Dismantling Allan Brewer-Carías


My review of Allan Brewer-Carías’s simply unreadable brick, Dismantling Democracy in Venezuela, is now up on TNR’s Book Review site. Fun bit:

Perhaps Dismantling Democracy in Venezuela should be read not as constitutional analysis, but rather as a kind of archaeology of an entire displaced elite’s wounded sense of entitlement. Chávez has unfortunately been lucky in his opposition. Used to being treated with deference, the old guard could never reconcile itself with the legitimacy of a government that refused to even pay lip service to its predecessors. Instead, between 2002 and 2005, it happily played along with Chávez’s polarization strategy, embarking on an escalating series of adventures of questionable democratic legitimacy to try to dislodge him from power: first, the 2002 coup, then a bizarre walkout by dissident military brass, followed by a two-month long oil sector strike that cost the nation tens of billions and hugely disrupted livelihoods.

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  1. A very interesting review! It is really quite amazing that Brewer Carias does not deal with what you call the theory of supra-constitutionality, the intellectual engine which undermined and replaced the theoretical legitimacy of his Fourth Republic, and has recentlyalso been the basis for the claims of President Zelaya in Honduras.

    While this theory has some slender textual support among the American founding fathers, it has been most fully elaborated by Carl Schmitt, the constitutional theorist of the far right in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

    The doctrine that the constitutional framework rests on the will of the people is tailor-made for replacing constitutional and procedural norms with “will”; first the will of the people, next the will of the party, and finally, the will of the Great Leader. One has to be a human-rights absolutist to effectively deny the validity of the “people’s “right to do whatever they please.

    • That’s the thing, Jeffry. There was a really interesting debate to be had there, and truth be told, el gobierno nos la puso bombita. When TNR asked me for a review I just assumed that’s what the book would be about…but Brewer-Carías just wasn’t interested in it at all.

      My sense is that to pick apart this kind of Schmittian understanding of sovereignty you have to actually engage with its logic, but to do so you have to acknowledge that the other side’s position is grounded in (some form of) logic in the first place. That’s the bridge Brewer-Carías wouldn’t cross.

      It’s as though even acknowledging that Chavismo once had a coherent constitutional doctrine in the first place was more legitimacy than he was willing to grant them!

      Awful book.

    • And then, we Latin Americans have the NERVE to call the people who justly booted Zelaya coupsters. They did only break the law in not putting him in a stripped pajamas in some island off the coast, first pending prosecution, and then for some decades.

      There is no such thing as the “will of the people”. There’s the will of people in government. Who might or might not have been elected by voters with vested interests.

      In any case the will of a particular individual can be gauged by asking them directly what they want or think. Or better yet, it can be ascertained by their own individual actions, on their own time and on their own money.

      There’s votes counted. And they exclusively gauge how many are in favour of (or against) such and such person or law at any given, arbitrary moment, in the specific way they are queried, if in the best of worlds, they have taken time to understand the question.

      Maybe that’s good enough to decide that a group of persons will become public officials. It’s not, though, a way to decide that a course of action is “right”. Just that most persons will approve of it. Though I would severely qualify what “approval” is when disposing of the money (taxes) and the persons of others (soldiers, cops, citizens other than you).

      Democracy is just a method for choosing SOME of the management, the answerable ones and maybe for framing their actions by way of law.

      The rest is pure crap. And totalitarian crap at that.

  2. I will read the book before reading your review entirely. However, based on my previous understanding of his analysis (in prior work), I agree with your review’s basic premise.

  3. Although you might be right about the constitutional theme in this book, your commentary is drenched in the self loathing of someone who comes from a family that could also be considered “the ancien regime grandee”.

    Decidedly lacking in depth.The use of hyphenated compounds words to look sophisticated rather than clearly present your point is a manipulation and lacks honesty( I refer here to your use of “pop- Rousseauian”)

    You then go on to say:

    “A new generation of younger leaders largely free of association with the old system has slowly come to the fore.”

    So while Carias is a dinosaur, in counterpart I suppose you are a young person who rocks?

    “Those of us who have opposed him on liberal grounds from the start—and there are far more of us than the standard narrative would suggest—have been weighed down for years with association with ancién regime dinosaurs of the type that Allan Brewer-Carías has come to represent and to support.”

