Review of Rory Carroll's "Comandante"
This essay suffers from some cognitive noise emitted by the word "dictator." The problem with Chavez was that his policies incredibly sucked, not the extent to which he was (or was not?) a "dictator." Those policies would have been deeply ruinous even if they had been (were?) backed in a fully democratic manner.
Interesting read - I lived in Caracas when Chavez came to power. He was very charismatic and I was amazed at how he could speak for hours on end. It was heartbreaking to see the collapse of their society.
I really like this series. It's a great idea, and the individual reviews are good. I hope that you write something synthetic at some point: tie all the strands together and give us your coherent picture about dictatorship.
This was my favorite of the series.
But then again I grew up under Venezuela's Chavez, and this was a trip on the memory lane of my formative years.
I vaguely recall a quip from your old, old blog about being such a sympathetic reader that if you ever started reading about dictators, you’d become an authoritarian…is this whole series an inside joke?
You should do some on benevolent or arguably-benevolent dictators, like LKY, Ataturk, or Park Chung-Hee. I'd like to see what makes them different from the worse model, whether there's some legible-from-the-outside difference or whether it's just the luck of the draw.
The obvious lesson to take from this is that Latin American socialism is bad.
Here's my question about this. Evo Morales got elected in Bolivia in 2006 on basically the same platform as Chavez, i.e. nationalise energy, oppose US imperialism and generally implement full socialism. The result of this was that GDP doubled and the poverty rate was cut in half. Bolivia is pretty chaotic and the MAS leadership are still throwing bricks at each other, but it seems like on the whole the Morales government was a good period for the country.
Chavez and Morales believe the exact same things and are each other's closest ally. How come Chavez completely destroyed Venezuela, but Morales seems to have improved Bolivia? What's going on there?
> Soap operas, films, and baseball games would dissolve and be replaced by the familiar face seated behind a desk or maybe the wheel of a tractor . . . it could [last] minutes or hours.
How did this not tank his popularity? How did this not cause the entire country to think of him as that asshole who keeps interrupting the ballgame?
Chavez was backed by the Soviet sphere in the 1980s. In fact the pre-Chavez governments had already been pretty socialist but they took their commitment to human rights a little too seriously for the Soviet Union's tastes. (Which is to say, they actually criticized both sides' human rights records and the Soviets were the worse party. This upset the Soviets who saw human rights purely as a tool to criticize the capitalist world.) As a result they backed several even farther left governments, generally ones less committed to this whole 'democracy' thing. Chavez's movement was among them.
This backing mostly went away post-1991 but the Cubans remained close allies. In part because they needed a new source of gas and connection to the outside world as Russian support waned.
Chavez won because the previous governments had become fantastically corrupt leading to an election in which not being involved in any existing party was a huge advantage. In this environment (which included a former beauty queen gaining significant vote share) Chavez's very well organized and relatively well funded, partly from outside money, MBR-200 was able to stand up something like a party infrastructure fast while also credibly claiming they were outsiders. There was actually a minor split in the party between the Chavistas and the more radical communists who felt this was abandoning armed revolutionary struggle.
Once he was running his party abandoned basically all farther left policy language while simultaneously promising his party members this would be the thin end of the wedge. He ran on anti-corruption, increased welfare, and fighting against the traditional political parties. And once he was in power he increasingly centralized power in his movement and moved farther to the left. This is also why it survived his death: his party is still around and in charge.
By the way, I'm not sure if you're aware of this but Venezuela's agreed to hold internationally observed elections in 2024 in exchange for various kinds of sanctions relief and steps toward normalization. They've already backpedaled on that by trying to ban the primary opposition figure. But if Biden can manage to get an opposition leader into power it would be great for both countries. Venezuela can be spared a more traumatic way to transition away from the Chavistas and the United States can resume better relations with the country (which would be mutually beneficial in several ways).
India is a democracy and Modi won the elections twice in a row.
His party got a stinging defeat in the regional elections in the state of Karnataka.
So please before calling Modi a dictator, define dictatorship and then judge Modi.
In China and North Korea they do not have a second party to vote for. Those are dictatorship.
Putin is potentially a dictator since he has imprisoned his opponents on bogus charges. So even if there are elections, there is no one strong enough that is not in jail on kangaroo court charges.
Modi is not jailing his opponents. His opponents are espousing minority appeasement policies (eg Quota/Affirmative Action) and losing elections.
That last point about how Chavez reminds you a lot about Trump was something we felt here in Venezuela too. Back in 2016 I remember pretty much everybody I knew was dreading that the gringo Chavez could win (sorry if that's an offensive term, I really have no idea how Americans feel about it but back then that was one of the ways we referred to Trump here).
