The Dilemma

The debate over whether rank-and-file Chávez voters deserve any share of responsibility for the myriad outrages of the Chávez era has produced more heat than light so far – probably due to the use of some colorful but over-blown hyperbole in the original post’s headline. But I want to touch on it just one more time before moving on.

To me, the matter turns on your attitude towards citizenship: to deny voters any responsibility at all for the outrages of the governments they elect is to fail to treat them as citizens in the first place, in particular where those outrages are an easily predictable outcome of their decision at the voting booth.

You can argue, of course, that the political economy of the petrostate leaves Venezuelans – especially poorer Venezuelans – in such a state of asymmetric dependence on the state that they lack the tools they’d need to deliberate coherently on its actions and come to an independent judgment on it.

But we need to be clear on where that argument actually leads: if you really don’t believe that people can rise above the subservient position within the petrostate, you have to be consequent with that position and renounce democracy as a mechanism for choosing the country’s leaders.

If you really believe that people are too X to share responsibility for the extremely well-documented human rights outrages of the government they persistently elect, you can’t logically also believe that it’s a good idea for those same people to have the right to vote, whether you let that “X” stand for poor, dependent, uninformed, feckless, uneducated, or something else.

If I take the opposite stand it’s because I refuse to go over that crypto-authoritarian cliff edge.

I think Venezuela is a country where even people who face the state from a position of extreme economic dependence have spaces left for contestation, room for independent reflection, and access to enough information to get a basic sense of what’s going on.

I don’t think there’s anyone in a Venezuelan barrio under any illusion about the state of the country’s jails, or the arbitrary nature of the central government’s power. I think to respect the full personhood of the people we entrust to pick our leaders is to demand of them that they respond for the consequences of their actions.

It’s only because I think that that I also think elections are a reasonable way of selecting our leaders.

The alternative, for me, is far more grave: the more-or-less open rejection of democratic governance that inevitably flows from the moment your shake your head and think “well, terrible things happened as a consequence of their decision, but pobrecitos, they can’t be blamed.”

Or, to put it another way, fifty years from now, when the grandchildren of the 18-23 year olds who voted for the first time last month walk up to them and ask them, “grandpa, grandma, so who did you support in 2012?” they will be asking an entirely fair question.

And those kids will be more than justified to be hard, very hard, on 8,191,132 of them.

Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.