Mubarak : 2011 :: Chávez : 2012 ?


It’s become the opposition’s favorite parlor game: Could Chávez get Mubaraked next year? I think it could happen…but in an odd way. To see why, you have to understand how repressive regimes fail.

A major reason regimes like Mubarak’s, and Ben Ali’s, turn out to be brittle is that they stack up one incentive after another for people to falsify their preferences. You may despise the regime, but since expressing such a view is likely to get you imprisoned, tortured or worse, you have every reason to keep your views to yourself for as long as the overall Opposition seems weak.

Over time, your country is liable to end up in a situation where the vast majority of the population secretly hates the regime, but it’s too risky for any one person to say so. It’s a classic coordination problem: everyone wants to go second, no one wants to go first.

The events that create the conditions for overcoming this problem are, by nature, unpredictable. But, in time, some sui generis event comes along and sets off a defection cascade, where each defector’s decision lowers the cost of defecting for those closest to him/her, leading to yet more defections that in turn make it easier for yet more people to stop falsifying their preferences and express their anti-regime feelings openly.

In this sense, regimes are only as brittle as they are repressive. In particular, they’re brittle to the extent that their repression is comprehensive: that is, to the extent that they try to throw in jail everyone who speaks out against them. Comprehensive repression that sets the stage for mass preference-falsification, which itself is the pre-requisite for a defection cascade.  Mubarak fell into that trap. So did Ben Ali.

Chávez hasn’t. In Venezuela repression has always been selective rather than comprehensive. The regime has made sure everyone knows that speaking out could get you in trouble…but most often won’t. The relative (please, oh hate-mailers, fixate on the qualifying adjective here) liberalism of the Chávez regime, when compared with the old-fashioned dictatorships of North Africa, make preference falsification far less prevalent in Venezuela. Ours, afterall, is the land of the Maisanta Database – a place where there’s not that much of a point falsifying your beliefs because the government already has an exhaustive list measuring each citizen’s political loyalties, and everybody already knows it has it.

My sense, though, is that there’s one segment of Venezuela’s population where preferences are increasingly falsified: the pro-Chávez camp.

As the regime’s one-time earnest followers get more and more disillusioned with its inability to deliver on bread-and-butter issues, they retain powerful incentives to fake ongoing loyalty, if for no other reason than to keep some sort of access to what remains of the Chavista welfare system. Within traditionally chavista circles, expressing doubt is tantamount to apostasy, creating something that looks curiously like a recipe for Brittle Authoritarianism…but only within the pro-Chávez camp!

(Think of this as a corollary to Petkoff’s bon mot about how the only ones who really don’t have any freedom of speech in our country are the government’s supporters.)

The intriguing possibility – the one the opposition needs to work towards over the next 22 months – is that the December 2012 presidential elections will turn into the “peculiar set of circumstances” that sets off a defection cascade within the ranks of disaffected chavistas, most likely in the aftermath of an amateurishly rigged election.

It’s in those circumstances that we could hope to bring the military – in Venezuela as in Egypt the ultimate arbiter of these things – over to our side, by showing them just how isolated the government they’ve been bolstering has become.

This, incidentally, is what makes a Cairo-on-the-Guaire scenario imaginable in 2012 whereas it wasn’t in 2002: back then, there was no chance of a defection cascade on the part of chavistas, because support for the government back then was not falsified!

For some time, people who run focus groups in Venezuela have been noting that the complaints and frustrations of chavistas in classes C, D and E are strikingly similar to those of their anti-government counterparts. That right there would seem like a first pre-condition for a defection cascade among them.

It’s too early to tell. But then, with these things, there are only two phases: too early to tell, and too late to stop.

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  1. That’s a really smart post. Thanks for not falling into the false equivalency of Chavez=Mubarak. One reason why I scoffed at people in Venezuela for saying they had the world’s worst government is that I had friends living in Egypt.

    Disaffected Chavistas need a welcoming group to join. . The Egyptian public smartly started out by hugging and kissing soldiers, boosting the chance of solidarity across what could have been a dangerous line. In Venezuela, I know very few oppos who are ready to open their arms to Chavistas. I thought the PPT would play that role, but they flopped in the assembly elections. Beyond them, I have seen mostly resentment, with little to no appreciation for the good intentions of the Chavista base.

