April 5, 2009

The "dictatorship" canard

Quico says: I'm always amazed by the kinds of debates that ensue when somebody in the anti-Chavez camp strays from oppo groupthink and declares something that, in the end, is only obvious: that chavismo does not meet many of the most salient defining features of dictatorship. The reaction is immediate, heartfelt, and insane...an adamant, MariaAlejandraLopezesque indignation that soon morphs into a way-beyond-the-need-for-evidence assertion that Chávez is obviously a dictator.

On few topics is writing from a distance, from outside the oppo resonance chamber, a bigger asset. In oppo circles inside Venezuela, the Chavez-is-a-dictator trope is so entrenched, it's somehow become beyond debate, its truth too evident to any longer call for evidence or argument to support it.

Trouble is that, when they hear the word "dictatorship", the vast majority of people around the world understands something that's very far removed from the way Chávez exercises power. Say "dictator", and the vast bulk of international public opinion has a clear idea of what you mean: an unelected leader who systematically uses state violence to crack down on any attempt to organize politically against him.

Say "dictatorship", and people hear "systematic censorship", they hear "comprehensive attempt to shut down all dissident media outlets", and "concerted attempts to jail, exile or murder every journalist and intellectual who produces an anti-government tract", and "widespread informant network that wreaks havoc on the lives of those who express dissent even in private". Dictatorship is what Fidel, Pérez Jiménez, Idi Amin, Pinochet and Trujillo did, what Kim Jong Il and Hu Jintao and the Burmese junta continue to do.

These understandings are not really controversial outside Venezuela. Everybody knows that's what the word implies. A dictatorship is a place where people need to go to extraordinary lengths to hide heterogenous thoughts because all those who dissent can reasonably expect to pay a heavy price. Nobody abroad is really confused about this. It's really pretty straightforward.

It's only a slice of Venezuelan public opinion that tangles itself up in knots over this stuff. The Globo-watching opposition ends up backing itself into plainly indefensible territory, forcing itself to stand by the notion that Venezuela is a dictatorship where opposition political parties are legal, active and above ground, where opposition media is legal, active, and above ground, where middle class people openly, vociferously and adamantly oppose the government without really fearing they'll suffer retribution because their friends and associates might inform on them, where some of those same people host blogs written in their own names to express these opinions and others host TV shows and newspaper columns, and where the "dictatorial government" knows exactly who those opinion leaders are and where they live and where it could go capture them, but doesn't somehow...but that, nonetheless, that's a dictatorship.

I'm sorry but...nobody's buying that!

It just doesn't pass the most rudimentary of smell tests. And when you start passionately defending arguments that catastrophically fail the most rudimentary of smell tests, you only make yourself look ridiculous, not the people you're railing against.

The opposition's "dictator" charge is another of those Conventional Absurdities, a claim that is at once self-evidently false and is treated as self-evidently true.

What makes it most self-defeating is that it is, in fact, a self-refuting absurdity: if Marta Colomina were right and chavismo truly was a dictatorship, Marta Colomina would certainly be prevented from asserting it. Which makes the assertion itself its own best refutation, and drains the people who make it of all their credibility.

To me, the "dictatorship" accusations do nothing beyond demonstrating a galloping, frankly cringe-inducing lack of historical awareness on the part of people who really ought to know better. If you've lived through a real dictatorship, you couldn't possibly mistake Chávez's half-baked brand of tropical autocracy for it.

The whole subject sends into paroxisms of despair. The opposition really needs to grow up on this issue: if we cannot even see the way our adherence to such a conventional absurdity makes a mockery of our claim to represent "responsible opinion" on Venezuela, how can we claim to lead a country we plainly doesn't understand?

It's only pathetic.