    I think your anger towards the ‘ancien regime grandee’ would be better directed toward the epitome of that select group incarnated in Dr. Caldera who was so power hungry that when his own party wanted to make room for younger generations to participate and become leaders, he struck a devil’s pact with the” chiripero”.

    Not content with winning the presidency he then tried to consolidate his power by pardoning Chavez, bestowing the blessing of the” ancien elites” on everything that Chavez stood for hoping to benefit politically form this action.

    • Firepigette,
      Though I’m sure Quico doesn’t need me to defend him, this …

      “Although you might be right about the constitutional theme in this book, your commentary is drenched in the self loathing of someone who comes from a family that could also be considered “the ancien regime grandee”.”

      … was uncalled for. Starting out with ad-hominems is never a good approach if you want your comment to be taken seriously.

  4. JC

    “was uncalled for. Starting out with ad-hominems is never a good approach if you want your comment to be taken seriously.”

    A good point which is why I think his criticisms,not only of CBC , but of many people in the opposition are not to be taken seriously either.

  5. What I don’t understand is if firepigette hates whatever Quico writes why does she keep coming back? it must be JC’s charm.
    Seriously, I don’t agree with Quico always, but
    – “Decidedly lacking in depth” is IMHO uncalled for… there is a very good analysis here of the dichotomy of the opposition and why we have actually helped Chavez stay in power when the old guard was making the choices of the oil strike and the Altamira Square charade…
    – You might not like his writing style but how do you know he does it “to look sophisticated”?
    – You might not like that he calls Carias a dinosaur, but from that how did you surmise Quico is portraying himself as “a young person who rocks?”

    Really this is just form, not substance. It will be better if you let us know what points of the argument you disagree with. The personal attacks are reserved for later when the discussion turns sour, jeez what is the fun of starting there?

  6. Can we dispense with this whole “4th Republic, 5th Republic” labeling nonsense? You can say that the new constitution changed the nature of the republic, but I mean really, 5th Republic? Come on, on what basis have there been “five” republics?

    Anyway that’s piddly stuff. The whole supra-constitutional argument was an excuse to quickly destroy the existing institutions and replace them with more accommodating ones allowing Chavez to begin the process of his power grab. It’s interesting to me how in theory all of these positions where supposed to be “temporary” while the assembly defined the laws to elect or appoint most if not all of these officials (incuding the judges of the Supreme Court).

    It’s just mind-boggling to think that some of these figures were appointed “temporarily” in the year 2000 only to hold the office for like… four to five years. Take, for example the CNE. The National Assembly only got to finally establish the process to name and appoint the members AFTER the current board had dared to accept signatures and petitions to hold consultive referendums on Chavez’ rule. In other words, they were not in a hurry to officially appoint and approve members as long as they were “with the process”.

    Let’s face it, constitutions in Venzuela are like toilet paper: as long as it doesn’t sting or hurt you, keep wiping your ass with it.

    • Seeing how Frank Drebin was probably about as serious (and responsible with his service weapons and police powers) as the group of roguish clowns patriotic military officers and naked opportunists politicians and violent dinosaurs revolutionary fighters that alledgedly refounded the Republic… I would rather use the system of numeration of the Police Squad movies: This (rather than a 5th.) is a 4¼th. Republic. A tired sequel of comedic value for the rest of the world, maybe.

  7. I am not sure we can totally dismiss “the will of the people” as having no existence, ever.
    It has been a pretty durable concept, and dismissing the will of the people as a basis for legitimacy of government cedes a lot of ground.

    I am more inclined to argue that, whatever their will, “the people” cannot legitimately derogate from core human rights, including procedural rights such as trial within a reasonable time, independent judiciary, etc.

    And of course, appeal to the people is always a revolutionary act; you don’t get to claim that the people are now creating a new beginning, outside of Constitutional norms, and also claim that it is no fair when you are deposed for acting contrary to your oath to uphold the Constitution.

    • The “will of the people” as used by political theorists and politicians to treat a set of individuals, both politically and legally as a “mass” is utter hogwash. Cannot be defined. It’s just mumbo jumbo to concentrate power on public officials.

      The “will of the people” is incredibly complex and covers every aspect of human existence. Just as complex as the differences from individual to individual. Not to be manipulated forcefully, if you really are interested in what it might be. It can only be honestly ascertained, in my opinion, when said individuals are left to associate and act on their own time and their own money. What they really care about, they will act about on their own. Period.

