Quico says: So Chávez went out to Santa Bárbara de Barinas to tour one of his revolutionary co-ops. At one point, some of the actual co-op workers got close enough to complain about how badly the project was going, making for one of those enthralling moments when reality manages to pierce through the layers of security and ideological insulation Chávez has so carefully built around himself.
To Chávez, bad news like this are an intolerable impertinence: baffling evidence that reality can’t always be badgered into ideological conformity.
Try as he might to insulate himself, these episodes keep happening. And Chávez keeps looking baffled and genuinely hurt by them. How could this go on? His instinct is to look for a culprit. Some traitor must have infiltrated this project and sabotaged it. Root the traitors out, and these baffling anomalies will cease.
Except they don’t cease, and each reshuffle seems to make things that little bit worse.
Two words: adverse selection.
Chávez doesn’t know it, but his obsession with loyalty weeds out the honest and selects for halabolivarianos.
It’s a process fueled by his narcissism. As Jimmy Carter told Gustavo Cisneros, if there’s one thing Chavez can’t stand is to be contradicted: avoid doing that, and you can pretty much keep him on your good side. Problem is, if Jimmy Carter knows that, then everyone in the chavista elite knows it too…and the less scrupulous you are, the more likely you are to exploit it for personal gain.
How does this work? Well, once upon a time, quite a few honest, competent people backed Chávez. Alongside them, of course, were more than a few crooks and opportunists.
Along comes Chávez and says something fantastically controversial. He calls for the country’s name to be changed, say, or demands a sprawling Enabling Law.
As is natural, some of his supporters will agree with him and some will disagree. Honest chavistas who honestly disagree will do the honest thing and express that disagreement. But the crooks and opportunists, being crooks and opportunists, will not. Angling to stay on his good side, they’ll express agreement whether it’s genuine or not:
But Chávez sees dissent as pure disloyalty, and disloyalty is the one fault he is not prepared to overlook. So he purges everyone who expresses dissent, and ends up with…
Then, some other issue comes up. Pick your controversy. Again the elite is divided:
Again, the crooks voice support for el Comandante. If the issue is central enough, the honest folk will put their heads above the parapet even knowing that it could cost them their ticket to the chavista inner circle (c.f. Baduel ahead of the constitutional referendum.)
The point, of course, is that when you make absolute loyalty your basic selection criteria, you provide huge incentives to fake absolute loyalty. And only the truly morally repugnant can fake it consistently for a decade or more.
Crooks and opportunists in every corner of Venezuela long ago realized that there’s nothing easier than jumping on the bolivarian gravy train: you just have to suck up to the guy all the time. Narcissists are, after all, touchingly predictable creatures. In a strange way, Chávez is dead easy to manipulate.
It can surprise no one that, in time, we ended up with the governing elite we got:
A sea of crooks, with a couple of extremists thrown into the mix: people who actively favor authoritarianism and take perverse pride in their willingness to turf out their judgment to the big man unconditionally. But I think the true zealots are the exception. The bulk? Halabolivarianos…
And this explains Chávez’s perplexity when cold, hard reality somehow breaks past the cordon and meets him face to face: he can’t for the life of him figure out why things don’t go as planned. As far as he’s concerned, he’s already thrown out the bad apples. Hell, he’s spent the last nine years vigilantly looking for any sign of disloyalty and nipping it in the bud: as far as he can see, there’s no reason why the government shouldn’t work with Prussian efficiency by now.
Here, the paranoid side of the Narcissist mind kicks in. Narcissists are convinced they have special powers and abilities, that they are uniquely gifted and good. When things go wrong, a narcissist won’t even consider looking in the mirror for a culprit. Instead, they look around them, sure that some kind of conspiracy is afoot to thwart them. If only their will had been carried out, they reason, things would have gone well. Only disloyalty can explain failure. The scale of a narcissist’s self-regard is the measure of the conspiracy he figures must have been in place to thwart him.
This is the dead end Chávez has reached. The people who might have been able to sit him down for a stern talk about this stuff got purged years ago. His advisors, these days, are people he selected mainly for their willingness to feed his ego come hell or high water. He intuits some of them must be betraying him, but how to figure out who? You can spy on them more, but what if the spies are the conspirators? When nobody around you will tell you the truth, isn’t the reasonable response to trust no one?
It’s a spiral. And it’s really driven Chávez to extremes of paranoia that more and more transcend the bizarre and bleed over into psychiatric territory. The harder Chávez tries to root out the “fifth columns” all around him, the more he locks in the circle of amoral sycophants craven enough to lie to him all the time, alongside a dwindling cohort of extremists who just refuse to disagree no matter how plain his lunacy becomes.
It’s no wonder we’re governed by crooks and kooks: nobody with a conscience could withstand the selection system Chávez has instituted without going mad.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.