April 23, 2009

The problem with the hero theory

Quico says: I do realize there's one fairly basic problem with the "hero" theory of Venezuelan redemption: it relies, ultimately, on power's sense of shame. Ghandi's campaign, in India, had power because London could be shamed into changing its actions. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. relied on northerners' sense of shame about what was happening down south. Mandela succeeded by shaming even the apartheid regime in the eyes of the world. But what can a hero do against a government that is, in quite literal terms, sinvergüenza?

Not a lot, I'm afraid...


Quico says: Juan Forero's report for the Washington Post on the growing crackdown against the opposition paints a dismal picture of the extremes to which the government's strategy to criminalize opposition is going. It's worth a read, in part, to get a feel for the way the tone of US coverage on Venezuela is shifting these days, even from reporters who have long gone through great lengths to give the government a fair shake.

Personally, I find it hard to suppress a rather naughty thought about all this. Given that the Opposition establishment has proven unable to renew itself, to build the institutional mechanisms it takes to discard failed leaderships and serve as a conveyor belt for new leaders to emerge, isn't the government, in a really twisted way, doing us a favor here?

For years I've been dismayed by the realization the opposition doesn't seem up to the task of ridding itself of its deadwood. It might just take an assist from Chávez to, for instance, break the Blanca Ibañez-appointed Barboza-Rosales axis's deathgrip over Zulia politics.

It's the kind of thing you're not supposed to say in polite company, I realize, but hell, we all know this here ain't polite company.

Luis Vicente Leon, the Datanalisis pollster and Pundit of Pundits, caused a bit of a stir recently saying a leadership like Chávez's calls for a "hero" to face it down: some truly extraordinary personality willing to act with complete disregard for his or her own safety to challenge the regime in a symbolically loaded way.

I can't help but think that the new batch of leaders that will come up to take the places of those now being exiled or jailed are much more likely to play that kind of role. They'll be people coming into it fully aware of the risks, and fully cognizant that opposition, from here on out, is likely to be a semi-clandestine affair. For my money, if Venezuela is to find its hero, it's much more likely to come from the ranks of the up-and-comers, to be someone whose name you've never heard, than one of the established oppo figures.

April 22, 2009

Email delivery news

Quico says: I've just realized for the last who-knows-how-long, the little sign-up form on the right for Email delivery hadn't been working. It's now fixed.

If you want to get each day's new posts delivered to your inbox, just enter your email address and follow the confirmation instructions.

Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused.

[Hat tip: Charlie.]

Corruption? What corruption?

Quico says: How can it be that the government only prosecutes corruption cases when the accused are Chávez opponents? It drives me batty. Nothing chavismo does makes my blood boil like the partisan use of anti-corruption legislation. Considering ours is a government virtually specialized in coming up with innovative ways of making my blood boil, that's quite a claim.

Thing is, for political scientists, the determinants of corruption aren't much of a mystery. The profession is pretty unified on the idea that people in the public sector respond to the incentives they face, pretty much like people in the private sector do. They weigh the expected benefits and expected costs of actions and, if the former outweigh the latter, they go for it.

In the case of corruption, in particular, the calculus isn't especially hard to make. It goes something like:

There are, of course, variations on this theme. But the basic view of bureaucrats as calculating agents responding to incentives basically holds. Give officials more discretion over regulatory decisions worth important sums of money and, ceteris paribus, you'll get more corruption. Alternatively, cut back on official oversight, or make it more difficult for regular citizens to see what's actually going on in an administrative setting, and you can certainly expect more corruption.

It's when you've grasped this that the Chavez regime's deliriously partisan application of anti-corruption laws comes into sharpest relief.

We all know that, in Venezuela today, the vast majority of public sector jobs are in the hands of chavistas while the vast majority of anti-corruption probes target the tiny spaces regime opponents have carved out through state and local elections. But even that realization doesn't come close to giving a full picture of the regime's manipulation of anti-corruption statutes.