    You mention “bringing the military over.” You might want to elaborate a bit more on why you see that as necessary, and how you see that happening.

    • “In Venezuela, I know very few oppos who are ready to open their arms to Chavistas.”

      I think it’s more complicated that this. There are, after all, many families that contain both Chavistas and anti-Chavistas. Beyond the political classes, things are a lot more mixed up.

      As for the “good intentions of the Chavez base”….again, probably too simple. There are plenty of earnest true believers. And then there are the guys on motorcycles who appear at opposition get-togethers.

  2. While I would love to think that Venezuela will follow in Egypt’s footsteps this is at best wishful thinking and at worst foolhardy. There are just too many distinctions

  3. I agree with Setty; very smart post!

    It appears to me on casual examination that the opposition cannot defeat Chavez unless it gets at least some ex-Chavez voters. I was struck in the last elections that the seven-million member PSUV achieved only 5.5 million votes, surely a sign of disaffection.

    Particularly given the original support for Candidate Chavez in his first election run, it would be silly to claim superiority over those who gave up their dreams of a decent Chavez Presidency later than oneself. It would be smart to have a Ex-Chavistas for the MUD organization, and to fund it well.

  4. I just came across this article about how the Apure ex governor was silenced and the regime “ruined” a potential asset for the oposition by scaring him into not jumping the “talanquera” and joining the other side.

    Needles to say, Mubarack by virtue of his 30 years in power did not have a dinosaur politician or party trying to hijack the revolt as it would inevitably happen here, and worse for mubarack he did not keep the country split like CH and his feeble attemp at attacking the protest with his paid supporters was weak and too late to be of any consequence.

    CH biggest asset is the thousands of armed supporters and just plain violence minded gun crazies, who can not wait for a chance to shoot people for fun.

    also too many people would be willing to get paid just to support the regime and do barbaric things like infiltrate peaceful demonstrations to try to incite a violent confrontatio, i just read a National Assemby courier was arrested a few days with about 10 pounds of C4 explosives on him along with guns at his residence…this as they say does not smell right for the successful outcome of repeating Egypt in Vzla.

  5. The funniest thing in years: Chavez congratulating the brave people of Egypt….what a nerve! Mijo, cuando las barbas de tu vecino veas arder pon las tuyas en remojo. Is he that much disconnected from reality?

    • Believe or not in his mind and those of his followers, the orate is congratulating the people of Egypt, not because they got rid of a dictator, but because they “defeated” a goverment that was a puppet of the hated “empire.”

  6. Right, I agree with jeffry house and setty. Especially JH’s idea about creating some sort of ex-chavista MUD organization.

    The main thing here would be to make sure it stays in the hands of actual “chavistas de corazón.” People who didn’t so much get convinced by the oppo or turn over to them as realize that Chavez is never going to do good on his promises.

    A sort of true “socialismo del siglo 21” party; keeping the ideas alive (the ones that come from whatever buttons Chavez has been pushing) and doing away with the caudillos.

    • Another main thing would be for them to be convinced that democracy is the only way to achieve their goals.

      Like a communist party grown disillusioned with Stalin and wanting to negotiate with the existing powers through democracy.

      • Hmm, what pristine ideas would those be? The idea that the State should control information? The idea that civilian militias should be armed? Or the idea that private property should be restricted, limited, regulated, overseen, and basically, downsized to its minimal level?

        People, the problem with Socialism of the 21st Century is not in its application, its in its ideas.

  7. I have a theory about the military issue. In my mind Chavismo is currently in the generational sweet spot when it comes to military assets in critical positions of power within the institution.

    As we all know Chavez himself had the opportunity to influence two generations of Venezuelan military men. The first was his own, those who were cadets at the academy at the same time as him (Diosdado, Baduel, Acosta Carles’ older brother, etc…). Because of their age this generation is out of the military.

    The second generation Chavez had access to was the generation of cadets that coincided with Officer Chavez at the Academia Militar. These guys are currently at the top of the military structure and will be during the critical 2012. In my mind to see these guys as potential turn coats is very naïve. It’s going to take another 4-5 years for Chavez’s old cadets to retire from the Military for us to start considering a group of officers who were not inoculated with the Chavismo virus back in the late 70s as people who can be counted on in the reconstruction of our country.

