April 14, 2006

Propagandizing the Chavista Party/Government/State/Nation

I hadn't seen this when I wrote yesterday's post, but this photo-rant (in Oil Wars, of all places) nicely illustrates the collapse of the distinctions between party, government, state and nation (and leader) I was criticizing...


I've updated the links column with some deliciously incriminating Chavez-hugs-a-tyrant pics, and added a link in the Reader's Guide to this very lucid piece on Chavez in the May 2006 issue of The Atlantic. I also added a link to yesterday's post - since everyone seemed to like it, and I did as well.

April 13, 2006

III. The "democratic revolution" is a contradiction in terms

Democracy implies a clear delineation of the conceptual boundaries between "party," "government," "state," and "nation."

Democracy conceives of the state as the institutional incarnation of the nation, something larger and more permanent than the government. The state is led but not owned by the government. The government is led but not owned by the party in power.

Democracy conceives of politics as the realm of legitimate competition between parties for temporary control of the government. In a democracy, governments come and go but the state is permanent, because it transcends partisan differences - understood as normal and healthy - and accomodates the periodic changes in control of the government that naturally result from elections.

Revolution, as Chavez understands it, is a refutation of this understanding. It starts from a rejection of the conceptual differentiation between party, government, state and nation. It express itself in the drive to establish permanent control over the government, the state and the nation while flattening the conceptual boundaries between the them. This process takes place both on a symbolic and a substantive level.

Symbolically, Chavez has mixed partisan with national symbols from the start. By adopting the Libertador's name, his original political vehicle - the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement - broke the long established norm that lifted Bolivar, the primary symbol of a unitary national identity, above the partisan fray.

Once in power, the co-optation of Bolivar's name for partisan purposes reached undreamed of new heights, from the subtle process that has made the word "bolivariano" basically synonymous with "chavista" to the decision to stick the now hyper-politicized word in the country's official title.

"Bolivarianism" - for 150 years the glue that held together our national identity - has morphed into a locus of official partisan identification, while remaining a locus of national identity. This process tends to meld partisan loyalty with patriotism, undermining the possibility of a non-partisan national identification. Dissenters are left without even a country they can call their own - literally, since the politization of bolivarianism turned "Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela" more into a provocation than a description.

Later, the revolution moved to strip away the neutrality of even the most basic symbols of national allegiance, politicizing the nation's flag and its coat of arms. (Can the National Anthem be far behind?) Time and time again, loci of identification that had served to bind the nation together have been turned into symbolic wedges, into instruments for the delegitimation of dissent and the marginalization of dissenters. Hand in hand with this process, the revolution works to transform the unquestioning acceptance of Chavez's every utterance from a free expression of opinion into a litmus test of patriotic allegiance.

So the cries of "traitor" and "vendepatria" increasingly launched against those who dissent are in no way coincidental: they're the logical outcome of the conceptual flattening at the center of the revolution. In the chavista imagination, party, government, state and nation have been melded into a single undifferentiated soup. Having erased those distinctions, chavistas have lost sight the notion, fundamental to democracy, that citizens can oppose the government without opposing the state, or object to the party without betraying the nation. It is not surprising that, swimming in the undifferentiated conceptual stew that is the revolutionary party/government/state/nation nexus, chavistas cannot recognize the distinction between disagreement and treason.

On the substantive level the revolution also seeks to stamp its mark permanently on the instruments of state power in ways that further flatten the conceptual distinctions that sustain democracy. State resources are used openly and systematically for partisan purposes. Courts come to serve the revolution rather than the state - a political rather than a national project. PDVSA is turned into an appendage of Chavez's political program. The Armed Forces morph slowly but surely into a pretorian guard, where loyalty to the party becomes indistinguishable, to participants, from loyalty to the nation.

On both the symbolic and the substantive level, these revolutionary moves are in direct contradiction with the conceptual apparatus that sustains democracy. They are intended to negate the possibility of alternance. They do so by erasing the conceptual distinctions that give meaning to the democratic process, to the process of partisan competition for control over the government within the context of a permanent, transcendent state conceived as the institutional expression of the unity of the nation. As such, revolutionary values strike at the heart of democratic system. Flattening the distinction between party, government, state and nation, they leave any future government in the position of having to lead an explicitly chavista state, of commanding an Armed Force that conceives of itself as the protector of the revolution, of governing through a personalized bureaucracy, under a flag and coat-of-arms willfully manipulated into symbols of chavista hegemony.

April 12, 2006

II. The "democratic revolution" is a contradiction in terms

The essence of a revolutionary regime is permanence. The essence of a democratic regime is alternance. "No volverán" is the essential revolutionary slogan - the ideological rejection of the possibility of alternance. A regime founded on the promise of "no volverán" incubates skepticism about its commitment to democracy.