Go back to that equation. It's not just that chavistas hold more offices than anti-chavistas, it's that, from a racketeering point of view, they hold all the good offices. Controlling the entire national bureaucracy, they hold all the key posts with discretional power over regulatory decisions that make or break businesses. Controlling the vast bulk of the state's oil revenues, they rule over disproportionate amounts of the money the state has to play with.

By comparison, the rump opposition is utterly dependent on central government transfers, transfers they do or don't get depending on the central government's - wait for it - discretion.

But it's not only that. It's that the rump opposition-run public sector faces far, far greater scrutiny than the chavista controlled bits of the state, with the comptroller's office devoted nearly exclusively to picking over the minutiae of their transactions. And the Chávez-controlled public sector is not just an oversight-free zone, but a transparency-free zone as well, with public accounts barely audited and key financial reports simply not filed for months and months after their deadlines are reached.

The government's claim, in effect, is that the opposition is more corrupt than the government, even though it has more to lose from corruption, and less to gain from it. Opposition supporters, for whom trouble in the event of even minor indiscretions is nearly guaranteed, nevertheless choose to steal, while government supporters, who are nearly guaranteed to get away with it no matter how brazen their graft, choose not to.

How can that be?

The only way to sustain a belief in this storyline is to posit that chavistas and anti-chavistas are fundamentally different kinds of human beings.

They're not both rational decision-makers responding to the balance of expected costs and benefits they face, they're fundamentally different forms of humanity. Chavistas are, deep down, good people, who won't steal even when they can get away with it. Whereas we are so immanently, deeply, incorrigibly crooked we'll steal even in the full knowledge of what's coming.

For chavismo, it's not even that we're stupid. It's that we're evil. And here we get to the essentialist nub of the Chávez era, a style of engaging opponents that refuses recognize in them even the rudiments of rationality, seeing our behavior as ruled by a deep well of sheer horribleness that no rational calculus could deter or curb.

It's this essentialist nub of chavismo's engagement with the world that's really alarming. Because so long as I believe that my opponents are merely cynical, or wrong, or stupid I can imagine coming to some sort of accommodation with them. But from the moment I convince myself - and my followers - that my enemies are fundamentally evil, it's only a minuscule step to advocating their physical elimination.

Es dramática la vaina...

April 21, 2009

Ledezma Making Sense

Quico says: No, I can't believe I'm writing this either, but we need to face up: Caracas's embattled mayor, Antonio Ledezma is turning out to be a far smarter, saner, and far, far more effective opposition politician than many of us ever dared to dream.

Ledezma's concept of "neo-dictatorship" is pretty much the same as what I've been calling "autocracy". The specific word used to describe it doesn't matter to me as much as the realization that what Chávez does is conceptually distinct from dictatorship as traditionally understood. In the academic leadership, this kind of state system seems to go by the name "competitive authoritarianism" more and more. Coined by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, the system seems to be gaining more and more currency:
Competitive authoritarianism must be distinguished from democracy on the one hand and full-scale authoritarianism on the other. Modern democratic regimes all meet four minimum criteria: 1) Executives and legislatures are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair; 2) virtually all adults possess the right to vote; 3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal, are broadly protected; and 4) elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to the tutelary control of military or clerical leaders. Although even fully democratic regimes may at times violate one or more of these criteria, such violations are not broad or systematic enough to seriously impede democratic challenges to incumbent governments. In other words, they do not fundamentally alter the playing field between government and opposition.

In competitive authoritarian regimes, by contrast, violations of these criteria are both frequent enough and serious enough to create an uneven playing field between government and opposition. Although elections are regularly held and are generally free of massive fraud, incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results. Journalists, opposition politicians, and other government critics may be spied on, threatened, harassed, or arrested. Members of the opposition may be jailed, exiled, or—less frequently—even assaulted or murdered. Regimes characterized by such abuses cannot be called democratic.