    PS. I’m not saying Chavez might not lose the elections in 2012, I just think that the top tier of military officers will do everything possible to keep him in power.

  8. “too early to tell, and too late to stop.”

    Francisco, perfect turn of phrase and exactly correct. Somehow, everyone knows when the turning point has arrived, but no one sees it coming ahead of time.

  9. “… in the aftermath of an amateurishly rigged election.”
    What makes you think the rigging will be amateurish? They have a lot of experience in that matter, and cuban know-how to boost it. Election rigging doesn’t happen just at the ballot box, but in many decisive moments before and after the election.

    • Cal,

      You are right, of course, but the point is not how technically professional it is rigged, it is that everyone will KNOW it was rigged. You can fool some of the people, etc…

      • Roy, they’ve been fooling the people fairly well since the”technically professional” rigging was done at the 2004 recall referendum, wouldn’t you say?

        Anyone with the slightest interest in the subject can find mountains of documentation online that, taken together, prove without a shadow of a doubt that the government has been fixing elections here since 2004.

        Star with

        Read the Febres Cordero-Marquez paper in the world’s most prestigious peer-reviewed journal in the field of statistics, the International Statistical Review. The jury which green-lighted this exhaustive study also green-lighted the publication of the authors’ contention that the SI beat the No vote by 56% to 44%, instead of the official No-Si win of 59% ro 41%.

        What’s breathtaking is not the extent of the fraud, or that election fraud has been systematically utilized in every election in Venezuela since then. (To those who point to oppo victories such as the squeak-through margin by which Chavez’s constitutional amendment failed in 2007, or the 6 pt margin by which Capriles Radonski defeated Diosdado Cabello in 2008, consider for a moment the possibility that both Chavez’ and Cabello’s pre-election hubris prevented them from recognizing that they’d need well more than 20 manufactured percentage points to put them over the top.)

        What’s truly breathtaking is the fact that powerful opposition pols and opinion-makers have for years been in connivance, out of fear, political blackmail, or some misguided conviction that they are actually “doing the right thing”, with the government in making Election Fraud a taboo issue in Venezuelan politics.

        For example, Omar Barboza and Teodoro Petkoff (and the list goes on and on) have first-hand knowledge of vote fraud in the 2006 elections. They assume that Chavez in all likelihood won those elections, by perhaps a 5 or at the most a 10 point margin. (And then again maybe not. Maybe Rosales won. After all, when you fix the results, no one keeps a record of the real outcomes.) Why? Because the best polls they had at their disposal showed in late October that the Rosales and Chavez voting intention trend-lines were pointing at a dead heat on December 3. They know for certain that he didn’t win by 26 points.

        But ask these gentlemen about vote rigging and you’ll get emphatic denials that the government commits fraud. I’ve been in those discussions, and I’ve heard all the arguments, and they don’t stand up. These people don’t WANT to know about election fraud, for several reasons. One, powerful financial and political interests are at play. In a country where the government controls all the purse-strings, and can influence which oppo politician or party gets funds to run its campaign, the incentives to keep quiet about things like this are, shall we say, persuasive.

        But a more public argument is used to quash discussion of vote-rigging: Don’t admit it, and don’t even talk about it, because if the sheep find out the votes are rigged they won’t go to the polls. Our political mandarins have decided that it’s better to keep people in the dark, and prognosticate endlessly about future election victories, instead of coming clean and saying Yes, we know the votes are rigged, they’ve been rigging elections for years, but we’ve believed that if have good candidates and wage effective campaigns, we’ll be able to mobilize huge amounts of voters on election day, and win DESPITE the advantage the government has.

        If they would do this, at least they’d make it acceptable to talk about vote fraud, and actually DO something about. Demand that the CNE open and audit the voter rolls: Demand that the CNE re-establish its institutional integrity (see And, perhaps most important, it would do something to counteract the widespread cynicism that’s corroded opposition politics once it became obvious that their leaders were lying to them.