But after Trump won and first it very quickly became clear that he was a strong hardliner against Maduro which made the Maduro government very scared for a while (at least until the collapse of Guaidó), and second that he rolled back Obama's Cuban thaw pretty much short-circuited the brain of a lot of us Venezuelans, me included for a good while, and we became staunch supporters of Trump.
I known plenty of people here that will never forgive Obama for that, the Cuban thaw pretty much solidified the idea that Obama was if not directly Chavista/Castrista then dangerously sympathetic to it on a lot of us
If you want an explanation for why the latino communities of Florida are so fond of Trump that's the best explanation I can come up with from my vantage point here in Venezuela.
One thing that helped Chavez is that Venezuela's economy and culture was kind of "extractivist" and highly corrupt because of the massive dependence on the Oil Money even before he came along. I remember reading a blog from a Venezuelan talking about a particularly comical version of this: in order to pay your taxes, you had to get your tax form stamped. The bureaucrats in charge of the stamp quickly realized this, and started demanding bribes for people to pay their taxes.
I'd say the "flaw" in democracy is more that if you have a huge mass of very poor, sporadically employed people, it's possible to build up a political machine based off of handing out "goodies" for political support (I'm not saying that to dump on the people casting their votes for that - if you were deeply impoverished and sporadically employed, wouldn't you want to support the person who helps you?). In most democracies, there's a limit in that you're also aware that you need a productive economy with investment, and there's a pretty quick feedback loop on this stuff if it gets too expensive and your tax revenue starts cratering (which you can extend through borrowing, but only for so long). Having Big Oil Money lets you circumvent that limitation for a while.
In point of fact the U.S. has an even bigger money-tsunami than Venezuela - being the world's reserve currency and a guaranteed market for national bond issues. We get to borrow basically infinite money at extremely low interest rates in ways that would be ruinous for any other country, but in our case appear to be defying fiscal gravity for the time being...for the time being...
I was also living in Venezuela when Chavez was elected for the first time, and what really impressed me was how sick people were of AD and COPEI (the two main political parties, very, very roughly analogous to the Democratic and Republican parties). Chavez' main opponent, Enrique Salas Romer, was also running as an independent and had a slight lead (30 percent to 25 percent, something like that--there were a LOT of candidates) and when AD and COPEI got cold feet and declared that they would both support Salas Romer--his support promptly dropped to 10 percent and Chavez's rose to 50.
I have to say, having seen Chavez in action, that when Trump came on the scene I was really struck by the similarity between them, in that, as far as I could see, neither wanted the presidency for ordinary political reasons; they just wanted to have the best possible stage for the (Chavez)/(Trump) ultimate reality TV show.
> In particular, he benefitted from a constitutional assembly; he was able to plan it so that a 52% showing by his party led to control of 95% of the seats, essentially letting him rewrite the constitution and gain unlimited power. Most western countries have better constitutional amendment processes than this, so we’re probably safe.
I'm really curious about how this worked. Like, sure, malapportionment and gerrymandering are things, but...?
I think I finally now understand why Dictatorships end up so irrationally bad and awful (eg discouraging accurate reporting) - it's because Trump, not the TV trope of ambitious tyrant - is the archetypal dictator. Becoming and remaining a dictator is an incredibly high risk move. If all you want is a few slave girls you can buy a compound and bribe some people. People become dictators because of a profound psychological need for admiration/control/etc that they can't ignore. Normal people who find themselves dictators behave differently. That gives you Khruschev, MBS or Hu Jintao not Xi or Putin.
Interestingly, if true, this suggests that monarchy might be strongly preferable to anything but a wealthy educated western style democracy. The uncertainty in succession/power means there will be a strong selection for nutters willing to make long shot gambles to gain power and the longer the system persists the greater the chance someone wins the power lotto and seizes control.
Hm, compare and contrast:
> I swear to the God of my fathers, I swear on my homeland, I swear on my honour, that I will not let my soul feel repose, nor my arm rest until my eyes have seen broken the chains that oppress us and our people by the order of the powerful
> I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem, in England's green and pleasant land.
> the the result, fiasco
For some reason I noticed this one immediately
I was living in New England during the Bush years, and I regularly saw ads by one of the Kennedy scions for a charity that provided free heating oil to the poor, "thanks to the generosity of Hugo Chavez and the people of Venezuela." At the time there were a lot of liberals who hated Bush and his endless wars and the way he treated the rest of the world like garbage... and there in Venezuela was a vocally anti-Bush politician, he gives to our poor and he's endorsed by a Kennedy! So I'm sure Chavez had a very high approval rating in some parts of greater Boston for a time, and equally sure that after Maduro took power and everything went to shit, they decided to collectively forget that.
This review is a curate's egg-good only in parts.
Calling the Venezuelan list "cancel culture" is ridiculous.
