The Shadow of Eligio Cedeño

Quico says: “Take Eligio Cedeño,” The Contact says, “to this day, I’ve never been able to figure out exactly how he fucked up.”

We’re sitting in one of these swank East Side restaurants whose ongoing existence don’t seem to jive at all with the extremist discourse coming out of Miraflores. After another sip of his diet coke, he goes on.

“It’s bizarre what happened to him. One day Eligio Cedeño is, as far as anyone can tell, a made guy, running his bank, you know, Bolívar Banco, doing business with the upper echelons of the bolibourgeoisie. Next thing you know he’s rotting away in a Disip cell, stuck there for years on end, with no formal charges, just sitting there. I mean, it’s been three years and they haven’t even charged him yet. I guess they’re talking about bringing down some bullshit ‘ilícito cambiario’ charge, but that’s after three years like that, detenido.

The place is quiet on a Monday night. We’ve finished eating now and are now waiting for the coffees we’ve ordered.

“So what happened? Common sense would suggest he screwed up big time with someone you just plain don’t mess with in this regime. But who? How? Nobody I know has a reasonable explanation…”

The Contact is driving at a larger point here. He’s just getting going, really.

“What I’m getting at is that it’s easy to overegg the parallels between this elite and previous ones. Everybody in the bolibourgeoisie these days is an Eligio Cedeño en potencia: one slip away from winding up behind bars, with no recourse, nobody to call on for help.

“And that’s the thing, these guys – the Fernández Barruecos and Arné Chacóns and Torres Cilibertos of the world – none of them can sleep easy at night. Sure, they’re making obscene amounts of money today. But…that’s today. Tomorrow? Nobody can guarantee them any kind of continuity. Nobody can tell them for sure that some internal enemy isn’t going to go and whisper a few bits of nastiness in Chávez’s ear and he’s going to get pissed off and the next thing they know they’re going to wind up across the hall from Eligio Cedeño at Disip.”

“That makes all the difference, because the kinds of agreements, the kinds of guarantees the bolibourgeoisie enjoys, they’re all tacit; shot through with insecurity. You hear these casual parallels drawn with Putin’s Russia, but it’s really not like that.

“I mean, think about it. In Russia the cards were on the table. It was explicit. Putin sat down with a handful of favored businessmen and layed out the ground rules: ‘You’re going to stay out of politics, support me when I call you for a favor, and in return I’m going to stay out of your hair.’ See? Clarito.

“Those may not be formal property rights the way an academic thinks of them, but it comes to the same thing: they can rest assured. Which means they can plan for the future. Invest. Think about going abroad to invest, even. In a way they were more like the American robber barons at the turn of the last century: maybe they got to where they are through unspeakably coño’e’madre tactics, but once there, they could transition, become real businessmen, think strategically, invest, plan. Our new elite can’t do that, because none of them has a real guarantee that Chávez isn’t going to throw the book at them for one offense or another, or that some rival isn’t going to pull a Cedeño on them.

Our coffees come, but The Contact barely looks at his. He’s in full flow now.

“And in a way, it’s much worse this way. Because if you’re in a kind of Russian situation, if you started out as a gangster but you have some kind of stability, some kind of certainty to your property rights, self-interest propels you to start acting in ways that create value for society as a whole. So, there you have Lukoil: a product of plunder, no doubt, but also a proper multinational corporation now, a real, professionally run company that does R&D and surveys its investment opportunities and works purposefully to grow and develop and expand and create value and power for Russia.

“Our new elite never acts like that. Cuz it wouldn’t make any sense for them to act like that. They’re in a position to make money today, but next week, who knows? So their time horizons get compressed: the incentive structure they face is pushing them to try to make as much money as they can as fast as they can and two weeks from now is already the ‘long-term’ as far as they’re concerned. That’s the tragedy here, that’s why our brand of corruption tends to settle into all-out kleptocracy rather than mutating into a productive elite.

The Contact leans back and pauses to take a long breath.

“The entire bolibourgeoisie lives under the long, dark shadow Eligio Cedeño throws from his Helicoide cell. That’s the thing, man.