        In Belarus they scream fraud after fraudulent elections. In Iran hundreds of thousands take to the streets and cry fraud after the government steals elections. And these are countries where repression is much crueler than here. But what happens here? We mumble about anomalies and irregularities, and to the eyes of the world, give Chavez and his “free and fair elections” a pass.

        A prominent foreign journalist once told me that the election fraud issue would never have legs until prominent opposition party leaders and candidates made it an issue. “Then I’d have someone to interview” he told me, “but as it stands now, no active politician will even admit the problem exists.”

        Chavez has done a pretty good job, hasn’t he. Let’s hope that we can muster a real 75-25 voting majority in 2012. That way we might be able to defeat Chavez by 2-3 points. Although I won’t hold my breath.

        • Eric, Thank God for your comment!

          I have intuited this and have said so for years, and every time was reacted to with utter disdain.Of course I had no proof.
          Sometimes when we think something that nobody else thinks there is a tendency to wonder if we are nuts!

          I really appreciate how you stated the case extensively and in detail,and in a way that should be understandable by all.

          If we can’t can be sincere with ourselves, we will stay caught in Chavez’s web of lies.

  10. Thumbs up! Very good post.
    My opinion is that we should consider the mentality of Venezuelans was far and still is far more inmature, than the Egyptian People.
    There ppl really took it seriously, we didn’t saw them, doing endless lines for gas, playing dominoes, and partying all over the strike. Half-closing “santa marias”, or dining at Plaza Altamira the 31st.
    So, without ignoring the differences of each situation, I think that (Strength of heart, conviction, endurence and maturity), are reasons why they succeded and we failed.

    • I wouldn’t be so harsh, the last really comprehensively repressive Venezuelan regime was Perez Jimenez, you can forgive people for forgetting how to mount a proper resistance (kind of like parents who have a five year old kid, then have another baby and are all: “Wait a minute, how did we do this diaper and bottle feeding last time?”).

      But also in Egypt the ratio of supporters to protesters was far more lopsided. In late 2002-2003 it was probably fairly evenly split or maybe the opposition with a small edge AT THE TIME. In any case the government depended primarily on oil revenues to keep the country running. I always got the sense that Ortega and Carmona were reluctant to do a general strike because they knew it would hurt them more than it would hurt the government. When PDVSA went nuclear that was when things got REAL.

      Regrettably though, the Army saw no reason to take Chavez out (having gone through that experience months earlier and seen the consequences they figured it was better to have a nutty Chavez than a chaotic opposition in government).

        • Hey José Luis,

          Welcome to the comments forum!

          As you’re a recent arrival, I will point this out to you gently: there’s an unwritten agreement in this forum that we do not use arguments of that kind. They’re lazy, and they only lead to name calling and fruitless shouting matches.

          If you have a specific rebuttal to FC’s post, please write it out in detail.

  11. I don’t think the political situations of Egypt and Venezuela, or that of its leaders, or armies, or societies, even belong in the same sentence. There’s always this absurd tendency of finding parallels in current and past foreign events with what’s happening in Venezuela. In my opinion, parallels, and plenty of them, we can find in our history. If pushed, we could even draw from other latin American nations, whose histories, struggles and populations are similar, while emphasis must always be made on identifying nuances and local flavours.

    But parallels with Arab countries? With Muslims? Not a case of oranges and apples, both fruits, but rather one of Heliamphora and the pyramids of Giza.

  12. This is the first time I leave a comment to say: Great freaking post Francisco.
    You provide analysis I wish I heard once from other Venezuelan news sources.

    • agree. I prefer this Quico a hundred times more to the one who thinks smart-ass lingo is the way to increase eyeballs. Then again, I’m getting on in years. Reflection soothes the soul.

  13. Great post.

    I declare myself an ignoramus about Egypt’s politics. I can surmise that repression, a lot of it, was involved in Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-odd years long reign. It was done in the name of some Egyptian mix of nationalism and socialism, as initiated by Nasser and followed upon by Sadat and Mubarak.

    The issue in Venezuela is not repression. In fact, the repression we see now is no worse, than say, Caldera or Lusinchi’s. Boneheaded and random.

    It’s not the stick, guys, it’s the carrot!.

    You touch the issue barely, Quico, when you speak of the loyalty-for-access to what’s left of the chavista welfare system (or government contracts for wealthier transactional chavistas, or whatever else).

