What if the "Coroto" Isn’t all It’s Cracked Up to Be?

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An Original Coroto
An Original Coroto

The metaphor gives us away. When we talk about state power, we conceptualize it as a unitary good, a single thing there for the taking. We talk about how so-and-so wants to grab “el coroto”, “the thing”, as though state power was an object, and the only question was who is going to wield it next.

But, of course, power isn’t a thing. The assumption that a coherent, unitary state will always be there waiting to be governed is unsuported. A state as politicized as ours may not be like a coroto in any relevant way. Its coherence is contingent, precarious, and now more than ever. When one political partiality blends its identity molecularly into the state apparatus, you can end up with a coroto that shatters if mishandled.

“Solo nosotros garantizamos la paz,” chavistas like to say. And they may not be wrong, if only because they’ve governed in ways that make the prophesy come to life.

Think Libya. The Misratans surely thought they could grab Ghaddafi’s coroto for themselves. But the Libyan coroto proved elusive, slippery, unable to hold together through a transition to a new pair of hands. In Libya, as in Somalia and Iraq, trying to grab the coroto destroyed the coroto. The task for a new aspirant then isn’t so much seizing an existing state structure as building a new one on the rubble of the one destroyed in the transfer.

And the success of that operation is by no means a given: we’re so used to living within a coherent state, it doesn’t really occur to us to wonder what it might be like to live without such a thing. Libyans and Somalians will tell you, though: new states don’t just arise naturally out of the rubble of old ones. They have to be built. Sometimes, that construction job goes smoothly, other times it doesn’t.

I think this is the situation Venezuela would find itself facing if, somehow, we wind up in a transition scenario in the next few years, and this is the real reason to be leery of a coup (if such a thing were in the cards, which it isn’t). Chavismo has imprinted itself so thoroughly into Venezuela’s existing state structures that alternability has become a pipe dream. More than we’re quite grasping, chavismo has turned the Venezuelan state non-transferable.

It won’t simply be a matter of letting a new Justice Minister roll up in the same Justice Ministry car with the same Justice Ministry escoltas and ride up the same Justice Ministry elevator to run a department staffed by the same Justice Ministry officials. That can’t work.

“No volverán,” remember?

Transition planning needs to take seriously the need to retain some measure of administrative continuity and to avoiding a real power-vacuum, meaning not just a transitory one at Miraflores, but a lasting one arising from the collapse of state coherence.

To me, points to some sort of pacted transition as the least bad option we’re likely to have in the next few years. It will be deeply distasteful, and I’m pretty sure we’re not going to like it at all. Maximalists will cry bloody murder, and of course at this stage in the game we each carry a little Martacolominesque maximalist deep in our hearts somewhere. Nobody is going to like it. And pointing out that the alternative is Somalia won’t win anyone any popularity contests. But it is.

1 COMMENT

  1. I don’t know where this fits with your article, but one thing I came to realize first-hand when working within the coroto (even if at least at the municipality level, and in an oppo controlled authority) is that the coroto is not merely a thing that is transferred (or toppled or destroyed) from one ruler to the next, but instead it behaves in particular ways… it has its own agency… and thus, its own survival instinct… almost without regard to the funcionario de turno… and at times at the expense of the citizens it is supposed to protect, grant stability to… there is a sense of historical memory that works within the institutions (even if they are fragile, corrupt, dynamic, everchanging) of venezuela that guarantee that buildings, tramites, gestores remain where they are… and citizens on the other side…

  2. In Venezuela the State has always been a work in progress not a finished thing , its been pointed out by many people. What we have is in many ways a makeshift , largely dysfunctional , jumble of disparate organizations or proto organizations in various phases of disarray , thus state activities are most always in a state of badly administered chaos. Fronting it is an elaborate fachade wich inmitates a real State but is never up to effectively meet the functions of government . The state historically has only in part managed to achieve true institutional status , for most of the time its been the prize of whoever manages to conquer political power to use to advance with its resources their own sectarian or private agenda . In fact no one really controls it in full , You can control people at the top up to a point but going downwards in the structure its full of little cliques and chieftains who use the apparatus for their own ends and that of their cronies.

