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By Val Dorta

I don’t know what will happen in Venezuela in the near future, but whether Hugo Chávez is thrown out of Miraflores Palace or not, the country’s problems, to the chagrin of most pundits, won’t end with the end of Chávez. I believe that most of what follows applies to the entire Latin American subcontinent —where up to 54% would support authoritarian governments, but its particularly Venezuelan form —the failure of a populist political and economic system made worse by low oil prices during most of two decades, until about 1998— has only been made more acute by the arrival of Hugo Chávez. He is both the extreme manifestation of a chronic problem and the latest attempt at squaring a circle, no matter if he appears to many people as the immediate cause of the problem. Not for nothing the Venezuelan electorate (see here and here) “without significant variation since February of 2003,” is divided in thirds: chavistas, oposicionistas, and the so-called ni-ni (neither-nor). So much for the opposition winning easily, if only Chávez would let them.

Two Internet comments, 03/09/04:

“The anti-chavistas have to address the main issue, which is not Chávez but why do so many feel so disenfranchised that they would elect someone like Chávez in the first place.”

“There is a reason a guy like Chávez can show up and inspire a desperate swath of Venezuela’s population. Before working so hard to kick him out, you might want to think about what that reason might be.”

Both are logical questions within a reasonable point of view —that of a developed country’s public opinion. They are not, however, applicable to Venezuela. The real reason for the current impasse is the failure of the populist system and Chávez’s inability —just as two presidents who preceded him— to bring new life to it. The election of Hugo Chávez to the presidency of Venezuela didn’t have much to do with disenfranchisement of majorities or with poverty per se, as politics and elections have never been important to Venezuela’s poor majority. And their new class consciousness was only the anticipated result of the old leftist game of dividing society into good and bad groups, a game Chávez plays extremely well. He in fact brought Venezuela’s odd populist system back into the Latin American orthodoxy: a fight against common internal and external enemies with a deadly, if anachronistic, Castrist twist.

That is also the reason for a strange contradiction in modern Venezuelan politics: Hugo Chávez was elected by majorities that included the same upper and middle classes who now want him out. Why did they love him then and hate him now? After all, most Venezuelans knew he was uneducated, rough and authoritarian, there were public accounts of his extreme-left acquaintances and tutors, of his entrance to the Army Academy as a Communist Party cell, and that he led a coup against a democratic government in 1992. If all that wasn’t enough, his trip to Cuba immediately after being pardoned by President Caldera in 1994 to give a radical leftist speech at the University of Havana, in front of his mentor Fidel Castro, had to weigh heavily on educated, politically savvy Venezuelans at the voting booth. It didn’t, not once but twice. The year of his first electoral victory I defined him as the armed prophet Venezuelans were desperately looking for, having experienced the failure of two previous —Pérez and Caldera— democratic, unarmed prophets.

The Past in the Present

An important political fact that most Americans ignore about Venezuela is that several polls conducted during the democratic, pre-Chávez period consistently showed that most Venezuelans believed the following, as weird as it may appear:

1. The country is rich and its wealth belongs to everybody; a complementary fact being that populism is the best political and economic system, a belief that assumes nobody has to work hard. That’s what oil is for, a God-given buffer against life’s hard realities.

2. Since it is a fact that the country is rich but the majority of the people is poor, the only acceptable explanation for a populist mindset is that somebody is stealing their due through corruption, specifically political corruption, the root cause of most of the country’s problems according to populist man.

3. The solution to the country’s problems, therefore, is a strong leader who would redistribute the innate wealth of the country justly and fairly, punish the corrupt politicians and refound the populist system of the Golden Era of the nineteen fifties and sixties. Venezuelans thought they had found their man in Chávez.

The Venezuelan Middle Class

“It also explains the 20th century collapse of democracy into dictatorship in Central and Eastern Europe, in South America and the many new 20th century nations of the Third World, and elsewhere: no middle class means no habits of self-restraint and compromise as are generated by trade.” Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, HarperCollins, New York, 2000, p. 268.

A real middle class, the bourgeoisie imagined by Jacques Barzun, the one that inspired Adam Smith, doesn’t exist, has never existed in Venezuela: a capitalist and industrialist bourgeoisie, the class who is both cause and effect of the capitalist system with its distinctiveness of productivity, prudence, frugality, love of liberty and property rights, a class that would put forth a national liberal ideology through a political party of its own, never appeared in Venezuela. The reason why is that the capitalist system never took hold in the country, as I (and others) have written before. What little entrepreneurship exists in Venezuela developed in the last fifty years and was mostly confined to a few families who made themselves very rich by exploiting the opportunities offered by the populist state, with little or no risk-taking on their part, and whose few and inefficient industries have made little progressive impact in economic, social and political terms, the opposite of the giants who created capitalism in Western countries and multiplied themselves, big and small, in countless ways to make the system self-sustaining. Worse yet, the modern alternative of imposing a successful capitalist system by means of an authoritarian state, as happened in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Chile, didn’t happen in Venezuela due to the relatively strong democratic tradition of the last four decades and the sense of entitlement presupposed in the populist beliefs listed above. A more “organic” reason for the lack of a bourgeoisie is perhaps that the populist state and its public enterprises could only give birth to populist man, a creature who combines the worst of socialist man (political and economic anomie) with the worst of post-modern, capitalist man (irresponsibility and sense of entitlement).

A Different Future?

There were last-resort essays at change, with catastrophic results. A timid attempt by the administration of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992 to enact a few liberal reforms within democracy (an unarmed prophet’s gamble) gave birth to a rebellion that cost thousands of lives and triggered the failed coup led by none other than Comandante Hugo Chávez. A second equally timid and equally failed attempt, this time by President Rafael Caldera, almost directly provoked the election of Chávez. And the future is bleak: it is very difficult, to say the least, to change not only a population’s political culture but an entire populist state and society, on just the rickety foundation of good intentions, platitudes and calls for reform (who, I ask, reforms the reformers?). Following Hannah Arendt, one can say that Venezuelans don’t want liberty but liberation, emancipation (Jacques Barzun’s word) from necessity, because their leaders, just as those of the 1790s French sanscoulottes and just as the many socialists who followed them, have always tried “to solve the social problem by political means.” (*)

Venezuelans don’t know what capitalism is; because of its crippled development, in Venezuela the economy has always been an afterthought, an appendix of the political realm. Thus Venezuelans politicize each and every problem when most of them, undoubtedly since 1958, have been economic and social —the latter being in great part the result of the undeveloped, lagging former. I don’t know if Hugo Chávez will stay in power; there is at least a reasonable chance that he will be ousted this year; there is hope, but there is frustration too. It is clear to me that the Venezuelan economy was and is artificial and unsustainable, and that a real and permanent solution can only be found in capitalist development. But I don’t have any formulas to give, for the natural ones would have been found by the middle class itself. Pity it isn’t there.


(*) This phrase is the key to Arendt’s book On Revolution, with its sharp contrast between the American and French revolutions. While the American revolutionary leaders, in the midst of a relatively homogeneous and affluent society, could solve the social problem by letting the economy take care of it, and could thus see liberty in the face, the French revolutionary leaders pretended to solve it by political decrees read on the Assembly floor, an artificial scheme that made worse the suffering of the dispossessed majority, who only wanted liberation from necessity. That has also been the fate of socialism and of revolutions copied on the French model, specifically, as Arendt herself said, those of Latin America

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