Competitive authoritarianism must therefore be distinguished from unstable, ineffective, or otherwise flawed types of regimes that nevertheless meet basic standards of democracy, and this includes what Guillermo O'Donnell has called "delegative democracies." According to O'Donnell, delegative democracies are characterized by low levels of horizontal accountability (checks and balances) and therefore exhibit powerful, plebiscitarian, and occasionally abusive executives. Yet such regimes meet minimum standards for democracy. Delegative democracy thus applies to such cases as Argentina and Brazil in the early 1990s, but not to Peru after Fujimori's 1992 presidential self-coup.

Yet if competitive authoritarian regimes fall short of democracy, they also fall short of full-scale authoritarianism. Although incumbents in competitive authoritarian regimes may routinely manipulate formal democratic rules, they are unable to eliminate them or reduce them to a mere façade. Rather than openly violating democratic rules (for example, by banning or repressing the opposition and the media), incumbents are more likely to use bribery, co-optation, and more subtle forms of persecution, such as the use of tax authorities, compliant judiciaries, and other state agencies to "legally" harass, persecute, or extort cooperative behavior from critics. Yet even if the cards are stacked in favor of autocratic incumbents, the persistence of meaningful democratic institutions creates arenas through which opposition forces may—and frequently do—pose significant challenges. As a result, even though democratic institutions may be badly flawed, both authoritarian incumbents and their opponents must take them seriously.
Nobody would confuse him for the academic type, but Ledezma gets it. In the clip above, he summarizes the distinctions Levitsky and Way make with uncanny precision. I have to take my hat off to him grasping what he's up against as clearly as he has. Endlessly demonized, stripped of his powers, aggressively harassed, Ledezma nonetheless keeps his cool and restrains himself from lobbing shrill "ESTE RRRRRRRREGIMEN TOTALITARIO!!!!" rhetorical grenades at the government. The guy has his ojo pelao...eyes wide open, man, eyes wide open.

Ledezma...whodathunk, huh?

April 20, 2009

Even the liberal New Republic...

Quico says: ...wants to know what Venezuelans thought of The Handshake.

Christopher Toothaker, or the problem with mainstream media

Juan Cristobal says: - This weekend's rapprochement between the U.S. and Venezuela is, without a doubt, good news. We have long argued on this blog that isolating Chavez is impossible and that fueling his anti-U.S. rhetoric only helps Chavez and actually hurts the opposition, including our political prisoners.

But don't expect to read this opinion in the mainstream media.

Case in point: this dispatch from Christopher Toothaker, of the Associated Press. Toothaker tried to find out what the opposition thinks of this new detente between the two countries. He paints the portrait of a wary opposition, concluding that we want Obama to press Chavez on his increasing authoritarianism.

His only source? Milos Alcalay.

I have no problem with former Ambassador Alcalay. In fact, I may even agree with most of what he's saying.

My problem is with this reporter claiming that Alcalay actually speaks for the opposition. As a former diplomat who has never held elective office and who served as Chavez's Ambassador a full two years after the April 2002 massacre, Mr. Alcalay is not the spokesperson we really need, nor is he a representative voice of any significant portion of the opposition.

Was it too much to ask Mr. Toothaker to get other opinions? For example, the opinion of the leaders of our political parties, or of Caracas' embattled Mayor? Last I heard, those were the guys actually getting the votes.

You may be tempted to conclude that this is their fault. Partly, it is, given how I can't find a single quote from a significant opposition voice talking about the Obama-Chavez meeting. Seriously, people, is it too hard to put out a press release?

But it's clear Mr. Toothaker didn't seek to talk to other sources. Had he done that, he would have added the usual disclaimer of how he tried to reach other people but did not hear back. This omission hints that his only source was Alcalay and, poof, a note about Venezuela's wary "opposition" makes its way to hundreds of newspapers and media outlets across the globe.

A while back, we concluded that our opposition leadership needed to make way for fresh faces and new ideas. So it goes with mainstream media. Their laziness and the callous way in which they do their job does a disservice to Venezuela's opposition and to the public in general.

It's time for them to go as well. Luckily, they're on their way out.