    First task is try to create an institutional effective group of state organizations which is not just a matter of having xyz as leader but of forming teams that know how to achieve things together which of course being selective and methodical ih how you hire and train and promote people and can take years and years . The only way to do is to start small , its easier to tackle the job of creating small elite organizations than the job of trying to transform a huge unwieldy improvized organization into a working institution .

    On might try the ink spot strategy ,create small shadow meritocratic bodies of well trained people allow them to occupy strategic places and functions and then let them grow and contaminate and colonize and slowly transform the bigger ones . The phocus is on the leaders and how inspiring they are and how well they speak and rouse our spirit with their oratory , but being effective and organizing groups to work is an altogether different thing .

  3. Thoughtful, insightful post.

    I would like to remind you that Venezuela is hardly the first country to have to undergo a transition from a dictatorship (however popular) to a democracy.

    Examples of success: Chile, Spain, Poland, Czech Republic / Slovakia… I could go on.

    On each of those the dictator and his followers were convinced their regime had such a stronghold on the structures of power that change was impossible.

    Of course it wasn’t.

    Venezuela itself has succeeded a few transitions: from the civil wars to an unified state (under JV Gomez), from Gomecismo to a regime based in Caracas (From Lopez Contreras to Gallegos, I would say), from dictatorship to democracy in 1958-1961.

    So, I think we can do it.

    • The Spanish case is a bit too sui generis to speak of it as an example. Unless you envision a transition managed by ex-chavistas hand in hand with some oposition with the objective of not doing any serious reckoning of the previous mistakes and just sweep aside things and everybody being lifetime democratic champions that of course deserve total “amnesty by amnesia” …

        • Yea, but what I’m talking about, is that a lot of those are “the old system collapsed and new people took over”, while the Spanish one is “the more clued-up people in the old system managed to make a new one without losing anything, leaving behind the dinosaurs”.

          I kinda think we are not thinking that is possible with the chavistas, dont you think? Admitelly, it would be probably the best option in terms of lack of conflict, but I dont see where is the big mass of pragmatic chavistas willing to negotiate anything.

  4. Maybe, just maybe Carlos Ocariz could teach you something, as he took control of Sucre municipality after 8 year of “papi-papi” chavista regimen and, it seems he is doing a decent job.

    • YES!

      Good example. Sucre is a small model of the whole country: a bit of middle class surrounded by a sea of poverty.

      And this guy has done well.

  5. Bureaucrats are often little more than petty tyrants- especially so in Venezuela.

    You want to renew your cedula? You can obtain 3 copies in a day or so if you have contacts.If not you will be standing in line til doomsday,and the more you work with people who have been spoiled in the past, the worse it will be.

    I agree with Lecherous Drunk

    Bill Bass has a point when he mentions good leaders but we also need good followers….not a million caciques.

  6. Two comments:

    1.- This is why I like VP proposal of a constitutional assembly. Not so much because of anything that may need to be changed in the current constitution, but because it gives us a relatively pain free way to renew all positions of power. The only problem is, well… , it is not possible to call for such an assembly, for reasons connected to point 2:

    2.- The only threat to chavismo’s hold on the “coroto” are elections, and believe me, there is no freaking way they are losing any elections any time soon, no matter how bad the situation may get. You may not agree with me on this (we discussed it in a previous post of yours), but this is how it is. They are working to make sure of it as I’m typing this.

    • Yeah, totally, after 26 constitutions this will be the good one.

      Not only that, writing will be “painless”, sure. There will be no instability at all.

      Those guys at VP… pure genius.

      • “Yeah, totally, after 26 constitutions this will be the good one.”

        Do you have reading comprehension problems?

        I said the I like the idea NOT SO MUCH BECAUSE OF ANYTHING THAT MAY NEED TO BE CHANGED IN THE CURRENT CONSTITUTION, but because it gives us a relatively pain free way to renew all positions of power.

