May 2, 2007

Locked in their Hummers

Quico says: When we hear stories about corrupt chavista officials, our usual response is moral outrage, a sneering disgust at the hypocrisy of self-styled socialist revolutionaries going around in Hummers. Which is perfectly understandable, of course. But it's important not to get stuck in outrage mode, because if we do, we miss the subtler dynamic at work here: the structural role corruption plays in sustaining Chávez's power.

Corruption acts not only as a lure (as people realize "hey! we could make a lot of money if we cozy up to the Big Guy!") but also - even more effectively - as a trap (since once people are doing it, they realize "oh geez, the Big Guy probably knows about it, so now we have to keep supporting him - otherwise we're in jail!")

We shouldn't lose sight of this. Once you've started stealing, the only thing standing between your life of luxury and a stint in a ghastly jail is the president's protection. And as Chávez has demonstrated again and again, your protection will last only as long as your unquestioning loyalty does. For corrupt officials, licking Chávez's boots is a matter of self-preservation.

Once you appreciate the undercurrent of racketeering in all of this, once you grasp that Jesse Chacón can't break with Chávez for the same reason Paulie can't break with Tony Soprano, you understand corruption for what it is: a mechanism of personal control. You realize that, to a large extent, Chávez's power is unassailable not just due to "weakened institutions of representation" in some abstract sense, but due to the very specific fact that he's placed an unconditional ally in charge of all criminal prosecutions, such that it only takes a phone call from Miraflores to the Fiscalía to turn his officials from bulwarks of the revolution into defendants in unwinnable salvaguarda trials.

Corruption "works" for Chávez. It dramatically re-arranges the incentive structures facing office holders, making the benefits of cooperation lavish and the cost of defection prohibitive. It keeps people in line; it bolsters his unchecked power. That's why corruption blossoms in the Chávez era.

May 1, 2007

April 30, 2007

Reader's Guide Reloaded

Quico says: Every few months, I take some time to update my "Greatest Hits" compilation - that Reader's Guide I've set up as the first link you see on the right hand column.

It's really meant as homework for the curious but clueless - people who stumble onto the blog for the first time, usually via Google.

This weekend, after adding that essay by Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold I spent some time updating it, cleaning up the formatting, and checking the links.

Jon Lee Anderson's 2001 Chavez profile seems to have gone AWOL from the internet - which is a shame - and some of the links are now for subscribers' only. I tried to make up with a different New Yorker article and I added links to some reports from Human Rights Watch, ICHR and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as that long post about Bourdieu I wrote a couple of months back and Phil Gunson's little polemic in Open Democracy last month.

I think it's gotten pretty good over time. Don't you think?

Why a Reader's Guide?

For the casual observer, it can be surprisingly tough to find real insight into Venezuela online. It's not surprising; Chavez provokes such strong emotions that both his supporters and his critics tend to check their common sense at the door. As a reader, it's important to be aware that most of what you'll find about him on the web is little more than propaganda.

This guide is meant to bring together the exceptions: smart, stylish, sophisticated writing about Venezuela by genuine heavyweights in academia, journalism and the human rights community.

Obviously, I'm a Chávez opponent, so the articles I've put together here tend to be rather critical. What they're not, though, is partisan pablum or unhinged polemic: lord knows, there's too much of that around already.


  1. Best Overall Introductions
  2. Journalistic Pieces
  3. Human Rights Reports
  4. From the Archives
  5. Critical Theory of Chavismo

1. Best overall introductions

This academic article by political scientists Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold is the first thing you should read, and carefully. Corrales and Penfold focus on the way power operates in Venezuela in the Chávez era. Published in the April 2007 issue of the Journal of Democracy, this real gem will put everything else you read about the country into much sharper perspective.

If you're looking for a much shorter introduction to the evidence on Chávez's growing authoritarianism, check out this marvel-of-concision in Open Democracy by government-scourge Phil Gunson:

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2. Journalistic Pieces

To get a journalistic feel for Venezuela in the Chávez era, be sure to check out these two articles by Alma Guillermoprieto, which appeared in The New York Review of Books in late 2005. They're stylish, carefully researched, and scrupulously fair. Unfortunately, they're also subscription-only.