      Whoever tries to mold individuals into a mass, in theory or in practice is not interested in their will as it is. Most probably is interested in regarding them as sheep and treating them as such.

      There’s polling, and there’s voting, which is polling with legal consequences. There’s statistics, of course, and demographics. Even near ideal ballotting is just polling of a limited section of the population, at a given instant, supposing they really took their time to understand what it was about.

      The basis for legitimacy of a democratic government is more involved. That basis is the tranquility of minorities and of individuals; that the government, after being elected, will let everyone live their lives.

      Democratic election determines (or rather approximates) fairness in choosing public officials. If the best efforts are made to objectively poll the will of voters.

    • The problem with “the will of the people” or the General Will as Robespierre would put it, is that it is an Enlightenment ideal completely unsuited to the post-modern, fractured world we live in here in Latin America. Chavez is a 21st-century socialist/19th century caudillo/20th century military officer/Bolivariano/…..you get the picture. The fact that he has subverted a concept such as the General Will for his own ends should show us that our constitutions need more safeguards, not less and that vast popular participation (in our countries) usually devolves into a self-serving, pseudo-democratic experiment. A democracy perishes if it is not constantly cared for by an involved and well-informed citizenry. Sadly, with the caliber of civic education that we have to contend with in Latin America, I would say that it would be preferrable to err on the side of constitutional safeguards even if that means not allowing “the people”, whatever that nebulous concept may be, to vote on anything and everything whenever they please.

    • I can understand that Rosseau tried to define the basis for the legitimacy of the State and of it’s actions on the “general will”. That it was the State for a country, given that it gave legal (and legitimate) shape to the wishes of the population.

      I would rather use the more British concept of “consent of the governed”, for one, it means you have to agree to it’s basic provisions beforehand. And in a radical streak, would add “unanimous” before. Just to be sure.

  8. Often, in the publishing world, editors will eliminate the first couple of paragraphs produced by a writer, in order to start with the “beef”. Meaning, the writer’s meat in the sandwich, normally developing after he or she gets the nonsense out of his system.

    The way I see it, Quico’s beef starts with his penultimate paragraph, in his review of ABC’s book. That penultimate paragraph, and the one following, are simple, eloquent and factual. Perfect. The only compound hyphenated word Quico uses in those two paragraphs have none of the preciousness invoked by his ealier Rousseau fixation. That said, Quico’s salon danglings are well targetted to some of the most pretentious readers I’ve known (of The New Republic).

    In the main, and I emphasize the broader brush strokes, I agree that Quico’s points are valid and need to be said.

    Where Quico’s review fails, is with his need to erect a personal pissing contest with members of the very ancien regime to which he belongs. That’s unfortunate. For it results in — yes, J.C. — Quico’s ad hominems through his wild exaggerations and non-proven rumours.

    Let’s take a brief look at Quico’s recipe for besmirching ABC.

    In the wild exaggeration department, Quico shows his ignorance, if not laziness to google, when he compares ABC’s moustache to Dalí’s. Ridiculous. Furthermore, Quico couples this exaggeration of a hairy signature to the reports of sightings by no-name “eyewitnesses”, at the height of Venezuela’s national polarization.

    Can you say: Madame Lafarge? That Quico actually writes this for publication on a much broader scale than his personal political blog is irresponsible. (And then bloggers wonder why their writings are not that well respected.)

    Quico doesn’t mention one achievement by ABC, to round out the character of the person he manipulates under a magnifying glass. Rather, Quico disses ABC’s achievements and teaching posts at Cambridge and Columbia, by summarizing that “Brewer-Carías is the epitome of a Venezuelan ancién rgime (sic) grandee.

    Can you say: petty?

    I sure can.

    • You know, you really should call the police to report the gang of sadistic thugs who apparently force you to read this blog day in and day out. Those guys are mean!

    • For fuck’s sake, Quico. If you want positive comments only, then by all means, say so. No one’s forcing you to publish your writings, either, least of all on a blog open to tutili mundi.

      If I wanted to participate in an echo chamber, I wouldn’t bother reading this blog, I’d stick to Aporrea. I read CC not only because I enjoy yours and JC’s works, even when I disagree with the piece, but because of the dialog that takes place in the comments section.