        If such move were done, there would have to be elections in basically all positions of power after the constitution is approved, just like it happened last time.

        “Not only that, writing will be “painless”, sure. There will be no instability at all.”

        Again, do you have reading comprehension problems? I said in the second paragraph that unfortunately (or at least unfortunately from my point of view), the project can’t be carried out. This is so because of chavismo’s control of everything.

        The “relatively pain free” is compared to other options. But I again, I admit the option is out of the cards.

        • You shouldn’t assume people can’t read because they find your suggestions useless.

          If the option is impossible to carry out, you must take another path.

          In a way, Venezuela’s problems are not legal, or constitutional, but criminal. How to wrestle power out of the hands of a mafia clan.

          • I want to emphasize again that the point of a hypothetical constitutional assembly is NOT really to change the constitution. The constitution we have maybe just fine (although it could certainly be improved, but that’s another thing). The point would be precisely “to wrestle power out of the hands of a mafia clan”.

            Now, once again, I agree that “the option is impossible to carry out”. The problem is that what makes this option impossible, also makes ALL other options impossible as well. So when you say that we “must take another path”, I say there is no other path.

          • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Using a constituent assembly to transfer power from one group in society to another is a VERY. BAD. IDEA. It pretty much guarantees that you solidify existing conflicts. Constitutions are for people to rally round and identify with as a society. They are not for crystallizing the hegemony of one clan over another.

  7. The State is ineffectual , in manner of speaking the State doesnt exist , you can have great leaders but if they lack the organizational resources to carry out their decisions and plans then its almost as if you didnt have them . First thing is not simply to change leaderss and governing policies and criterias its to create institutions that work , i.e teams of people who can work together as effective organizations and make things happen .that can implement those policies and governance criterias and achieve the results that they seek .

    State bodies operate in a chaotic makeshif manner so they arent competent or capable of getting things done , that not simply a matter of leadership but of lack of expertise , organizational culture , means of control and direction in the whole tumultous group of people that ‘work’ in those places . Thats the very first task and were talking about a whole country not just a municipality .

    If no body is concentrating on how to deal with this very primary task then were missing the boat !!

    Simple logic tells us that you cant change this monster world at one go , you have to plan going about it by creating first small elite organizations that work and then have them colonize the culture of the rest of the State .

    When the newly created Pdvsa using the resources of the meritocracy built by the transnationals over decades was given the old CVP , a largely disfunctional clienteral corrupt organization born of traditional political governance practices they had to overhaul it completely and that took a lot of effort and time , finally they achieved this overhaul largely by putting as top managers former Creole Exxon managers and as middle managers , manangers recruited from Maraven (Ex Shell) and Meneven , at the end they became a corporate very effective organization , achieving results that were among the best ever achieved in the Venezuelan oil industry.

    The control of bosses in the old traditional clientelar state was largely illusory , to give an example , when President Velasquez discussed with his minister of justice the list of criminals who would have their sentences suspended , he made it a point of excluding any drug traffickers , and so struck off the list a number of names . A week later they bought him the revised list to sign and officialize , it was then discovered that some very prominent drug trafickers had been pardoned which Velasquez had excluded .

    This same thing almost happened to CAP , the list was brought to him , he struck off the drugtraffickers and when a week later the ammended list was brought to him for signature , he went through it again and discovered that those which he had struck out were once again in the list .!! CAP was an experienced govt leader , he knew you couldnt trust the bureaucracy not to play games , so he personally and carefully reviewed the list once again.

    Control works in certain areas and levels , but becomes a joke after the decision passes a certain threshold in the beureaucracy. This is a problem that deserves more attention than its getting . People are bored with operational details and just ignore them to pay attention to the shrill part of the business.!!

    • Good observations. Ships of state do not turn on a dime. However, as I note below, I am not sure how much of the existing bureaucracy will be salvageable.

    • Good article, Fernando. I especially loved this: “…Mr. Maduro lacks the oratorical skill of Mr. Chávez, who skewered his opponents in what often seemed like a stream-of-consciousness approach to governing that kept many Venezuelans on the edge of their seats.”