The total lack of specifics in the following statement reveals its vacuity. The author is entitled to his prejudices as much as anyone, but this is just....weak. "Look at the American regulatory state, and lots of it is ruinous ideas that probably sounded good to people who didn’t understand economics. Take a random Chavez proposal, call it “the Green New Deal”, and publish an editorial saying it will “make the one percent pay”, and half the US electorate will start protesting for it immediately."
"lots of it" "probably sounded good" "half the US electorate". Please.
With regulating the broadcasters, there are laws on the books saying that radio and TV frequency allocations have to be "in the public interest" and every so often people float the idea of getting the FCC to rule that stations that carry Alex Jones and company aren't in the public interest. The FCC, even under Democratic presidents, has been extremely reluctant to go down that road, as they don't want to engage in political censorship and the bureaucrats involved would probably receive death threats.
I cried reading this. I am Venezuelan, and this review describes my memories of Chavismo quite well.
I think this is one of those comparisons that illustrates a frequent phenomenon: it's not confusing that Chavez is "left wing" and Trump is "right wing.
In both cases, and many others, people's stated political beliefs (and especially how they're categorized based on a simplistic system with two categories) are not in fact part of any coherent belief system. In a sort of long-running game of Improv, hucksters develop a political persona associated with groups that use certain kinds of buzzwords as a rallying cry, but the thing they're doing is manipulating (or perhaps riding the wave of) those groups, not actually reasoning about the meaning of the political theories associated with the terminology, or how to apply them.
It's similar to how dictatorships will name themselves things like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Trying to figure out why they're so bad at actually being democratic or a republic is missing the point: they're not actually trying, they're just using the words as idk maybe something like a form of attempted mass hypnosis and ritualized conformity system.
I'm struggling to see what the specific problem with Trump's tariffs were supposed to be, given that the Biden administration is currently locked in a trade war with China over their potential invasion of Taiwan and has either retained or doubled down on all the Trump-era policies formulated in that regard. And in the wake of the latest crisis in Israel and massive pro-palestine/hamas protests across western nations it seems likely there's going to be a crackdown on either muslim migration specifically or *all* migration in general.
Even if Trump himself is precisely the kind of erratic obligate narcissist ruling through Reality TV engagement metrics described when talking about Chavez, Trump's basic policy platform looks less crazy every year.
I've seen some indications that Maduro has, in recent year, actually wound back some Chavista policies and made a "right turn". Mostly this is accusations by left-wingers (ie. https://mronline.org/2021/06/29/turning-right-repressing-left-how-venezuelas-maduro-shifted-course/ or https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/split-between-venezuelas-communists-and-maduros-ruling-party-deepens/) but also from more neutral (https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/venezuela-puts-state-food-firms-private-hands-socialist-policies-recede-2021-09-13/) or even right-wing (https://fee.org/articles/bloomberg-venezuela-turns-to-privatization-after-being-bankrupted-by-socialism/).
Can any Venezuelan readers confirm?
In terms of dictators* this is interestingly the opposite of Lee Kuan Yew, who used his power to force through (mostly) technocratic anti-populist measures and then survived long term because they actually worked really well.
*Or, well, leaders that seems undemocratic, ymmv on whether LKY was a dictator
My impression reading this is that Scott's pushing a version of the standard narrative on Venezuela's, that leftism and illiberalism are dangerous for the economy (apologies if that's not the case).
I won't argue Chavez wasn't an incompetent manager, although it's not clear how many of Venezuela's problems stem from mismanagement vs the drop in oil prices or American sanctions, I would have liked more discussion on that issue.
If the main issue with Chavez was that he relied on popular appeal through policies that sounded good but weren't prudent. In way it's a problem that comes from not being doctorial enough and relying on popular support to stay in power.
Maybe that kind of populism is usually associated with the left, but there's also a symmetric tendency for rightists elected leaders to push policies that sound prudent but aren't actually. Austerity has been was electorally popular in the 2010s in the UK, but a lot of Keynesians will say it's responsible for the stagnation we've experienced.
This essay seemed to link leftism and illiberalism with economic mismanagement, but I'm not sure that's a fair association. China is an obvious example of effective economic interventionism married with a suppressed civil society.
Couldn't the conclusion just as easily be that populism was one reason for Venezuela's decline (alongside external shocks) and leftism and illiberalism were only incidental.
I might just be jaded from all the arguments ad-Venezuela from 5-10 years ago, but holding leftism accountable for whatever a half-dictator, half-reality-tv-star is doing in the third world (even a left-wing one) feels a lot like asking the Chicago school to apologise for Trump.
I’ve also read Rory Carroll’s book, which is excellent, and I wrote myself a (Spanish-language) book about Chávez and “Chavismo,” after I spent years covering the subject for the Wall Street Journal and got to meet Chavez himself. So I have a small explainer on the mall incident referred to early in the review.
