Red Rag Chronicles

Quico says: In the last few weeks, Venezuelans have faced a paradox. A government that, by and large, has never allowed itself to be hemmed in by written...

Quico says: In the last few weeks, Venezuelans have faced a paradox. A government that, by and large, has never allowed itself to be hemmed in by written laws has, nonetheless, pushed a wide legislative offensive, approving any number of new laws that expand its scope to punish private actors.

The result is disorienting, contradictory, baffling. Take the issue of property rights. Within a few days, the government both greatly simplified the legal procedure for taking over privately owned businesses and demonstrated that it doesn’t actually care about those procedures by ignoring all due process and sending actual tanks to take over the nation’s largest cement manufacturer.

This pattern, where the government approves punitive new laws and, in the next breath, gleefully ignores them, has been one of the defining characteristics of chavismo’s onslaught against rule-based governance; a practice that badly undermines of the entire cognitive and cultural apparatus that supports idea of a state bound by laws.

How to interpret all this? Why does a government that clearly doesn’t give a rat’s ass about laws spend so much time and energy changing them?

For me, the key is to wise-up to the political role these new laws play, to understand them not as enshrining substantive new powers but rather as signals, messages within a signaling game.

What is alarming about the new Telecoms Bill, for instance, isn’t actually the specific new powers it would grant the presidency. To realize that, it’s enough to witness chavismo’s move against two opposition radio stations in Guarico state last week. The stations, whose broadcasting licenses were not in order, were shut down in a delirious show of strength, by hundreds of armed soldiers that went on to seize their broadcasting equipment outside any due process mechanism whatsoever. Even the new Telecoms Bill, however punitive and authoritarian it may be, wouldn’t empower the government to randomly seize stations’ equipment like that…and that bill isn’t even law yet!

Episodes like the one in Guarico show that the government’s M.O. for screwing us doesn’t consist of tightening the law, it consists of just ignoring laws with impunity whenever it feels like it. In that context, the question becomes: what’s the point of tightening laws at all, of making them much more punitive than they were, but still less punitive than the government’s real-world actions?

The answer, I think, is that these new laws aren’t laws, they’re messages. Signalling mechanisms. Language. They’re the way Chávez communicates with his own bureaucrats, to indicate to them of which sectors are now “fair game”. And it’s the way he communicates with specific sectors to let them know that they’ve been marked out.

If you are, say, a tour operator, you’re right to be alarmed by the new Tourism Decree Law – but not fundamentally due to the dozens of arbitrary new permits and authorizations you’re now supposed to obtain just to do business, or to the heavy punishments you face for breaking any of them. After all, if the government had wanted to shut you down or bankrupt you, it certainly could’ve done so de facto, with or without the new law.

The reason you should be alarmed is that the Decree Law itself acts as a statement of intent, a none-too-subtle sign that, for whatever reason, your business is in the bureaucracy’s cross hairs. That the people singled out for newly punitive treatment should react with alarm isn’t at all surprising.

What’s shocking is the breadth of new targets the latest batch of chavista laws take on: everyone from real estate developers and food processors to media companies and retail businesses. Marking them all out at once, Chávez waves a huge red rag in front of their faces. He invites them to charge, as though it was the red-rag that was threatening them.

But it isn’t the red rag that threatens them. It’s the sword concealed just behind it. Of course, he had that sword long before he started waving the red rag. All the red rag is meant to do is to lure us into a panicked charge, a hopeless attack launched without a plan that merely leaves us all the more exposed to the real threat we face.

There is no doubt that a bull has very good reason to be alarmed if he sees a red rag waved in front of his face at a bullfight. That rag signals an intent that he can only find alarming. But it’s just as clear that, if the bull mistakes the signal for the threat itself, he’ll only help the torero move in for the final blow.

Trust me, I know. After all, I’m a Toro.