      The stream-of-consciousness approach to governance.

      As an aside, I wonder when we will read an article that zeroes in on a decade-worth or so of gullibility among several echelons in the media around the world, a media that early on drank the kool-aid propaganda manufactured by the Chávez government (VIO) and sought to hoodwink, and did, the hard-boiled by reputation.

      I mean, after all, if the media is so proud of its stripes in lambasting phoneys and stooges in business and politics, when will it apply those laurels to its own kind, I’m talking about publishers, editors and J-school trained reporters?

  8. Like it or not, after reading your analysis I think that what Laureano Marquez said the other day is just the logical solution. the transition has to be done by Chavistas if not is going to be very difficult.

  9. Agree with many of your erudite statements, Quico, which were more simply stated a few days ago by Laureano Marquez: http://elestimulo.com/blog/laureano-marquez-dice-que-la-salida-es-un-gobierno-chavista-de-emergencia/.

    While the ‘Towards a Transition’ document, composed by Ledezma et al, demonstrated that the oppo was indeed thinking of the future, unlike its critics would maintain, the document contained no stepping stone between Utter Chaos and New Order. I say this, of course, with the 20/20 vision that hindsight affords. Related to this is the current stance of HCR whose capital as an astute and middle-of-the-road politician appreciates in value. Having said that, I by no means depreciate the worthiness of several other oppo politicians, each with his/her own viewpoint within the MUD incubator.

  10. The manner of the transition depends on the manner of fall of Chavismo. I am recalling the transition of the governorship of Miranda, when Capriles “tomo posesión”. He and his team arrived to discover the state office had been looted of everything of value and all the records had been destroyed. (Please correct me if I am wrong on the details. I tried to find a link and couldn’t. 2010?)

    In any case, in a worst case scenario, the Chavistas could adopt a “scorched earth” policy that would leave any new administration with no choice but to re-build from scratch. Note that the Chavistas have every reason to make sure that all records of their misdeeds are well and truly destroyed.

    Another fear (I almost hesitate to mention the possibility, lest ideas be planted) is that the Chavistas might even sabotage the oil infrastructure of PDVSA, such as Saddam Hussein did in Kuwait on his way out.

    My point being that any discussion of how the transition might be accomplished must necessarily explore multiple scenarios.

    • Your idea of the Chavista’s destroying Amuay and Cardon on the way ‘out’ is an interesting thought. Indeed they would. No question. Many of us fail to recognize that the leftists/socialists/communists have a predisposition towards violence and destruction in furthering the ’cause.’ Just as today they have no second thoughts on jailing anyone in the opposition. They just expect other governments to look away, and they do. It’s a righteous cause, dontcha-know. Would today’s opposition even begin to contemplate what student radicals like Jaua instigated during the 1989 Caracoza? Destroy everything to achieve political power? Extreme violence, and death in the streets? Of course not. Perhaps, and I hate to admit it, some of that righteous anger is needed by the opposition to succeed. Changing illegitimate governments requires some very tough decisions, and bad things are sure to happen….

    • (Please correct me if I am wrong on the details. I tried to find a link and couldn’t. 2010?)

      Yes, I remember seeing that video, taken to show the destruction (and it was significant), before Capriles moved into the Miranda government’s office. I believe it was 2008, just after Diosdado Cabello (2004-2008 – gobernador de Miranda) lost to Capriles.

      Once a thug, always a thug.

  11. “Coroto” is an apocriphal and mistaken anecdote, albeit beautiful, just like the one that says “arepa” comes from the French “un repas”. Cheers
    “El profesor Ángel Rosenblat ha demostrado que estas hipótesis, que por su belleza merecerían ser ciertas, no lo son. Coroto, alega, ³era ya [de uso] general antes de la época de Guzmán Blanco, antes de la caída de Monagas, (Š) y seguramente antes de la existencia misma de Corot² (Buenas y malas palabras. Biblioteca Ángel Rosenblat. Tomo I. Monte Ávila Editores. p. 125). De modo que la palabra no puede tener su origen en esa supuesta anécdota, aunque de hecho, Guzmán Blanco sí pudo haber adquirido en París, donde tanto vivió muchos años, algún cuadro de Corot.