I talked to people involved in that situation, because Venezuela is full of ex officials who quarreled with the regime and are willing to spill the beans. They told me the whole mall thing (which is in Youtube and has become legendary as the “exprópiese” incident all over the Spanish-speaking world) was well-planned in advance. Chavez knew that he was going to take over the mall, and the people with businesses in the mall (many of them jewelers) knew it too, so they arranged a degree of state compensation for losing their stores days before.
Let me say that the day when I met Chávez was also very illustrative about his ways with power. I was covering a three-day visit he did to Beijing in late 2008, as the only WSJ reporter who spoke Spanish in all of Asia at the time (I actually lived in Singapore then) and Chávez at one point noticed that the Spanish-speaking media contingent included attractive young women eager to talk to him. So he invited us reporters to the embassy for drinks and pizza that night.
The night at the embassy was chaotic, as everything about Chávez was, to the point that when the time arrived to order pizza, it turned out that nobody in the embassy, or among the traveling group of reporters, spoke Mandarin Chinese other than myself. So I had to take an embassy van with a very friendly embassy official to buy the pizza and deliver it in the building. Chávez ended up speaking a lot and eating no pizza. About a decade later, the helpful embassy official ended up in Madrid, broke and asking her LinkedIn acquaintances for a job to pay the rent.
The thing I learned from this is that oil wealth needs to be shared, preferably the Norwegian way and within the democratic system. Unlike other forms of industries where businesses can say they are wealth creators - oil firms are wealth extractors. Obviously there is value in the extraction of the oil from the ground but any company with a license can do that. The license creates the monopoly. Excluding the bottom 99% here ensures a revolution.
About short-termism: One interesting factor here could be whether the individual or the party (at least if it's a stable party) is the main driver. The party is in some ways like a monarchy - it's not just here for the term of one guy. For instance, the Swedish Social Democratic Party (that I don't sympathize with) doesn't just want power this term or even this decade - they want it _forever_ but within the democratic system, which means that at least some of the time, they operate at a horizon of literally several decades (this includes training their own future politicians from their teens in a plethora of systems). It also means that they _will_ ditch a sufficiently unpopular idea once it starts to hurt them (be it the socialization of all companies, resistance to the EU, extremely liberal refugee migration, resistance to NATO, resistance to nuclear power) even when this means taking a 180 ideological turn.
Meanwhile, an individual might not care one whiff what happens the day after the term ends.
So in summary: Chavez was a dictator-lite who ruled via being democratically elected, repeatedly, and who did not kill his opponents but did jail them ineffectively.
Well ok then.
At least there is a sentence noting that Venezuela was a nation of massive inequality when oil prices fell and Chavez came to power.
What is notably missing is any description of what Chavez' policies did for Venezuelans overall - was it positive? negative?
Other notable omissions or oversights:
What was the role of the entrenched opposition? Was it purely because they hated Chavez' populist methods, or because he took away control of their golden geese, or because he was a dictator(lite), or because he was a bad manager of the nationalized golden geese or something else or all of the above? Given the many public and certainly more private actions which were taken in opposition to Chavez, this seems a significant gap.
What was the role of foreign powers during Chavez' rule? It is notable that sanctions were not enacted until Chavez passed away. Does this mean Chavez was a Latin Erdogan - able to skillfully dance between superpowers to get the most for Venezuela, to the annoyance of all? This also seems a significant oversight.
This was the first article I really read about Venezuela and it's fascinating: https://web.archive.org/web/20180826152045/https://quillette.com/2018/08/26/the-man-who-predicted-the-venezuelan-catastrophe-in-1893/
"He continued to hold mostly fair elections throughout his reign. His party even lost some of them!"
That's why I think "but this country holds democratic elections!" means nothing as to whether it's really a democracy.
Though by this account, it's debatable how much of a dictator Chavez really was; if he didn't engage in 'disappearing' his enemies or an equivalent of Argentina's Dirty War https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_War, and if a political opponent could keep their phone to engage in criticisms from prison instead of being tortured and/or murdered, then maybe he did have some lingering shreds of "there's things you don't do in a democracy" remaining.
As South American dictators go, he's a lot better on that scale, at least. Maybe he was more of a Frederick the Great style enlightened despot, who wanted things to go better for the people, but wasn't able to run the country effectively:
"Partly you hope that the country has enough non-elected elites that they can stop this kind of thing."
Here's where I shout NO NO NO! Even in this review, Venezuela *had* non-elected elites, that's *how* Chavez was able to appeal to the people. The elites were quite happy living in their little bubble, creaming off the wealth that they felt was their due, and who cares about the rest of the nation, we're all right Jack:
"The oil company was an island of relative competence, run by technocrats, oligarchs, and economists. They fancied themselves above the civilian government, and although they would graciously share revenue with the state, they weren’t going to play by its rules."
