The End of Whac-a-Mole as We Know It?

Quico says: You know the old fair game, right? You get a dorky little foam-padded club, and your job is to keep the moles down. When one pops up, you whack it over the head – which is terribly cathartic – but as soon as you do, another one pops up. And another. Faster and faster. No matter how quick you are, you can never win. You only have one club. And there are a lot of moles.

Could this be the perfect analogy for a petrostate in the down part of the oil cycle?

Chávez knows it could go that way, so he’s trying some innovative tactics to stay ahead of the game. For instance, this week he sonorously declared that any mole that dares to rise up will be summarily fired.

Which got me thinking maybe my previous writing on the subject has been a little bit naïve. Just because whac-a-mole was the way all previous Venezuelan administrations dealt with the social conflicts that follow spending retrenchments doesn’t mean Chávez will do the same. The man is, after all, a committed devotee of the maxim that if something is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. Why would he limit himself to the traditional “stall ’em, water-cannon ’em, tear gas ’em” tactics of the past? That’s the old way.

When people protested Luis Herrera’s austerity package after Black Friday in 1982, CAP’s reforms in the early-90s, or Caldera’s Agenda Venezuela in the mid 90s, those leaders had to fall back on traditional mole-whackery because the alternatives just weren’t allowed. Much as they probably wanted to, they couldn’t out-and-out ban protests, they couldn’t dismiss unionized workers en masse: there were rules about that sort of thing. Treaties they couldn’t back out of. Law courts they couldn’t control.

Besides, in purely political terms, the unions were just too powerful: any politician’s survival instinct would tell him loud-and-clear that that stuff was out of bounds.

But we’re dealing with Chávez here. He doesn’t do “out of bounds”. The CTV has already been emasculated; Chavista unions put in its place. Courts packed to ensure they rule the way they’re told. And the precedent of mass dismissal, in defiance of legal norms, of workers who strike against state owned enterprises has already been set.

Could it be that Chávez is about to throw away the whac-a-mole club, get a concrete mixer, and just pave over the mole hill?

I wouldn’t put it past him. The special hostility the authoritarian left reserves for working class organizations it can’t control has long been noted, and chavismo is no exception. Somehow, the dictatorship of the proletariat always seems to end up turning into a dictatorship over the proletariat. Paging General Jaruzelski…General Jaruzelski, please report to the Miraflores Wing.

It could break either way. Chávez has long seemed to realize the drawbacks of traditionally dictatorial actions such as banning strikes out-and-out. He knows if you pave over the mole hill, every mole starts to exert pressure on the concrete at the same time. Suddenly, even a hairline crack threatens the entire structure. Dictatorships turn out to be remarkably brittle little contraptions. They sure look solid, but when they start to fall apart they seem to crumble all at once.

One thing is for sure: going down the path of heavy-duty repression would be a departure for Chávez, a game-changer. This is something the hyperventilatory, Globo-watching opposition has never been able to grasp: dictatorial repression has never really been Chávez’s style. His whole thing is selective harassment and intimidation, not blanket prohibitions. It may, however, be that while selective harassment and intimidation is good enough in the up-part of the oil cycle, it’s just not tenable in the down-party. And it may be that, looking at the numbers, he’s starting to realize that.

But then, isn’t it just too late now to build the kind of repressive dictatorship he may come to feel he needs? The other side is already gearing up for a fight, los rusos también juegan. Hasn’t Chávez fallen way behind the curve?

And, come to think of it, what makes us think the chavista state is going to be any more competent at repressing striking aluminum workers than it is at producing aluminum?

Way more questions than answers, I realize. But that’s where I’m at.