The prominence of "no volverán" as a chavista slogan explains much of the opposition's basic unwillingness to believe in this or any other chavista appointed elections authority. "After all," their thinking goes "they have already announced it clearly - no volveremos." Seen in this light, any and every CNE concession is a sop to international opinion. The radical opposition sees the revolution as purely revolutionary, the "democratic" part as little more than window-dressing.

I think that's a mistake. The tension encapsulated in the oxymoron is the defining characteristic of chavismo. The government long ago decided that its ultimate goals can only be met if Chavez can retain some minimally plausible claim to democratic legitimacy. Without the strategic ambiguity embodied in the phrase, chavismo would not be chavismo.

The opposition, by withdrawing from the vote, has tried to force the government's hand, to push it into resolving the tension between democracy and revolution by becoming frankly and exclusively revolutionary (and thereby, anti-democratic.) That is a trap the government has not and will not fall into.

The balancing act the government is pushed to attempt is necessarily precarious - although that's momentarily obscured by the oil bonanza. Absent the petrowindfall, the tensions inherent in chavismo's foundational oxymoron will become harder and harder to manage. The only question is whether the opposition will be in any way able to capitalize on those difficulties when the time comes.

April 11, 2006

I. The "democratic revolution" is a contradiction in terms

At the center of the Chávez Revolution we have a contradiction in terms. In democracies dissent is healthy, alternance the norm. In revolutions dissent is treason, alternance impossible. You can be democratic or you can be revolutionary. You can't be both.

The strategic ambiguity inherent to this oxymoron is unsustainable. Chavez has been particularly successful at maintaining the fiction that the two concepts can co-exist within a single political project. They can't.

April 10, 2006

20 points for Borges

Katy says: A few weeks ago, Quico asked me to post my thoughts on why I think Julio Borges is the best of the current group of non-Chavista pretenders. At the time, I hand’t really thought of Borges as superior to the other contenders (Petkoff, Rosales and Smith) because I believe any one of these four would do a better job than our friend Hugo. I did think, though, that Borges was being underestimated by non-Chavista talking heads. As I thought about this post, I concluded that Borges, like recent polls are showing, is indeed the leader of the non-chavista pack. What follows are 20 reasons why I believe this to be true.

