A step towards dictatorship

Quico says: If you read this blog regularly, you know how the loose use of terms like “totalitarian”, “dictator”, “fascist”, etc. drives me up a wall. After 10 years of overwrought denunciations, Venezuela has come down with a serious case of Superlative Fatigue: we’ve been throwing so many epithets at the government for so long, we’ve lost the ability to make distinctions between things that are different.

Superlative Fatigue makes it difficult to get a grip on real movement along the spectrum of authoritarian control, robbing us of the words we need to describe escalations when they do occur. And so this week, when the Chávez government took a series of real steps along the road from mere autocracy to dictatorship, commentators were left scrambling for words to describe what had happened without sounding like the little boy who cried wolf. (I’m lookin’ right atcha, Miguel Octavio.)

Lets try for some definitional precision. To me, there’s a clear difference between regimes that use violence selectively to repress dissent and those that try for comprehensive repression.

Regimes in the first group, which I call autocratic, generally allow dissent, while semi-randomly selecting a smattering of dissidents for harassment, persecution and violence. Autocratic regimes in this mold rely on intimidation: since dissidents have no way of knowing, a priori, if they’ll be in the group selected for intimidation or not, they have compelling reasons to feel insecure, to fear the consequences from stepping over some invisible, indeed permanently changing, lines. Selective intimidation is designed to provoke self-censorship, and it works. Chavismo, until now, has been a classic autocratic regime.

Dictatorship is something different. Dictatorship is not about picking off a few dissidents now and again pour encourager les autres. Dictatorships set out to make repression comprehensive, to go after everyone who challenges the ruling elite’s power. While autocracy whispers in your ear “if you dissent, you might end up being targetted for repression”, dictatorship shouts out “if you dissent, you will end up a target for repression.”

Autocracy is content to keep political dissent suppressed, enfeebled and marginalized. Dictatorship seeks to wipe it out altogether.

Even today, chavismo is very far from being a dictatorship – as people who lived through the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship know only too well. If you’re reading this in Venezuela, and you haven’t taken elaborate precautions to log on to Caracas Chronicles through a proxy server to conceal your tracks from Disip, you’re living demonstration that chavismo is not a dictatorship: real dictatorships set out to punish not just those who write seditious material (like me) but also those who read them (like you).

What the last week has witnessed in Venezuela, however, is a move towards comprehensiveness. The state actions against Rosales, Baduel, the accusations against Teodoro and the stepping up of intimidation against Globovisión certainly suggest a move away from a strategy of selective intimidation and towards taking out all the leaders of the opposition in one go. These moves represent a clear step-change from the kind of selective repression we’ve seen until now.

The next few weeks will do much to clarify exactly where on the authoritarian control continuum Chávez wants to park his regime. If we see charges brought against the remaining high profile oppo leaders – Borges, Ledezma, Ocariz, Salas Feo, Pérez Vivas – we’ll know for sure we’ve entered a new stage in Chávez’s willingness to use his power to control the political life of the nation. If we see prosecution start to reach down systematically from those top leaders down towards the second tier of political activists who oppose the regime, we’ll be able to talk about out and out dictatorship.

We’re not there yet. But this week has certainly brought us closer.