    Según Rosenblat, nuestro coroto es de origen indígena, hipótesis muy bien fundada en diversos argumentos, que él desarolla ampliamente en el artículo que a la palabra le dedica en Buenas y malas palabras”.
    http://webarticulista.net.free.fr/amr200618061310.html

  12. Probably I’m misunderstanding today’s blog……are you suggesting that the oppo -or the people in general- should try not to change the system? Try not to disturb the water? Do nothing for fear at the future?
    I agree with the position of the ones that have clear examples of changes that worked!

    • Mostly, that there is no central nexus of power that, once you get it, you can control and change the whole country. Power is always a pact, a continous negotiation between parts, and power over a country is a big enough issue as to be impossible to be in just a few hands.

  13. The key is the army, in our current situation they are the ones that enforce the legitimacy of the goverment, no transition is possible without the support of the army. Any succesful transition would require 3 main things, 1. to send to cuba the most crazy of chavistas, 2. to work with pragmatic chavistas that may be able to support the stablishment of a less radical state, 3. Armed Forces that won’t sabotage the new system and that keep the chavista-communist militias at bay. With these 3 things, everything else is possible.

    Chavismo is doing everything it can to make us think that those 3 things are not possible, I still believe there is a slight chance for it to happen.

    • I agree, except that the current crop of generals are hopelessly corrupted and beholden to the Chavistas. Before any of that could happen, there would have to be an internal purge within the FAN initiated by lower ranking officers.

      • Agree with you and Wagonba. Also, a coup is not to be ruled out, which coups most traditionally come from lower-rank have-not officers, especially since coming Parliamentary elections, a possible peaceful way to transition, will likely be cancelled or stolen. As for unrulability in the Pueblo, Venezuela does not have the religious fractures of, say, Iraq or Libya, and, so long as some sort of populist measures continue, even if the transition is long, I don’t see a problem here. Many “Chavistas” are simply re-encauchados Adecos/Copeyanos, and wont mind too much changing their shirt color. The more radical Colectivos will have to be suppressed, ergo the military is key, and, moderate real-believer Chavistas will have to be included in a transition or transitioned government. The current/near-future state of the Nation is unsustainable, and the only result, other than rational change for the better, is a further sinking into a Cuban-type commie/fascist state-controlled society.

        • NET,

          That’s about the way I see it. Change from the status quo is inevitable and will come soon. It remains to be seen which way the cookie crumbles.

  14. “To me, points to some sort of pacted transition as the least bad option we’re likely to have in the next few years. It will be deeply distasteful, and I’m pretty sure we’re not going to like it at all.”

    So, the only choice is to leave unpunished all the criminals from this regime, with their retirement funds intact, and with guarantees that they will even be congratulated for destroying Venezuela and slaughtering its citizens.

    Bloody murder, indeed, because justice can go and fuck herself for all we know.

      • In part I agree with you.

        Why in part? I disagree, because trying to convince somebody whose life was basically ruined and stomped (Lifelong work lost, family members murdered, take any of those) by gadaffi’s regime that the douchebag (Or any of his cronies) should have been “Part of the transition for the benefit of all Libya” wouldn’t have been met with the most enthusiastic response, the person would likely take it as “fuck your problems, dude, if we don’t forget and leave unpunished all the shit gadafi stormed upon Libya, then they will fuck the country to no end!”

        The part I could agree with you? The “dale que aquí no pasó nada” with the chaburro powers (diablodiado, maburro and company, all the boliplastas) is the only thing that the foolish base chavistas will ever perceive as “justice” (they will likely think “Yeah, it’s justice because you got fucked and I got away with it to mock about it forever”). Any different thing from the complete impunity will leave base chavistas resented, more resented and hateful than ever because they’ll perceive that as a total defeat at the hands of those they hate more than anything, and you and me and everybody else here know that rancor and hatred are the reins of chavistas.