  1. Borges is, at heart, a philosopher. Chávez is a military man. Two disciplines cannot be more different.
  2. Borges’s father was a prominent Valencian neurologist, and his mother a Catalan immigrant and a well-respected bioanalyst. Julio, the youngest of five siblings, was educated at Don Bosco and San Ignacio schools in Caracas – quite a distance from Chavez’s rural upbringing in Sabaneta de Barinas. Although some might construe his upper middle-class upbringing as a handicap in reaching out to poorer voters, Borges is working hard to prove them wrong.
  3. Unlike Chávez and many of the people governing with him, Borges attended university. Borges went on to study law at UCAB, philosophy at UCV and Boston University, and public policy at Oxford.
  4. Whereas Chavez’s character was shaped in the halls of the Military Academy and in the remnants of defunct guerrilla movements during Venezuela’s most prosperous and corrupt period, Borges’s character was formed in the student movements that propped up during the disastrous years of the end of the 1980s. His distaste for what the military did in 1989 and 1992 helped make him a firm believer in civilian control of the Armed Forces.
  5. Among the field of candidates, Borges is the sole representative of the post-Black Friday generation, one that, in his words, “was born in a crisis, grew up hearing about the crisis and now lives and raises its children in the midst of a crisis.” Borges has been trying to frame Venezuela’s current woes as the failure of an entire generation, Chávez included. He has a point.
  6. While some highbrow analysts derided the TV Show that made him famous, Justicia Para Todos, the show actually won international awards, and people in the barrios still remember him for it. In fact, lower-class voters participating in focus groups have identified Borges as having a strong character, in part because they recall Borges’s alter ego in Radio Rochela, where the fake judge would throw his hammer in anger at the people in the court. And yet the show was not meant to be a vehicle for Borges’s personality; it was meant to be a way to bring, through the use of mass media, the idea of justices of the peace to people that have never had access to justice. It seems to have served its purpose well.
  7. In recent focus groups, lower-middle class voters have been asked to describe Borges, and the word that keeps coming up is “arrecho”, a Venezuelan slang-word meaning "daring" or "with a strong character". They have also described him as fair and decisive.
  8. One of the factors that distinguishes Borges’s candidacy from the others is that it is rooted in a process to form a political party out of the ashes of the IVth Republic. Primero Justicia understand the links between the decline of Venezuelan democracy and the decline of political parties: traditional parties fell prey to rent seeking and corruption and ceased being agents for change and progress. However, it sees the demise of all political parties as a step backward for our democracy. Instead of the chavista phenomenon, that sees in a populistic, caudillesque and military “movement” the solution, Primero Justicia is a civilian political party, with multiple leaders, tendencies and yes, even infights. Right now, it is perhaps the only relevant political party in Venezuela. (Side note: inside sources from within the party tell me the rift between Borges’s group and the Leopoldo López/Liliana Hernández faction is serious, although getting better).
  9. Because of his background and personality, Borges can be portrayed as aloof, elitist and a bit snobbish. While none of this is true, Borges understands that as long as his enemies from either side of the spectrum are the ones portraying him on the media, he doesn’t stand a chance. This realization, along with the need to differentiate Primero Justicia from the rest of the opposition pack, has led him to take to the streets and start meeting people face-to-face, bringing his message of "Popular Progress" and his persona to let voters form their own opinion about him.
  10. Borges’ proposals are rooted in sensible economic and social policy. Although the campaign is young and government programs have not been made public, we already have some information on Borges’s proposals for the country.
  11. The cornerstone of Primero Justicia’s program is a deep reform of the justice system, with an increase in the number of judges, an expansion in the number of justices of the peace, and transparent mechanisms for naming and overseeing judges. The cornerstone of the chavista justice project is politicized judges few in number and in temporary positions. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have warned of the dangers of the chavista stranglehold of the judiciary. Primero Justicia understands that the first step towards creating a civilized society that can provide progress for all, is having an accesible and impartial justice system.
  12. Borges’s program will focus on improving current “Misiones” so that they do not exclude people on the basis of their political beliefs. Surprisingly, polls by Greenberg Research, among others, have found this to be the issue most likely to appeal to swing voters.
  13. Borges is the only major candidate proposing a radical reform of oil production and the way it benefits people. Borges favors increasing Venezuela’s oil production under the sensible notion that the only way the country will develop is by producing more of what we do best. In theory, Chávez also favors increasing production, as witnessed by several PDVSA expansion plans he has announced over the years but so far failed to implement.
  14. Borges is the only candidate currently proposing direct cash layouts to all Venezuelans from excess oil profits. Borges believes that these funds could be used to set up a working national pensions system. They could also be used to fund youth training and universal health care. As the Constitution says, oil belongs to the people, not the State, and Borges believes it’s time to start taking this seriously.
  15. For several years now, Primero Justicia has been proposing legislation to tackle the high unemployment levels of the past seven years, including incentives to hire young people and women. This also includes an emphasis on favoring labor-intensive sectors such as construction and tourism. Chavista congressmen have duly shelved PJ’s legal initiatives, and the result has been double-digit unemployment for more than five years now.
  16. Borges favors massive title holding for barrio dwellers, as well as giving away or selling highly valued government land to those who need it most. One of Primero Justicia’s main criticisms of the government (and in this they have been almost unique) is that the “deeds” or “titles” it occasionally gives out to slum-dwellers are not really transfers of property rights, but rather a primitive form of leasing. In part based on the influential work of people like Hernando de Soto, Primero Justicia believes that unless we are able to bring the enormous capital of our informal sector into formal society, underpriviledged classes will never find their way up.
  17. Borges has been the only candidate so far to embrace the idea of primaries for opposition candidates. He believes in unity, but he also believes this unity should come from the people, not from backroom dealings between political parties with self-appointed bargaining power and no voters.
  18. Borges’s role in the opposition has been marked by complicated decisions. In a move that probably halted the rise of his party, Borges and company decided to join forces with Fourth Republic dinosaurs like Pompeyo Márquez, Henry Ramos Allup and Enrique Mendoza in the now extinct Coordinadora Democrática. In spite of Primero Justicia representing a break both from chavismo and from parties such as AD and Copei, PJ was instrumental in forging unified candidates for the National Assembly. In spite of their uneasiness with old-style politicians, they have always been willing to play the unity card. This gives them ample room to be able to forge alliances in the future, an essential condition for post-Chávez governability.
  19. Borges does not believe that arguing with the CNE should be the main focus of non-Chavista candidates. He knows that any negotiation with the current or future CNE is useless unless one has real popular support. In that sense, his current strategy of forging ahead with his campaign while at the same time embracing Sumate’s conditions for electoral transparency is the correct one.
  20. Borges in understated and unassuming. When I met him during our mutual years at UCAB, he seemed to be driven, intellectual and somewhat shy. He was not given to petty small talk, nor is he one who likes to hear the drone of his own voice for hours. It is hard to imagine him conducting a six-hour edition of Aló, Presidente.

April 9, 2006

La Lista's Phantom Translation...

Well, in defense of Ciudadania Activa, it turns out that the mistranslated English version of La Lista I linked to is nothing to do with them. Actually, they don't know who did this "traduction" - which was put out without their permission, or even awareness. It's a bit of a mystery, actually...but maybe here's a chance for a bit of cooperative journalism. Anyone know the story behind this?