February 25, 2003

Correspondence with a different first world lefty

Foreign philochavistas come in two flavors: the ones who don't know what the hell they're talking about and argue in broad strokes and abstract categories (those damn oligarchs are just angry because finally someone's taking on their privileges!) and the ones who do know what they're talking about - generally because they live here - and argue in good faith. While I have almost no patience for the former, I think it's important to engage the latter. Greg Wilpert, who is decidedly among the latter, writes in about my last post:


I am wondering if either you are not aware of the threats that prominent government
officials and supporters live under or if you think that such threats are not worth
mentioning. Perhaps you think they are not worth mentioning because you blame
Chavez for creating the atmosphere in which such threats exist?

If you are not aware of the threats, I suggest that you talk to some MVR diputados,
for example. Not too long ago Iris Varela's home was bombed, for example. Shortly
after the brief coup attempt, even an insignificant person such as me received
kidnapping threats via e-mail, for having written the truth about what happened on
April 11 and 12. I've intentionally been keeping a relatively low profile as a result.

The upshot is, I have no doubt that the threats against prominent pro-government
individuals are every bit as common as against anti-government individuals. The
difference perhaps is that the threats against pro-government individuals are
occasionally carried out. Perhaps you don't know about the over fifty campesino
organizers who have been murdered in the past year? There are incidents
happening all of the time, that don't even get mentioned in the government
television, perhaps to encourage the image of a happy Venezuela.

You might think that foreign correspondents should mention the threats against
anti-government politicians; I think they should mention all threats, no matter who is
being targeted - that might at least correct the image of the oh-so holy opposition
and the oh-so evil government. I personally believe that the balance of good and
evil on both sides of the conflict is more or less the same.

Best, Greg

I'll be honest: I wasn't aware of a really broad-based campaign of intimidation against government supporters, though it sounds entirely likely that one exists. I've heard plenty about chavistas being harassed and intimidated when they go to the "wrong" public spaces, and I think that's awful, near-fascist, detestable, and I've argued against it both in private and in public. The overall breakdown of tolerance and civility in society is really one of the worst and most ominous aspects of the crisis.

But I have to admit I find it somewhat hard to believe that the intimidation being metted out to government supporters is anywhere near as systematic and broad as what the opposition is getting. And not because the opposition is good and the government is evil (a view I've argued against repeatedly for months,) but because in order to mount a campaign on the scale of the one opposition leaders are now subject to you really need an organization behind it - you need wiretaps and surveilance capabilities, you need money and manpower and technology and centralized decisionmaking. In other words, you need control of the state.

And this, to my mind, is the key difference, as well as the root of so much of the instability in this country: when a Chávez supporter is threatened, he can call on the state for protection. When an opposition leader is threatened, it's probably the state doing it. Or, at least, someone with the aid, or at the very least the quiescent complicity, of the state. It's the principle of equal protection under the law turned on its head.

If you want to know why Venezuela is so unstable, here's an excellent place to start. The notion that the state ought to protect all its citizens equally, regardless of their political views, seems to me like a minimal requirement for stable democratic coexistence. But President Chávez has never made a secret of his contempt for the idea. From the word go he made it clear, again and again, that he intended to govern for one part of society only, and against the other. For a long time he tried to sell the idea that he would govern for the poor and against the rich. But as anyone with open eyes here knows by now, the real dividing line is purely political: he governs in favor of those who support him acritically and unconditionally and against everyone else.

It seems entirely predictable to me that those who suddenly saw the might of the state turned against them would react with virulent rage. You threaten people, they respond. There's no mystery there. Some of those reactions have gone really way too far, and they've only made the original problem worse, yes. But the original problem hasn't changed, and it won't go away until those who have hijacked the state for their own personal purposes cease and desist.

As Teodoro Petkoff has argued many times, it's entirely specious to say that the government and the opposition are equally responsible for the crisis. Enforcing the law equally, without arbitrary distinctions, is one of the core duties of a democratic state. When a government flouts that duty as comprehensibly as this one has - when it systematically uses state money, state facilities and state power to intimidate critics, all the while giving its supporters carte blanche to do anything they want any time they want, then the minimal basis for stable democratic coexistence are compromised, and the entire edifice of a free society teeters.

And with the edifice we're in teetering, it's obviously crucial not to do anything at all to exacerbate the problem. So yes, you're right, my original post was wrong. At times like these it's very imortant to avoid mindlessly partisan postures. That's what this blog is supposed to be all about, and I was wrong not to bring up the detestable threats made against government supporters in my last post.

But I reject, strenuously, the notion that that means that we can just split the blame down the middle and leave it at that. The Venezuelan state belongs to all Venezuelans equally - all Venezuelans have a right to demand its protection regardless of their political views. It just so happens that the Venezuelan state is momentarily led by someone who vigorously disagrees with that view, someone who's launched a sort of personal crusade against the principle of equal treatment under the law, who sees of the state as a personal plaything, as a political sledgehammer he can use to pound his enemies and a petty cash box he can use to bankroll his friends. So long as we're led by someone who thinks that way, Venezuela will never be both stable and democratic again.