        In short, the only “negociation” chavistas will accept is “dale que aquí no pasó nada”, that’s to piss and spit on every victim of the regime, bloody murder of justice; the other option, “anything different from total impunity” will keep chavistas foaming like rabid beasts just waiting to lunge at our throats the next chance they get.

        Indeed, justice is fucked with chavismo, no matter what.

        • That’s part of a larger debate which Quico only hints. What’s more just? Close this chapter as fast as possible and actually improves every venezuelan’s condition immediately, or, spend a lot of energy in cornering these guys so they can pay for their crimes.

          If I were in that position I would work really hard on 1, and when 1 is on its way you work on 2. The victim’s families will have to be patient.

  15. This is a very important point.

    I once noted that successful command of an army requires getting people to get people to get people to get people to get people to get people to get people to do what you want. The same is true of heading a government.

    What makes it possible at all is that the subordinates in the structure have previously agreed to follow the orders of their superiors. This works provided the underlings recognize the superiors as legitimate and their orders as lawful.

    In an army, command is completely central and complete obedience is assumed, which makes it easier. In a government like Venezuela (or the U.S.), division of powers and constitutional restriction limit the power of the executive.

    An oppo president taking control of Venezuela’s government would face not only those limits, but very probably wholesale disobedience by employees of the state. The task would not be impossible; IMHO most state employees, even many chavistas, would accept the legitimacy of an oppo president who was clearly elected. However, that authority would be constrained in the orders that could be issued: orders to reverse minor elements of chavista policy would probably be obeyed, but more drastic orders could provoke mutiny. The same constraint would apply to undoing chavista corruption.

    Several other transitions have been cited. In the ex-Communist states, easy transition was possible because the entire population had de-legitimized the old power group, and the personnel of the state all transferred their allegiance rather than be lynched. In Chile – the old regime had agreed that legitimacy would be determined by a referendum, and the state personnel followed the results – and a lot of state personnel predated the regime. (More than in Venezuela, I think – Pinochet did not seek to carry out a revolutionary transformation of the state.) Spain – there was no actual “Francoist” ideology for others to carry on with after his death, so the personnel of the state had no strong reason to oppose a transition to a “normal” state where the “opposition” might assume power and enact policy – which is what happened eventually.

    I think the key is the degree to which the old regime imposed a specific political agenda which still commands loyalty. If there was no particular agenda, or the agenda is discredited, the transition can be relatively easy.

    Alas, that is not the case with Venezuela today.

    • Rich : From contacts with elements of the bureaucracy in different state bodies Ive found that quite a few of them , very likely the vast mayority, are far from being fanatic supporters of the regimes policies, on the contrary you sense an element of quiet dissaprobal and reticence in having to follow orders they know to be irrational and harmful to the countrys interest, typically they give excuses of why the govt has decided what it did , sometimes they are quite clear that they acted followed orders they dont technically or practically approve of , there are often restrained but clear demonstrations of disatisfactions with what the top govts officials have decided for poltical reasons and which they feel were unwarranted or wrong .

      You see that they are weary of being too clear of their dissaproval but still they let you know its there . There are bound of course to be some fanatical followers of the govt but even them sound apologetic when having to explain why something done in obedience to top govt orders turned out so wrong.

      The notion that everybody thats in govt now is a fanatic govt supporter may be vastly exagerated , people toe the line to survive and even if they have some sympathy of the govts cause they know and let you know that what the govt has been doing has been mistaken . Im talking here not only of midlevel bureaucrats but of some surprisingly high level ones ,!! Some of them are cara de tabla in explaining thing in a tone that tells you that they dont like what they govt has done but that orders have to be followed.

      I suspect that to find true fanatics you have to go to very low levels of the bureaucracy , people involved in manual or very low importance activities . !! Also they are deadly afraid of being targeted as culpable of the many mistakes done within govt .

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