    See, Venezuela was more than half-socialist before Chavez graduated from military academy.

    The chief of the executive, the President, already controlled more than half of our exports and ran a sham of a social-democratic system. Parties exacted proofs of loyalty for government jobs (and also profitable contracts) and used public funds for their mostly electoral ends. There were no guarantees on economic rights. Nationalizations happened. People got robbed. Journos and even comedians felt the power of the Man.

    The difference with this batch of populists, is that they were really systematic, really lacking any scruple or compunction: about using the leverage of oil money and the lack of economic (and other) rights to further their ends. Removing temporal limits to their powers. Actually demanding obedience for handouts or jobs, and getting the beneficiaries to attend indoctrination. Expropriating on a wide scale. Using their bureaucratic powers, not just to cow a journo or two, but to close whole radio and TV stations. Among others.

    Getting into trouble was never really about going to jail for most Venezuelans. It was about not landing a government job or getting something else, like CADIVI dollars. What really makes me wonder is the irrational sense of entitlements in Venezuelans, when they never did receive their benefits regularly, or in time.

    What disgruntled chavistas will do, what the military will do, is sadly, controlled by their own expectations on promises by Chavez and on their own past experiences of humiliation and broken promises. In my opinion, the opposition can get ahead by offering more than Hugo and credibly showing that it will deliver more, and that it will not be conditional on abjection.

    The problem is, the socialist or semi-socialist system itself is unsustainable, will never direct us towards development and will probably cause social and economic collapse in the now-opposition’s watch. Such are the quandaries of petrostate, “papa-de-los-helados” kind of democracy. Getting the patient to Kick the Habit is almost lethal.

    • Excellent comment!!!

      “What disgruntled chavistas will do, what the military will do, is sadly, controlled by their own expectations on promises by Chavez and on their own past experiences of humiliation and broken promises. In my opinion, the opposition can get ahead by offering more than Hugo and credibly showing that it will deliver more, and that it will not be conditional on abjection.”

      You have to be more populist than Chavez but, as far as, showing how real it would be to accomplish those promises , I have no idea.
      I guess, I am contradicting myself…populism and following through is an oxymoron, right?

      • Okey, maybe I put it too much in black and white terms.

        Maybe chavistas are really interested in social democracy or even socialism. But I don’t believe it. There’s what Europeans imagine when they imagine the welfare state, and there’s what Latin Americans imagine. The Europeans are realistic and it might be workable in principle: trade economic efficiency for universal service and redistribution, produce real goods, tax and then provide service.

        Offering a different vision which includes real prosperity as a possibility should be the name of the game for the opposition. However, it’s not short term.

  14. Brilliant post, but I disagree completely with this:

    “It’s in those circumstances that we could hope to bring the military – in Venezuela as in Egypt the ultimate arbiter of these things – over to our side”

    the military may have coup d’etat power on governments but they’re not the ultimate arbitrer. It’s not like they can observe the situation from outside and then objectively make the decision: this government has to go or it stays. For example what you see in Egypt where the military retired their support to Mubarak is just the military leadership trying to save their own hide. In a way the Egyptian government hasn’t been completely toppled, is trying to survive by removing the visible head.
    It’s important to understand that the military is not a monolith, it’s a multilevel structure that also has ties and depends on the rest of society. A general can give orders it doesn’t mean they’re always going to be obeyed. Chavez himself experienced this on April 11th when his generals went missing in action when he tried to activate Plan Avila.
    An incident from Milosevic’s Serbia can also illustrate this, 11 days after he stole a presidential election a multitudinary demonstration was called in the capital and people from all over the country were going to show up. So the military blockaded the main access roads with trucks and men. When the people reached the blockades they approached pacifically and talked to those in charge who agreed to not intervene as they moved the trucks using their tractors. In this case orders from the top were followed but not completely. Two days later Milosevic was out due mostly to pacific demonstrations.

    Of course the military can make the difference in the amount of blood and time that it takes, but they cannot sustain a government that is done for. Many times they cannot hold themselves together in the event of a crisis.