Now, *that's* a dictatorship. We're not elected, we're not accountable to anyone, we hold the wealth and the productivity, we do as we please and nobody can tell us what to do.
Ordinary people will look around and go "Hang on a minute, who are all these guys telling us how to live our lives? Who voted for them - nobody? How did they get power? Isn't the government *supposed* to be the boss of them?" and that's how you get a populist like Chavez, and the burping general, gaining support and approval. The stuck-up blue-bloods who think you're not fit for them to wipe their feet on? Yeah, belch in their faces!
This is part of why Dominic Cummings downfall delighted a lot of ordinary people. He was unelected, relied on pull and influence to get where he got, clearly didn't hold himself accountable to the rules that he imposed on the 'little people' - and so when he was thrown under the bus by Boris, very few wept salt tears.
Unelected elites will always engender suspicion and resentment, which leads to revolutions. If you don't want dictators, make sure that your elites *are* accountable to someone.
One or the unremarked legacies of Hitler is the poisoning of the term "national socialism", so it is inextricably linked to fanatical racism. Thus blinds us to the fact that it is absolutely possible to marry Big Government with Nationalism under a big mouth grandstanding winding.
This isn't just the usual form of fascism, it's the original kind. Trump & Chavez are much closer to Mussolini than to a fanatical idealist like Hitler (yes, Hitler had ideals: horrible, horrible ideals, but ideals nonetheless).
My point is that just because these yahoos fall well short of Hitlerian evil, does not mean they aren't bad and don't deserve to be opposed. And it's a shame that we can't call their antics by the right name: national socialism.
Many of Latin America's problems are caused because it's far, FAR too easy to amend the constitution. One of the advantages of federalism may be that it keeps enough internal opposition to prevent the true momentary cohesion necessary to destroy a country's institutions.
You spend the first part of the review telling stories about how he unilaterally dictated things, and everyone did those things or was fired, so it seems odd to then question whether "dictator" applies. Maybe you have some connotation of dictator in your head that excludes a guy who wins multiple popular elections, but by denotation he surely was. He had absolute authority. A monarchy would still be a monarchy even if we had term limits on them and selected the monarch by voting (a bizarre system that only George Lucas, for some reason, seems invested in.)
One could argue that if the dictator was still subject to democratic elections, that ultimately the authority remained with the people. But the guy was never tested with a scenario in which the rule of law clearly demanded he abdicate power, it's hard to say whether he remained subject to a power that was never exerted. The two main descriptors of any government are "who makes the decisions" and "what powers does it have", and a government where one guy makes the decisions and the government power is unlimited is clearly an authoritarian dictatorship no matter what window dressing you put on it.
"All dictators get their start by discovering some loophole in the democratic process."
By no means all. Some seize power at gunpoint.
Yet another great post of this series. I have no knowledge on Latin American politics, and I don't understand Spanish at all, but I remember in early 2000s in university I came accross Chavez's videos online and it was so captivating. Not a studio but somewhere open air shooting ad hoc, he is kind of holding court with his ministers and other bigwigs around him, he receives a random phone call from a citizen complaining from something and he fires a minister as a result on the spot there. It was hilarious and great TV. If it was so captivating for me even though I don't understand the language and know nothing of the culture, I cannot imagine how it was for the locals.
All of South American politics is a expression of one dynamic - a battle for control between the rich whiter people and the poorer browner people. Most of the time, the latter are more popular, so the United States inevitably assassinates their leaders and coups their governments. Venezuela is the one major example where that hasn't happened. That Scott falls where he does is disappointing but not remotely surprising.
As I've said many times, there's no fundamental reason that rationalists should have such a resolutely right wing, pro-American position on foreign policy. (If you care about facts and evidence you know that we have acted with deadly indifference to human rights and democracy, particularly in Latin America.) In fact, that's one of the core pieces of evidence that rationalism is simply a rebranded offshoot of contemporary American conservatism - there's no reason the default rationalist position should be neoconservative, based on rationalist principles, and yet it is.
This is very well-written and well reasoned; I just wanted to add that the reason why Venezuela's oil revenues are more sensitive to price fluctuations is that Venezuelan oil reserves are largely composed of heavy crude (higher molecular weight, more sulfur) resulting in higher refinement costs and lower profit margins per barrel. The breakeven price for Venezuelan crude was ~57.90 $/barrel in 2015, while the Saudi breakeven price was ~31.00 $/barrel. That's one of the core reasons why the oil market downturn in 2015 hit the Venezuelan economy so hard.
The propositions (1) "ruler's policies wrecked $country's economy" and (2) "ruler's policies enraged international power elites and the latter punitively wrecked $country's economy" are distinct -- and distinguishable, if one is willing to admit the possibility (and FWIW they are not mutually exclusive.)