In January 2007, Wesleyan University's Francisco Rodríguez, a one-time Chávez official, wrote these two pieces on the Chávez-helps-the-poor myth:

In May 2006, this lucid feature on Chavez by The New Republic's Editor Franklin Foer appeared in The Atlantic. The focus here is more on what Chávez means to US foreign policy, but the overall reportage is excellent as well:

Jon Lee Anderson wrote the best character profile of Chávez I've read. It was published on the September 10, 2001 issue of The New Yorker. Unfortunately, it's no longer up on their website, so you have to go to a library and dig up a paper copy.

In January 2007, The New Yorker published this piece by James Surowiecki about Chávez's contradictory relationship with global capitalism:

An excellent, feature detailing Chavez's takeover of the Venezuelan State and its implications appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Foreign Policy. Written by Amherst political scientist Javier Corrales, it argues that Chavez is inventing a new form of authoritarianism for the democratic age. Sadly, subscription only:

Just after the December 2005 parliamentary elections, Italian journalist Guido Rampoldi wrote this piercing piece for Rome daily La Repubblica. I like his style!

In this May 2006 Sunday Times opinion piece, Ian Buruma nails Chavez in one of the most clear-headed, digestable-to-foreigners anti-Chavez polemics I've seen in print.

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3. Human Rights Reports

In this 2004 report, Human Rights Watch documents the way Venezuela's Supreme Court was politicized and stripped of its autonomy.

The Interamerican Commission on Human Rights - an official, intergovernmental body under the Organization of American States - has carefully documented the government's Human Rights' record. Its 2005 and 2006 reports - though admittedly written in the worst sort of plodding, lawyerly bureaucratese - provide a systematic dissection of the a number of troubling tendencies:

In this April, 2007 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists published this report on the government's decision to shut down opposition TV-network RCTV:

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4. From the archives

At this point, my archive contains well over a thousand posts stretching back to late 2002. Here are just a few posts I think might be useful to someone coming to the crisis without much prior knowledge.

It's impossible to understand the Chavez era without a minimum of historical context. Most foreigners, for perfectly understandable reasons, just don't have it. This essay is meant to fill in the more important gaps:

One of the most confusing and misunderstood chapters of the Chavez saga is the brief coup that saw him kicked out of office for 48 hours in April 2002. The vast majority of the material available on the internet about the 2002 coup/countercoup is aggressively propagandistic and often plain wrong. In this essay, which I spent months researching, I try to summarize the baffling, fascinating story without airbrushing out inconvenient facts:

In this short essay, I set out to explain why Chavez's vision of revolution is incompatible with democracy as usually understood:

These two posts are an attempt to tease out some of the unspoken assumptions about the power, society and politics that make it impossible for chavistas and their opponents to understand one another.

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5. Critical Theory of Chavismo

In trying to understand some of the stranger aspects of what's happened in Venezuela over the last seven years, I ran accross the writings of Jose Manuel Briceño Guerrero, a Venezuelan philosopher/critical theorist/poet who wrote this fascinating essay, way back in 1980, about some aspects of Venezuelan culture. Briceño Guerrero is, erm, not exactly light reading, but I still think this essay in particular is one of the most useful texts out there for understanding the Chavez phenomenon:

Later, I tried to write an essay specifying how Briceño Guerrero's writing can inform an understanding of the Chavez era. It's part effort to bring Briceño Guerrero up to date, part effort to place chavismo in cultural and historical context...I'm not really so happy with the finished product, but other people have found it helpful:
That's a lot of reading, I realize, but work through this list and you're pretty much a Chávez expert.

April 29, 2007

Putting the Atom back together again

Quico says: I've just realized those daily emails haven't been going out to those of you who've subscribed. Turns out my Atom site feed has been broken for ages, and I just hadn't noticed. My apologies.

The good news: the site feed is fixed now, so the email subscriptions should be working again.

And if you use a news aggregator, you can get Caracas Chronicles on it again.

(No idea what that means? This page explains site feeds in straightforward language, this one deals with news aggregators.)

And another thing. Have you discovered netvibes yet? It must be the best designed web-portal / news-aggregator / random-net-junk discovery gizmo out there: really really cool. And now, you can read CC that way as well:
Add to Netvibes
Nice, huh?