The Montonera of the 21st Century

It’s a point GP keeps making in my comments section, and it’s a good one: for most Chavez supporters abroad, Venezuela didn’t exist before 1998. Brought into their consciousness more as a screen where revolutionary aspirations can be projected than as a real place, with a real history and a real people, Venezuela remains an abstraction in PSF minds. For this reason, international philochavismo fails again and again to understand the way developments in the Chavez era fit into the long sweep of Venezuelan history.

This is the reason I like articles like the one I linked to in yesterday’s post. They show the much neglected element of continuity in a regime that ceaselessly trumpets its radical novelty.

The fascinating thing about the bolibourgeoisie is how closely its rise re-enacts a socio-political pattern that was already well established 150 years ago. Without an awareness of Venezuela’s long history of assimilating new moneyed elites, it’s impossible to know what to make of the Wilmer Rupertis and Arné Chacóns of the world.

Venezuela’s 19th century was marked precisely by a quite similar dynamic. Central governments in Caracas had access to some tax and customs revenue, but never really consolidated control of the rest of the country. Periodically, regional caudillos would cobble together little private armies – montoneras – and attack Caracas. Once every few years, a montonera would succeed and establish a new “national” government. The sordid little war that brought about such regime change would typically be described as a “revolution” by its leaders.

The financiers and logisticians of the victorious montonera then got to cash in, by trafficking on their access to the new governing elite. They would adapt to the lifestyle and spending patterns of the old moneyed elite, and, if the new government lasted long enough before the next successful montonera, they would insinuate themselves gradually into the pre-existing oligarchy.

Sooner or later a new montonera would bring a new caudillo into power and the whole process would repeat itself.

The process stood in stark contrast with the pattern in countries like Peru and Guatemala, where oligarchies were genuinely closed to new members and new money could not buy access into the upper reaches of polite society. In Venezuela, the difference between a zambo and a catire has always been the size of his bank account.

The discovery of oil merely upped the ante in this little game, but didn’t fundamentally change it. The AD trienio of 1945-48 didn’t last long enough to establish a new moneyed elite, but the Pérez Jiménez era did, as did – much more profoundly – the Punto Fijo regime. War was replaced by elections as a method of choosing the new governing elite, but the tenor of the relationship between the new governing elites and their financiers and logisticians carried on more or less undisturbed.

These days, amid a discourse that obsessively emphasizes change, we see these old, old patterns re-enacted for the Nth time, as though something in our cultural DNA inexorably pushed our society into playing out the same script again and again.

Revolutionaries are everywhere and always blind to the way they renew the structures of the regimes and social systems they seek to replace.

But don’t be fooled: not that much has changed. Just like in the 19th century, the new moneyed elite instinctively mimics the lifestyle of the old. Just like in the 19th century, it builds its fortune out of connections rather than producing anything of real value. Just as in the 19th century, it depends on an atmosphere where back-scratching, influence-peddling, rent-seeking and the mutual dependence of politicians and financiers determines your chances to get rich. And, just like in the 19th century, in time it will grow too fat and comfortable to defend itself, too openly putrefact to enlist anyone’s loyalty, and it will fall.