AFAIK in all cases to date where hypothesis (1) was pushed (in particular, by American/Anglo propagandists, officials, "thought leaders", etc.) there's a solid case to be made for (2).
> For whatever reason, I find Chavez scarier than most of the other dictators I’ve been reading about. The others seem like aberrations of democracy. Chavez seems like its monstrous perfection: a reminder that in the absence of virtue, what appeals to the people can be the opposite of what’s good for the state.
To me, it seems like a highlight of the point you made in https://www.astralcodexten.com/p/bad-definitions-of-democracy-and, which some libertarians have been making for a while, and which the US Founders were very explicit about: Too much "democracy" is quite bad, and should only be used when it's actually required that the government handle some problem. Take the land appropriation example from this review--strong private property rights are important for a functioning economy, and should not be taken away simply because of a vote of the majority. Individual rights like speech and religion fall in the same bucket--even if 1 single person disagrees with everyone else, they have the right to that belief.
I think that part of the reason American democracy has been able to avoid being destroyed by populism (so far) was this conception and culture of individual rights and limitations on government power, inherited from the English tradition and pre-dating democracy as the primary form of government. The Supreme Court passed down many rulings saying "screw your majority vote, the Constitution says no." (at least prior to FDR--who might have been our Chavez if he hadn't died, and who still might be responsible for our eventual collapse). But this is a *culture* that exists in the bulk of the population, not a single policy or form of government.
I see Hugo Chavez took power in 1999; I remember an SNL skit from around then, A Glimpse Of Our Possible Future, in which President Al Gore constantly used the Emergency Broadcast System to monopolize Primetime Television to talk about global warming. I'm left wondering if Saturday Night Live is in fact responsible for Venezuela.
One obvious reason such dictatorship is less likely in the US is that the US is already a managed democracy in the sense that you cannot win the presidential nomination for either of the two parties which are institutionally embedded in the electoral process without the backing of at least a handful of billionaire backers.
This works as a managed democracy much in the same way that people in Iran can vote for president but only candidates that have been approved by their Guardian Council. The US doesn't have as formal of a council but the amount of political, financial, and media power that a few hundred individuals at the top of the system can generate gives them veto power if there's any candidate they all find truly unacceptable. One can argue there is no specific guideline that makes it illegal for the nominee to have no backers within the .001% of the income distribution, but the mechanisms of action are clear as are the motives. It would be irrational for them not to engage in this activity when the ROI of elite and regulatory is so favorable compared to allowing policies supported by 65-70% of the public that could harm specific interests.
The United States is one of the longest-running and most successful oligarchies in the same way that China is one of the longest and most successful one-party states. Both systems are relatively insulated from consequential populism by the simple expedient of making sure that only those who are already wealthy and represent a deep network of the ultra-wealthy owners of assets are allowed anywhere near the executive.
We aren't likely to see this scale of looting and institutionalized incompetence without the participation and consent of existing oligarchs since the public is already outside of the policy process in the economic sphere.
1. Impressive workup. 2. I don't have all day, but I wasn't seeing what strikes me as the glaring similarity to Donald Trump. - A reminder of how little left versus right matters in considering the psychology of totalitarian narcissism.
Most of the speeches mentioned here can be found on YouTube, I found them quite interesting as a Spanish learner:
1992 post-coup speech: https://youtu.be/dV1fKQscgSQ
Describing the Maisanta/Tascon list: https://youtu.be/4fyP2q3Ba0o
Firing PDVSA executives: https://youtu.be/gvJEIa8ZUc4
Bonus compilation of Chavez acting silly on TV: https://youtu.be/ELtCS0DpFFk
I wasn't able to find the video of the general burping in the soda factory, does anyone have a reference?
It's funny seeing Chavez again, honestly. People may not remember it, but back in the day people would not stop praising him and his policies as the Socialist wave of the future, *the* defining counterexample to the failures of Capitalism after the 2008 Crisis and Occupy Wall Street. The man's cult of personality wasn't limited to just his own country, it extended to wherever people were desperate to justify naked populism as compassion. How else would the famed Bernie Sanders quote-
"These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who's the banana republic now?"
-have come about?
