Locked in their Hummers

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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.

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