  15. If Chavez was being clever, something I’ve heard from him at times (“I can still smell the sulfur”) he would offer some version of the following argument: How is it that Hosni Mubarak—suddenly corrupt, a perpetrator of rigged elections, backed by a rubber-stamp party-ally-dominated parliament, having skewed the constitution in favor of his regime just to cover a few points from today’s Washington Post—has never been a recipient in the U.S. press (please feel free to add forums across the globe that haven’t mentioned word one critical of Mubarak in the last three to 30 years) of criticisms the likes received by Hugo Chavez since 2002? I haven’t heard any kooky North American evangelical religious fanatics calling for Mubarak’s assassination. And this is 30 years. Without elections that offer even a faint veil of legitimacy (as are held in some countries as the perpetuation of fake democracy has an increasing appeal globally). I am only able to recall mention of Egypt in any range of mainstream North American coverage in the last decade for the following: material or political support for Palestinians or tunnels that underscore the border between Egypt and Israel; and Cairo as the site for pan-Middle Eastern summits. The point being no one has tried to demonize Hosni Mubarak as an anti-democratic, scheming despot in the U.S. I’m not sure about Germany, France, UK and some of the other G8 political regions where everybody loves democracy so much they weep at the thought of everyday people participating in the decisions that comprise their own fate and the fate of their families.

    But they do that to Hugo Chavez, which does not make him a victim of some sort who is unaccountable for state repression. But why is it done that way? Why does the public rhetoric take that shape? Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan was a military leader … with a parliament, and a lot of power and an established allegiance with Washington. The junta in Myanmar to date doesn’t even have names in the U.S. press. Somebody mentioned Milosevic, who was a “wrong-side” agent of state repression as opposed to a right-side agent of state repression like Pinochet or Suharto: this pattern continues in Mubarak. No one said an ill word (in the range of venues for public debate already mentioned) until Tahrir Square was stuffed with ordinary Egyptians.

    Well, if you think it’s because the Washington Consensus controls neoliberal thought and action around the globe and capitalist triumphalism has achieved a new quixotic height among its Milton Friedman-educated supporters who love any single free market more than any dozen opportunities to participate in a decision that affects their whole community, you’re probably a Stalinist and the best thing you can do is overdose on sleeping pills tonight just to prevent misuse of resources by a CIA-allied operative in your elimination.

    • There’s a lot to that comment, for sure, and you’re right, it’s Chávez’s strongest card to play.

      To me, the honest answer to your question:

      Why does the public rhetoric take that shape?

      is…eso es culpa de Chávez! En serio!

      All the attention is the backsheesh Chávez gets for all the bombast. He knows exactly what it takes to get his name into the first world media, he grasps the kinds of antics the 24-hour-news-cycle falls for. And he hits those notes, again and again, for a reason.

      It’s the only way you get widespread attention in this crazy world of ours if you’re not a real strategic threat to the U.S. And, try as he might, Chávez is not a real strategic threat to the U.S.

      To me, the obvious comparison here isn’t with Mubarak. It’s with people like Mugabe and Idi Amin, people who became synonymous with crazy-dictator in North America even as their neighbors continued to brutalize their peoples in a more low-key way, going totally unnoticed, and even though they really posed no specific problem to the U.S.

      Bombast attracts eye-balls. Surely they knew this, and Chávez knows this. To huff about it now is to throw the rock and conceal the hand!

      • Or, said another way: Mubarak was not anti-American, Chavez is. The Myanmar junta is not overtly anti-American, Kim Jong-Il is. That’s what gets people’s emotions running. That’s what gets press coverage.

        • Berlusconi is pro-American. He’s roundly condemned in all kinds of foreign press BECAUSE HE KEEPS DOING CRAZY SHAMELESS SHIT!

          • Well, that’s a whole different ballgame. Having said that, nobody here in the US is even talking about Berlusconi.

  16. Mubarak overthrown and now the military suspends parliament and the consitution. No guarantees with election allegedly going to be held. I do not think that is what the protesters have in mind when they were demonstrating in Tahrir Square.

    The interest taken by the opposition in Tunisia and Egypt is frankly pathetic, Grasping at straws. It’s the same as Honduras – and no one knows where these countries are on the map or even what the capital cities are called.

    Nest it will be all talk about Yemen and Algeria….then Jordan and Moarruecos….and so on….


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