(Though funnily enough, Mr. Sanders never actually said that. It was basically a 'retweet' of a newspaper editorial by the Valley News Editorial Board which he posted on his website: https://www.econlib.org/bernie-sanders-didnt-say-it/. You can see for yourself at https://web.archive.org/web/20190306014455/https://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/must-read/close-the-gaps-disparities-that-threaten-america. The confusion only came about because the original version he posted and left up for years didn't clarify it was from the Valley News Editorial Board at the end: https://web.archive.org/web/20131120170952/http://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/must-read/close-the-gaps-disparities-that-threaten-america)
Still, there are many, *many* more examples out there. If you start digging, it's incredible what's been memoryholed over time, there's so much 'Aged Like Milk'/'Me Sowing vs. Me Reaping' Chavez praise out there that's been quietly buried. Example:
"HUGO CHAVEZ'S ECONOMIC MIRACLE
The Venezuelan leader was often marginalized as a radical. But his brand of socialism achieved real economic gains
By: DAVID SIROTA
TOPICS: EDITOR'S PICKS, HUGO CHAVEZ, HUMAN RIGHTS, LATIN AMERICA, POVERTY, SOCIALISM, VENEZUELA, POLITICS NEWS
No, Chavez became the bugaboo of American politics because his full-throated advocacy of socialism and redistributionism at once represented a fundamental critique of neoliberal economics, and also delivered some indisputably positive results. Indeed, as shown by some of the most significant indicators, Chavez racked up an economic record that a legacy-obsessed American president could only dream of achieving.
For instance, according to data compiled by the UK's Guardian newspaper (https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/oct/04/venezuela-hugo-chavez-election-data), Chavez’s first decade in office saw Venezuelan GDP more than double and both infant mortality and unemployment almost halved...
When a country goes socialist and it craters, it is laughed off as a harmless and forgettable cautionary tale about the perils of command economics. When, by contrast, a country goes socialist and its economy does what Venezuela’s did, it is not perceived to be a laughing matter – and it is not so easy to write off or to ignore..."
[Note: I am not yet aware if Mr. Sirota has ever addressed the state of the Venezuelan economy since then. He is perhaps too busy working as a senior adviser and speechwriter for Mr. Bernie Sanders: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Sirota
We shall have to settle for Mr. Sirota's concluding remarks, I suppose:]
"Are there any lessons to be learned from Venezuela’s decision to avoid that subsidization route and instead pursue full-on nationalization?
Likewise, in a United States whose poverty rate is skyrocketing, are there any lessons to be learned from Venezuela’s policies that so rapidly reduced poverty?
And in a United States that has become more unequal than many Latin American nations, are there any constructive lessons to be learned from Chavez’s grand experiment with more aggressive redistribution?
No doubt, there are few absolutely clear answers to those uncomfortable questions, if those questions are assessed honestly... But maybe now that the iconoclast is dead, the cartoon will end. Maybe now Chavez’s easily ridiculed bombast can no longer be used to distract from Venezuela’s record – and, thus, a more constructive, honest and critical economic conversation can finally begin."
[Overall, that's the best one I've ever found, but there are plenty of lower-grade examples out there:]
"HUGO CHÁVEZ: MAN AGAINST WORLD
As illness ends Hugo Chávez’s rule in Venezuela, what will his legacy be? Richard Gott argues he brought hope to a continent.
Chávez’s search for a different economic policy, with a powerful role for the state, is thought to be foolish, utopian and destined to fail. Yet with many countries in Europe in a state of economic collapse – largely the result of their long embrace of neoliberal policies – his project for Latin America may soon have wider appeal.
Long after successive presidents of the United States have disappeared into the obscurity of their presidential archives, the memory of Hugo Chávez will survive in Latin America..."
(From https://web.archive.org/web/20170201004012/http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/world-affairs/2013/01/hugo-chavez-man-against-world, an article that has since been taken down from the New Statesman website)
"Still, in the United States, the positive side of Chávez’s economic legacy is often overlooked. Ever since he was first elected President, in 1999, his critics have been predicting a collapse in the Venezuelan economy. So far, it hasn’t happened."
(From https://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/venezuelas-resource-curse-will-outlive-hugo-chvez, also in 2013)
"JOSEPH STIGLITZ, IN CARACAS, PRAISES VENEZUELA'S ECONOMIC POLICIES
Nobel Prize winning economist and former vice-president of the World Bank, JOSEPH STIGLITZ, praised Venezuela's economic growth and "positive policies in health and education" during a visit to Caracas on Wednesday.
In his latest book "Making Globalization Work," Stiglitz argues that left governments such as in Venezuela, "have frequently been castigated and called ‘populist' because they promote the distribution of benefits of education and health to the poor."
In terms of economic development Stiglitz argued it was not good for the Central Bank to have "excessive" autonomy. Chavez's proposed constitutional reforms, if approved in December, will remove the autonomy of the country's Central Bank."
[Note: this was the last step to Chavez taking *full* control of the economy and crashing the value of the currency; I believe similar 'reforms' are behind Turkey's current hyperinflation under Erdogan]
What I'm getting from this series is
If you are able to choose what type of dictator you want to live under, its best to live under either a clownish left-wing populist type who will at least make attempts to make your situation better (while being kind of clumsy and ineffective at sending your family to a reeducation camp), OR under a serious-minded technocratic type in the developmental economic school who will very efficiently give the land to the peasants and institute growth-minded economic reforms while also very efficiently locking you and your family up for speaking out against the state/littering in public.
