April 17, 2009

A comprehensive theory of ChávezTime

Quico says: Chavismo, as the saying goes, is "more-of-the-same, only worse".

It's one my favorite tropes on the Chávez era. What I like best about that reduction is the way it focuses attention on the too-often overlooked continuities between puntofijismo and chavismo.

The trouble, I think, is with the last bit. How much worse, exactly? Is it possible to quantify such a thing?

After an exhaustive review of political science doctrine, I think I've come up with an answer.

Chavismo is exactly 2.5 times worse than puntofijismo.

Or, to be even more precise, chavismo's rate of decay from bright new democratic hope to universally acknowledged, widely despised failure is 2.5 times faster than puntofijismo's.

How does that work exactly?

It's useful to think about this government in terms of ChávezYears. Everyone knows that one human year is equivalent to 7 dog years, right? Well, the rate of exchange between PuntofijoYears and ChávezYears is about 2.5-to-1.

Think about it. Puntofijismo's first years in power were dominated by a no-holds barred confrontation with a committed ideological opponent that refused to acknowledge its legitimacy and was determined to overthrow it by force. Puntofijismo's struggle with the far left guerrillas lasted, in one for or another, over 12 years - from 1958 until the defeat of the insurgents and Caldera's peace initiatives in 1971.

Chavismo's first few years in power were dominated by a similarly bitter (if less Bang-Bang) confrontation with irreconcilable ideological foes. However, Chavismo got through it two and a half times as fast, in just the 5 years between 1999 and 2004, rather than the 12+ puntofijismo needed.

Puntofijismo segued directly from victory over the insurgents to a heady oil boom that brought with it a massive sense of social contentment, huge new fortunes for the politically connected, a sharp uptick in corruption, and the first clear signs that the social mission of the regime would end up taking a backseat to the personal aspirations of the new governing elite. Chavismo did the same, except Puntofijismo's oil bonanza lasted a good eight years, from 1973 to 1981, about two and a half times as long as chavismo's 2005-2008 bonanza.

Continue with this exercise, and we get a PuntofijoTime to ChávezTime equivalency scale that's something like:

1958 : 1999
1961 : 2000
1963 : 2001
1966 : 2002
1968 : 2003
1970 : 2004
1973 : 2005
1975 : 2006
1978 : 2007
1980 : 2008
1983 : 2009
1985 : 2010
1988 : 2011
1990 : 2012
1993 : 2013
1995 : 2014
1998 : 2015

We all know what happened after each oil bust. As the oil money dried up in the early 80s, puntofijismo dithered, playing with various short-term patches that failed to address the fact that a state designed for boom times just looked out of place in the middle of a bust.

A serious retrenchment was unavoidable by the time the Lusinchi era rolled in, only there was still a bit of money in the kitty, so the governing elite found it much easier to put off the painful choices as long as possible. In the five years that followed, they drew down international reserves, badly undermined the country's credit worthiness, and turned what might have been a traumatic but manageable reform package in 1983 into the catastrophic drama of 1989, when reform was carried out not so much out of choice but simply impelled by the fact that the nation had no more foreign reserves to speak of.

By this reckoning, Chavismo's 2009 corresponds to Puntofijismo's 1983, the start of a period of reckless time-wasting that puts off the arithmetically inevitable reckoning to come. Just as in 1983, the oil boom is now well and truly over, but its effects are still far from worked through the system.

Looking in my crystal ball, I foresee the eventual day of reckoning - the time when dithering becomes unsustainable and a serious retrenchment imposes itself of necessity - should come sometime in 2011 or 2012. This will be followed by a period of renewed instability, when many of the one-time pillars of the state's legitimacy turn on it, setting off a topsy-turvy period of acute ingovernability leading, a few years down the line, to the system's wholesale rejection by pretty much everyone, in particular, in response to the catastrophic collapse of the banking system due some time around 2013-2014.

And, of course, we can look forward to the end of the whole insane experiment circa 2015. (Hey, no lo digo yo, son los números!)

It may seem absolutely unreal, simply impossible, to imagine Mario Silva, Eleazar Diaz Rangel and Vanessa Davies out campaigning for a vote to revoke Chávez's next mandate circa 2015. But then, in 1983, nobody could've believed that Venevisión, El Nacional, and the El Mundo would be out campaigning for a guy who was vowing to get rid of the 1961 constitution and "refound the republic." Nobody would've believed you if you'd said the puntofijo regime would collapse not under the pressure of Douglas Bravo, Causa R, or the rest of its usual-suspect critics, but rather under pressure from people and institutions that formed its own key sources of legitimacy.

In 1983, that was crazy talk. But in 1998, that's exactly what happened. Puntofijismo rotted from the inside out, eating away at its own legitimacy until the time was ripe and the whole edifice crumbled all at once in the face of a charismatic challenge.

And I'm convinced: chavismo is more of the same, but worse. So, for me, it's a mathematical certainty. This rollercoaster will run through 2015, and the instability hasn't even started yet.