      If you don’t want your readers giving it back to you when they think you’ve lost the plot, then don’t accept comments, or block those who are critical. But the whining? Unbecoming.

    • C’mon, EA, Syd’s fixation on me, her hate-hate relationship with everything I write, the buckets of bile she’s made a hobby of spewing out on this comments section for YEARS now, they’ve all clearly tipped over some critical threshold from intense-interest to jared loughneresque fixation. She’s the Steve Hunt of the right, dude!

      Honestly, enough is enough.

      It all went far too far very long ago. I mean stop and think about this. Allan friggin Brewer friggin Carías writes a 400 page book on violations of the Venezuelan constitution from 1999 to 2010 and “forgets” that he was knee-deep in the conspiracy that saw every branch of the state dissolved…but I’m petty for pointing out that, with his moustache, it’s not really imaginable that the multiple witnesses who saw him there and reported on his role in the crisis had mistaken somebody else for him!

      For years I sort of held my tongue around Syd for very deeply personal reasons: through a twist of fate, her dad was my mom’s Ob/Gyn, very literally the guy who brought me into this world. My mom adores her dad and really didn’t want me to reply too harshly to her. But she really is the single nastiest, bitchiest, most screechingly obnoxious and – yes – pettiest commenter I’ve ever had at this point, and that’s a distinction she’s won against some friggin’ tough competition.

      If I’m in a kind frame of mind, all I can say is that she obviously, passionately hates my style, my ideology, my intellect and every single one of my political impulses. That’s certainly her prerogative.

      But, given that that’s the case, why oh why does she insist on reading my blog every single day!??

      En serio, it doesn’t add up…

    • For someone who dishes out a motherlode of invectives, Quico, in that unfortunate I’m-an-entitled-punk language of yours, as others have noted, why is your skin so paper thin when I make legitimate comments against some of the points you raise? I mean, we’re talking serious hissy fit, here. Think about it. And re-read EA’s comment.

      And if your skin is so-o-o thin, why have you set up your blog for a larger audience? Why do you remind us all of the even larger audiences that you pen for? Isn’t it time to set up your private little club so that you can lead all who are allowed in, in singing Kum-bah-yah and in chanting O-o-o-m-m-m?

      Btw, given your latest syd’s-the-devil rant, you’ve likely forgotten why I come by here, not every day, but sometimes frequently. It’s because of the entertainment factor. And that happens in the comments section, where a greater level of democracy rules.

      You’ve heard about democracy, right?

    • I want to go on record here: thank you FT, for providing this space. Your reply to Syd reminds me of that F… YOU post you wrote a few years back about Weisbrot I think it was, or was it Wilpert? I can’t remember. But I sure laughed with it, and with Syd’s let’s all sing Kum-bah-yaa sect.

      In any case, and already expecting a similar reaction, I can only agree, in this instance, with EA, and Syd. In fact, I remember you once wrote to me something similar, along the lines of “if you wrote a blog, be prepared to be criticised.” When you’re inspired, you write, without a doubt, the most incisive commentary about our country in English. I thoroughly enjoy it, and that’s the reason why I keep coming back for more. But that’s far from the norm. In my opinion, out of every 10 posts, 2 or 3 are outstanding, 2 0r 3 are OK, and the remaining is like “WTF is this guy smoking?” And when one incurs in the mistake of pointing out why one thinks you’re wrong, then the answer, in my case at least is, “yeah the one who pines for Pinochet is going to teach me… Or the voice of maturity has spoken…” or some other condescending, utterly pejorative remark. It’s as if you only want to hear praise, are quite content at being praised, and when someone contradicts your fans or you, you go on the attack. It’s as if you’re truly convinced of your own infallibility, and that, as good as your command of the written English language, you ain’t.

      While we are at it, I quite don’t get this sense of loathing of self and class, as I wrote in previous post. You are like the rich kids that embrace the left for it provides an escape of sorts, from senses of guilt caused by belonging to the very establishment they represent. Ancien regime I hear you say? Are you not part and parcel of that? Were you not educated like a proper sifrino? When you wrote about some Spanish nobility in your ancestry, do you not think that voided any of your future swipes at sifrinos, for life?

