Tit-for-tat

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Quico says: The government’s newfound love-in with Interpol makes for the kind of compare-and-contrast post that more or less writes itself.

I mean, it’s too easy. A government that, just a few months ago, was assuring us Interpol was “an ever loyal ally of empire” suddenly went into aw-shucks mode yesterday after Interpol publicly praised its capture of a high-profile Colombian Narco. It’s a classic bit of Chávez-style conditional approval. Just this spring Interpol’s Secretary General, Ronald Noble, was an ignoble, shameless crook, an “international bum” heading up a scheme to infiltrate gringo spies into Venezuela. All of a sudden, he shows up in ABN stories treated as an impeccable source.

So the barrel was full, the fish had nowhere to hide and my gun was loaded. But then I wondered if there isn’t more to this than a chance for some well-deserved but impotent snark. The political scientist in me has to wonder whether there isn’t some strategic depth to these screeching turnarounds. Because the government sure seems to be playing tit-for-tat. Which, believe it or not, is a technical term in this context.

Tit-for-tat is a way of securing cooperation from agents that may be tempted to do you wrong. The basic idea is that, in the context of an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, you’re often best off starting out “nice” and then shadowing the other side’s moves. If the other side screws you, you screw him right back. But if your opponent starts cooperating, you don’t hold a grudge: you relaunch cooperation as soon as he stops acting against your interests.

Academics have long known that equivalent retaliation along these lines is an effective strategy for eliciting cooperation across a range of non-cooperative games. And you can certainly interpret a lot of Chávez’s conflict management through this prism: when you hit him, he hits right back; when you play nice, he’s often willing to turn on a dime.

Think of the media. So long as Venevisión and Televen ran hard against the government, Chávez retaliated, assaulting them rhetorically and signaling to advertisers to take their business elsewhere. As soon as they stopped broadcasting so critically, the government changed its stance too, dropping talk of taking away their broadcasting licenses and letting them get on with the business of broadcasting appalling shlock to housewives and raking in the advertising cash in the process.

That’s tit-for-tat.

Think of Arias Cardenas, who was let back into the fold after going so far as to challenge Chávez for the presidency. That’s tit-for-tat. Think of Baduel, aggressively harassed after literally saving the government from a coup, think of the unending on-again, off-again alliance between Chávez and PPT, of Chávez’s eventual “break” with a FARC that wasn’t listening to him, of the sad fate of the Villegas Brothers. Tit-for-tat, tit-for-tat, tit-for-tat.

From a blogger’s point of view, this sort of thing tends to look like naked hypocrisy and makes endless fodder for cheap compare-and-contrast shots. Still, there’s a reason he does it: tit-for-tat works.

Chávez’s predilection for this kind of behavior may explain, in part, why he finds any sort of criticism so baffling, so unacceptable. When he says he’s willing to work with all sectors (so long as they don’t seek to destabilize his government), he may well mean it. The guy perceives himself as forgiving, willing to let bygones be bygones and give people a second chance. He can’t for the life of him figure out why the price he demands – abject subservience – is so damn hard for so many people to swallow, and ends up interpreting refusals as grounded in essential evil.

“Nobody has to fight me,” you can see him reasoning, “they choose to fight me, despite what’s in their own interests. I’d be willing to give them a pass, to turn the page, but there’s just no reasoning with some people: they’re simply bad.”

At the same time, his preference for equivalent retaliation means it’s hard to definitively burn your bridges with chavismo. Recant and you can always get back into his good graces. We’re miles away here from the strategy of a Saddam Hussein, a J.V. Gómez or a Trujillo, men famous for hanging on for grudges tenaciously for decades on end and prosecuting them long after they’ve ceased to serve any useful role in cementing their power.

Chávez knows better than to indulge such strategically costly appetites. In Hugoslavia, there’s always a bit of carrot mixed in with the stick. The president may rant viciously against you, call you all sorts of unspeakable insults, but you always know that you can get back on the gravy train, simply by offering up your unconditional support once again.

It’s a situation Ronald Noble’s coming to know from the inside, and one I imagine Vladimir Villegas finds himself mulling over today.

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