The worst options are clownish right-wing authoritarians with romantic dreams that require enormous amounts of people to be liquidated, serious-minded left-wing authoritarians with technocratic dreams that require enormous amounts of people to be liquidated, and any flavour of religious authoritarianism (because not only are you sent to a work camp/prison colony, but you're still expected to go to church twice a day).
The type of dictator a country gets seems to fit its national character, with the quirks of the particular person affecting how the whole thing is expressed. Your nation of depressive, romantic alcoholics tends to produce a depressive (or manic-depressive) romantic alcoholic, whose passion for, say, ships or judo then feeds into the particular weirdness of their reign.
Presumably American dictatorship, when it comes, will come at the hand of an optimistic, aggressive narcissist whose particular passion for anime catgirls will lead to a horrific era of neko-eugenics...
I'm from Venezuela and think I can answer a couple of your questions:
To start, yes Trump is EXACTLY like Maduro, and what Trump would be if the United States did not have solid institutions.
How is Maduro still in power?
Cuba, Cuba, Cuba. The influence of Cuba on Chavez himself and the Chavista governments since '98 is much stronger and more important than (based on the review) the book implies. Chavez was Fidel Castro's Manchurian Candidate. Castro had been trying to get control of Venezuela's oil wealth for decades, even training guerillas to launch an invasion in 1967.
Maduro while not being particularly competent himself is just a puppet of Cuba who have had over a half century of experience of how to stay in power (mainly elite intelligence of everything going on in the military to nip any discontent in the only people that are able to overthrow a government in the bud).
How did Chavez achieve so much power and why hasn't it happened in the US?
I don't want to get al neoliberal on you, but institutions. Between changing the constitution and then early in his rule having essentially 100% of congress after the opposition boycotted the election he just eliminated any institutional independence and prioritized a single characteristic for selecting people to every single governmental role: Loyalty to Chavez. That was the only thing that mattered, in fact people were promoted to roles BECAUSE they were not qualified for them, that put them entirely in debt to the guy who put them there.
On the other hand, the US institutions have been around for a lot longer (Venezuela really only enjoyed 40 years of democracy, from the removal of dictator Perez Jimenes in 1958 to Chavez's victory in 1998) so they were young and fragile and easy to change. Concepts like the filibuster which so many people get so much in arms about are the exact reason why it is SO much harder for something like this to happen in the US. It was institutions that prevented Trumps deranged 'stolen election' play from working. Every lawsuit and attempt got shot down. All governments suck but some suck less than others.
"This is the point where I’m supposed to explain how Chavez went from democratically-elected president to dictator. It’s tough, because it’s debatable how much of a dictator he was."
Proceeds to describe how the whims of one man decided the fate of a nation, spurred a list of untouchables, created a parallel judicial system, kill protestors, Text also omits how he illegally financed left-wing parties in LATAM via drug money.
What does it take to be a real dictator?
I volunteered three months in Venezuela right after Chavez died. I met two categories of people who most supported him: the wealthy, connected men with nice watches, and the very very poor. The poorest of the poor would say to me with such sincerity: Chavez really cared about us, no one cared about us like Chavez. It was actually beautiful, their belief, if not so creepy, given that they were still poor in part due to all that corruption and mismanagement.
Also funny: I went to a punk concert and everyone was like "Viva Chavez!" Punks were so pro government. Same with artsy theatre people.
The people most against Chavez were anyone well educated and what was left of the middle class. And there it was widespread opposition.
It's hard to argue that a man democratically elected in free elections multiple times was a 'dictator'
Also it seems like you're underplaying Chavez' economic achievements. For instance in 1999, 23.4% of the population were recorded as being in extreme poverty, this fell to 8.5% in 2011. This is quite an achievment.
It's sad that most of the attempts to provide more for the poor and to reform colonial-era land holding and similar imbalances are joined at the hip with extreme incompetence and pandering that ends up tanking the economy. What if Chavez could have put more oil money into reducing poverty without all of the other things?
On the other side, sound economic management seems to preclude enough attention to redistribution. It doesn't seem like it should fundamentally be that hard to both grow the economy and split up the proceeds in a more humane way. I guess it's partly because each of those goals is embedded in one side of a political struggle where both sides would love to run amok if given the opportunity, so balancing the seesaw is inherently hard.
I think another aspect is that managerial capability is often so closely associated with the right that in many cases the left learns to despise competence itself, not just the people on the right who display it.
Dictator = somebody who doesn’t let American multinationals steal all their resources and exploit their people