      Lighten up mate. Grow a skin, or two. Take it on the chin, stoically, attack the message, not the messenger. At the end of the day we mean no harm, as far as I am concerned.

    • There must be a cognitive dissonance bug going around. The very same people that are seeing red and spitting fire at the mere mention of the words ‘ancien regime’ have the massive kidneys to tell *Quico* to get a thicker skin. Are you listening to yourselves? “attack the message and not the messenger”? Indeed! Now being sifrino disqualifies someone from doing a serious critique? Could someone be so helpful as to put up a full list of the pantheon of sacred cows about which nothing that is not effusive praise can be written? (So far I have Globovision, CAP and now Brewer-Carias). This whole “well, I never!” business would be funny if it weren’t for the deep “peos psicológicos” it hints at.

    • Alek,

      You are like the rich kids that embrace the left for it provides an escape of sorts, from senses of guilt caused by belonging to the very establishment they represent.

      OMG! Quico is a PSF! :p

      (Just kidding, Quico, don’t ban us!)


      No one is disqualified from criticizing anything. However, a person’s brackground must be taken into account when weighing the value of a given argument.

      Brewer-Carias plays disingenuous intellectual in his book, Quico plays disingenuous amo del valle, jr. in his blog. Lo que es igual no es trampa.

    • @EA: I’m sure this question is borne of my own historical ignorance but: How/Why does Quico being a amo-del-valle scion make him less credible when pointing out that (maybe, perhaps, possibly) some chivo (by which I mean, in the nicest way possible, an eminence or luminary, bright light of the nation) could be a little, a bit, a tiny smidge less relevant today or even very very slightly out of touch with the country as it stands now?

      This, to me, is frankly backwards. Should I consider a critique of Brewer Carias to be more credible if it came from an Aporrea op-ed? Does Quico have to be a PSF or a resentido social to be taken seriously *by the opposition*?!? You people are blowing my mind here.

      @JC: Ah, sorry about the omission (see, this is why we need a list). I know you get your share of heat. At least no one is devaluing your arguments by pointing out you links to the Prussian Empire 🙂

  9. The will of the people as a basis for constitutional government may be “hogwash” as someone ferociously commented, but alternative sources of legitimacy for a constitution are hard to come by.

    The US Constitution is based, mythically at least, on what “We, the People” have decided to do to form a more perfect constitution, and the Federalist papers make the people the source of the legitimacy of the proposed Constitution. The 9th Amendment
    makes this explicit even now.

    In Canada, amendment of the Constitution requires, by complicated formula, that well over 50% of the population in 70% of the provinces consent to the changes; by implication, the popular will is the source of legitimacy.

    In the British case, Parliament is supreme, basically just because Parliament has said so, and has effectively pushed the Crown and the Lords aside over a lengthy historical period. I doubt whether the traditional sources of governmental legitimacy in Britain could be transferred.

    • The will of the people is most definitely where constitutional legitimacy comes from. This is not negotiable. However, I think what the “hogwash” comment was directed at was the idea of supra-constitutionalism, which is what Francisco would have liked Allan Brewer-Carias to have addressed in his book. The real question that constitutional scholars argue over is to what extent the will of the people can override an existing constitution and what the will of the people is even defined as. For example, when a leader talks about ‘el soberano’ demanding constitutional change, what he really means is that a narrow group of people that are sympathetic to his interests demand that constitutional change. I have read the argument from leftist nutters that ‘el soberano’ cannot place limits on itself, this is to say that even if a constituent assembly were to entrench some clauses of the constitution, these would be null because the people would be violating their own sovereignty in doing so. In my opinion, all power flows from society, it is what gives constitutions their legitimacy. However, the notion that a vague group known as “the people” can vote on anything and everything in order to establish an anti-liberal tyranny of the majority is simply not acceptable.

    • The will of the majority… Well, the majority didn’t approve of the new Constitution. 10.9 million people were eligible to vote in December of 1999, and only 3.3 million voted yes.

      Funny how we have a participatory threshold for recalling a public figure, but not for approving of a new Constitution. Even in the US, a Constitutional Amendment has to be approved by at least 37 state legislatures or something like that.

