Here’s the thing to keep in mind about the escalating protests in Venezuela and, especially, the very heavy-handed repression they’re being met with: this never would’ve happened when Hugo Chávez was still in charge.
Let’s be clear: I’m no fan of Chávez, and on this blog I spent 11 years harshly questioning his rule. But Hugo Chávez had a clear strategy for keeping Venezuela under his personal control, one that mixed a repetitive, violent, eliminationist discourse against opponents with a relatively light and selective use of actual physical violence.
It was a strange mix, one based on his particular brand of charismatic rhetoric. And in its way, it worked.
Yes, Chávez had his political prisoners, but for much of his tenure you could count them with your fingers. Yes demonstrations were repressed, sometimes harshly. But Chávez had an instinctive feel for how he could achieve much that others achieve through violence by other means: via persuasion, again using his powerful oratory and ability to connect with an adoring base, and then through the pocketbook, by showering Venezuela’s inexhaustible supply of petrodollars on his followers.
Maduro has none of these advantages. A famously gaffe-prone speaker, he’s much more likely to bore his audience to sleep than to stir them into acts of revolutionary self-denial. And years of bone-headed economic mismanagement have left the state teetering on the brink of insolvency – the old trick of just spending a few million to keep whichever constituency needed to be pacified pacified is now strictly off limits.
Even before Chávez passed, it was clear to me that Maduro would tend to make up for the twin charisma-and-cash deficits through the barrel of a gun. It’s logic. Chávez’s constant, harsh, dehumanizing rhetoric has already primed his followers to hate dissenters. Chavista followers have always been willing, even eager, to fuck up the little fascist punks across town. Primed by years of harsh, constant state propaganda, they’ve been chumping at the bit.
Now they’re getting free rein.
The old tension between extremist rhetoric and relatively mild repression is ending, and it’s not ending by toning the rhetoric down to bring it to the level of the action. Just the opposite, it’s ending by ratcheting the violence up to the level where the rhetoric has been for years.
Which is why tonight Venezuelans have reason to be afraid. Very afraid.