After All These Years, Dan Burnett Still Doesn't Get It

Quico says: Here’s a riddle for you: when is a post-chavista awakening not a post-chavista awakening? When it’s formulated as though failed policies had nothing to do with autocratic politics…in other words, when it’s Dan Burnett’s post-chavista awakening.

Burnett – a.k.a. “ow” – and I go back a ways. Time was, back in 2003-2004, when Dan used to while away his afternoons on my comments section fighting the good fight against the bolivarian revolution’s detractors. Calmer and more thoughtful than your average foaming-at-the-mouth foreign based PSF, he nonetheless went to considerable lengths to defend aspects of chavismo I considered plainly indefensible.

In time, Dan got tired of the torrent of abuse he was getting in my blog and set up camp on his own, starting OilWars, nominally a blog about Venezuela and Iraq, but in practice mostly about Venezuela. For me, it was a case of good riddance, though I did sporadically check in to read what he was writing.

Long story short, after a long, unrequited infatuation, Burnett’s come down with a heavy case of the repentant chavista blues. For the last few weeks, his blog has turned into one long gripe about the revolution’s economic policies, its idiot defense of an absurdly over-valued currency, the general insouciance of its spokesmen and the utter absence of anything that could be considered a long-term development and diversification strategy. He sums up his new position saying,

A different government, WITH ITS HEART IN EXACTLY THE SAME PLACE, but with its feet planted firmly on the ground could do much, much better both for Venezuelans and the Left internationally. [emphasis his.]

You’d think I’d be happy about all this, and certainly I can’t hide a certain schadenfreudish frisson at his belated jolt of sanity.

But as I read his recent posts more closely, I can’t shake the feeling that, deep down, Burnett still doesn’t get it. His impassioned critique of chavista economic bumbling comes in a political void, divorced from any kind of critical evaluation of the way the politics of the Chávez era made it not just entirely predictable but ultimately inevitable.

As far as I can tell, Dan doesn’t write much about politics, preferring to concentrate on what he sees as the more consequential matters of longer term development strategy. Any acknowledgment of Chávez cult of personality is thin on the ground over at OilWars. When, rarely, they do come, they come heavily hedged with ritual bowing toward the leader’s great charisma, determination and dynamism. For Burnett, the economic gríngo-la is well and truly off; the political one is still firmly in place.

Hugo Chávez equates dissent with treason. He has made promotion within the Bolivarian political establishment wholly dependent on continual shows of unconditional obedience. He’s instituted a militaristic leadership style where all collaborators, ministers included, are expected merely to implement his orders without question.

Catch him on one of his good days, and Burnett’s even capable of accepting that. It’s the link between that leadership style and the government’s dysfunctional economic policies that seems to elude him.

And yet, it’s clear. The one setting where Freedom of Expression and openness to debate have been most badly eroded in the Chávez era is around the cabinet table. Under Chávez, policies are dictated to ministers, Aló Presidente style, rather than discussed with them. Add to this leadership style the guy’s delirious, near-comical economic illiteracy and the result isn’t really a surprise: misguided, contradictory, short-sighted policies with vague evaluation criteria, little follow up, multiple opportunities for rent-seeking, no long-term coherence and major incentives for ministerial dissembling.

Burnett takes out his frustration over all the silly policy on Chávez’s hapless cabinet ministers, but in doing so he puts on display his legendary abilities for seeing-and-not-seeing, completely missing the point that anybody who shows the independence of mind it would take to tell Chávez his policies make no sense got weeded out of the upper echelons of the chavista establishment long ago.

So it’s absurd to see the government’s economic haplessness as a kind of historical contingency, an accident unrelated to the deep structures of its policy-making practices. When you fully grasp the implications of Chávez’s criteria for promoting people to cabinet level, you realize it couldn’t have gone any other way. Chavista ministers make senseless policies because, under Chávez, only senseless people stand a chance of becoming ministers.

This thought is a bridge too far for Burnett, por ahora.

The guy says he’s burnt out, so he’s taking some time off of blogging. Which, of course, is a sentiment I’ve shared now and then in the past. Sometimes, it takes some time away from the day-to-day to come to grips with painful realizations, with thoughts too long resisted that can no longer be ignored. Maybe, during his break, Dan will put two and two together and start grasping that a leader who demands blind obedience from his collaborators systematically cuts himself off from the mechanisms he would need to correct the mistakes he makes. Maybe, in time, even OW will come to see that under Narcissism Leninism, wrongheaded policies are no accident: they’re an inevitability.