    • My sense is that even something as short as the comment ElJefe just wrote would have made all the difference in ABC’s book: it very briefly acknowledges that Supra-constitutionalism as a doctrine of popular power is a fundamentally coherent understanding of the sources of legitimacy for a constitution, but quickly notes that its implications are troubling in a number of ways, and seems likely to lead to tyranny.

      What got me about Brewer’s book is his obdurate refusal to engage in any way with the other side’s arguments, even if it’s just for the period of time it takes to note the reasons that they’re deeply troubling. ABC – and the Marialejandralopez right in general – refuse on principle to do that. Their one over-riding ideological commitment is their commitment to never recognizing the other as a possible interlocutor. In that way, they’re the perfect mirror-images del que te conté…

  10. Quico,

    There a a number of typos in your review… IMHO, it might needs further proofreading.

    But that’s not my main quibble with your review. Your ancien regime carachterisation, though it might be funny and good for the American audience, is unfair.

    Throwing Brewer-Carias -who adamantly proposed anti-party elitism as a “way out” for modern Venezuelan Democracy, who chose to support the calls for a Constituyente back in 1999 and who became one of its leading members (albeit, running against the Polo Patriotico’s candidates, in one of the safe seats granted to the opposition by MVR’s absenteeism)- in the same lot as many honest opposition figures who opposed the supra-constitutional means of overhauling and ovethrowing the 1961 Constitution, and suggesting that these same figures are the obstacle for the good-and-young opposition leaders (some of whom did harbor many of the elitist, maximalist and myopic notions and actions that AB-C promoted or advanced), is mendacious.

    There was much to be valued and rescued from the institutional crisis of our previous democratic regime. There are also a lot of opportunists and faux-democrats among the crop of young leaders, and you know this.

    That being said, I must say thanks for bringing up AB-C’s new volume to the fore: his writing has become a bit suspect in the last few years, and English might not serve him well.

    • Well, space constraints on TNR kept me from making a number of important points, but here’s another: ABC’s book is adamant that the Constituyente had no legitimate right to write a new constitution. That’s basically the main point of the first half of the book. Another of the “details” he just casually leaves out is the fact that HE SAT ON THE CONSTITUYENTE! This just doesn’t make sense.

      I see this post as being of a piece with Setty’s on Luis Giusti. It’s time the opposition caught on that a lot of the chivos – the guys who had all the cultural and intellectual capital pre-1998 – were coasting. The reputation of a Giusti and a Brewer-Carías appear to me to be entirely disjointed from any actual demonstrated ability. Giusti doesn’t know how much oil his own oil company pumps out. Brewer-Carías can’t write a minimally competent book about constitutional law. What use are they?!

      It’s the Twilight of the Chivos, GTAvex!

  11. Not having read the book, it’s hard for me to argue the merits of Quico’s actual review of the book (about half of the text). I am always a little weary, though, of reviews in which the reviewer tells the reader what the book should be about instead of what the book is really about.

    The second part of the review was not such thing, but a polemic on Quico’s part.

    Grade for the review: C-

    • The thing is, I’m writing for a foreign audience. Don’t you think a kind of fraud is being committed against a hypothetical, random first-world book buyer who picks up ABC’s book and is just never told the guy was a key player in the April 12th coup?

      An omission that big is on the wrong side of the “slipped-my-mind/conscious-deception” balance. Brewer-Carías is deliberately omitting information that massively changes how any sane reader is likely to read his book.

      I think it amounts to a kind of intellectual malpractice.

      The piece I *really* can’t grasp is how Cambridge University Press agreed to publish this thing.

      Then again, it just proves my point: the one thing the guy is good at is squeezing every last bit of credibility from his depleting reserves of ancien régime cultural capital.

    • It’s like picking up Bill Clinton’s autobiography and finding there is nothing there about his impeachment. It’s publishing fraud.

  12. JC,

    ABC did not write an autobiography but instead he wrote a book on the Constitution; so you are comparing apples and oranges here.
    I don’t think his alleged “involvement” in April 12th is the kind of thing you need to mention in a book like that.

    • Whether he was involved or not is a red herring. The point is that for his book to completely ignore April 2002 is dishonest. More was expected from the country’s pre-eminent constitutional scholar. That’s all.

  13. Supra-Constitutionalism? That sounds a lot like the Zeroth Law of Robotics. If you understand the problems with that you understand the problems I have with the idea of Supra-Constitutionalism…


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