only when prosperity was served to the populace did the regime opened up some. The regime was based on the division between an agrarian conservative France and an urban one where a restless proletariat was always a concern, and used as a scarecrow to keep the country side faithful to the regime. The will of the state was applied regardless of the will of the people, though that was standard practice in most of the world then. And yet, in situations such as the opening of the Paris Boulevards many communities were unnecessary abused in France, abused in ways that they had not been under the previous more democratic monarchy of Louis Philippe. The splendor of today’s Paris, largely inherited of Baron Haussman work, makes us forget today that these boulevards were drawn so as to allow for cavalry charges against the barricades that had been a regular occurrence since 1789 (and which will come up again notably in 1870 and 1968). In other words, crowded popular districts of downtown Paris were deliberately destroyed with their people moved to the periphery of the city to ensure more security for the government and the people who supported it (as well as the corruption that accompanied such public works). If you like Emile Zola I would suggest two of his novels to illustrate the politics and corruption of the times, La Conquête de Plassans and Son Excellence Eugene Rougon.
Chavez of course cannot even boast of the economic success of Napoleon III but his regime amusingly shares some of the characteristics of the Second Empire such as an existing but controlled opposition, without a real chance to ever access power (in a stunning political maneuver Napoleon III gained a political reprieve in 1869, neutralizing the Republican opposition, that would have allowed him to die peacefully in his palace a few years later if it had not been for the war on Prussia who saw the amazingly quick crumbling of his regime and the return of the republic in September 1870).
Chavez will never be Castro (Venezuela is not an island). Chavez will never be Stalin or Mao (he does not have a powerful political machinery that was ready for him when he reached power). Chavez will never be Mussolini or Franco (he did not reach power through a civil war or as the political consequences of a foreign war). Chavez will never be Hitler (Venezuelans are not disciplined Germans). Chavez will never be Peron (he would never allow an Evita to take the spotlight). Chavez will be Chavez, taking a page or two of each of the above, and several from Castro’s book. Like all of them ideology was more an excuse to hold power than anything they truly believed in. Chavez knows very well the weaknesses of the Venezuelan people and he is skillful at using them, just as many of these dictators did at least in the early part of their career. It is still too early to say what the end product of his takeover will be though possible outcomes can already be conceived such as a mad war against Colombia or even worse, a civil war in Venezuela as money will not be enough to satisfy the appetites of all of the military personnel. But what we can say today is that the regime has already the following characteristics of a dictatorship:
- there will not be a pacific take over by the opposition even if by miracle this one did manage to win a general election
- a repressive system is in place, and if repression has been used still relatively sparsely the tendency is to increasing use of it, as the possibility of repression is already a terror instrument
- the state is increasingly interfering in the private life of the people, selecting who gets what and who is punished in an arbitrary way, linked to the loyalty to Chavez
- a necessary but not sufficient condition for your success is to show loyalty to the regime, any opposition to Chavez or his acolytes now signifies your downfall, starting as simply as a targeted tax audit of which supporters of the regime seem almost miraculously exempt.
- corruption is an institution of rule
- assault troops exit. If the more vocal ones such as Lina Ron and La Piedrita are limited in scope, the fact of the matter is that paramilitary groups are growing in the country, hidden within the “reserva” a militia of sorts, or even in the public administration as told us by the implausible payrolls found by Ledezma when he took office in Caracas last year. These groups are now formed and ready to operate when the time comes, if the army allows
- other accessories also exist. For example Chavez has tried to use mass movement the way Mussolini or Peron did, but with limited success as the paid for assistance is a witness. However he has skillfully used TV and radio to penetrate the Venezuelan home using the folksy habits of Venezuelans of the country side: the circle of visitors loosely organized around the guest of honor or the patriarch. When you watch Chavez on TV you almost can feel him in your living room even if he is insulting you, calling you a traitor, just as the local patriarch would publicly recriminate you for having stolen some maiden’s honor or betrayed your husband’s pride…..
In short, when defining dictatorship in regards to Venezuela keep in mind that our circumstances are very different than the ones of the other more "classical" dictator regimes. But the end result is unfortunately the same. The word applies. And as such one needs to admits the consequences of such conclusion as to what is possible to do next.
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Note: it is fitting to write about such matters these days as we commemorate once again the April 11-12-13 events of 2002. I am in no mood to revisit these days, however it is important to note that since April 13 2002 Chavez has done much worse things than what Carmona was promising to do on April 12 2002. A dictateur, dictateur et demi
as we could paraphrase from a French saying meaning that to each creep there is a match that might be even worse.
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1) ISBN 978-980-6933-42-2, Editorial Libros Marcados, September 2008
2) One of the justification of Louis Napoleón coup was to reestablish universal manhood suffrage that the 1848 revolution had established and which was limited by the surprisingly strong conservative assembly that was elected out of it. Thus after 1851 elections might not have been free but France was the only country then to have universal manhood suffrage for its 21 old citizens. We could call that the “democracia participativa and protagonica” plank of the times.
3) “colonization” was the gulag of the day as political prisoners were sent to Algeria or New Caledonia. But most of these forced exiles happened under the second republic repressive measures against the Paris and main cities political proletariat. Thus if the second empire cannot be blamed for their creation it still was not keen on eliminating then and certainly not adverse at using them when convenient. Note, as the years went by many of those “exiled” were allowed to return to France.