This image of Nicolae Ceaușescu is burned into Romanians’ political memory. Ceaușescu had been one of the most brutal and ruthless of the Eastern Bloc dictators – running Romania like a personal fiefdom for 24 years. A sprawling cult of personality had been built around him, enormous state resources expended in creating the myth of his invincibility.

On the afternoon of December 21st, 1989, it all came crashing down. During a setpiece speech in front of a huge crowd of what were supposed to be his hardcore followers, Ceaușescu was stunned to be heckled. Opposition chants started to rise from the back of the crowd. Streams of his people began to pour out of the square.

In the iconic image, a baffled, powerless Ceaușescu raises his hand as he beseeches people to stay in the square. It’s a moment that electrified the country. Looking increasingly desperate, he cajoles, he promises goodies. Wage increases. Becas.

It’s useless. The myth of his invincibility has been pierced. Four days later, Ceaușescu was dead: executed by firing squad following a summary trial. They say he kept issuing orders to his executioners until literally just a few minutes before his execution, simply unable to grasp that nobody was paying attention to his commands any more.

It’s not so much that the Romanian opposition overthrew Ceaușescu. It’s that his authority crumbled catastrophically beneath him once the myth of invincibility on which it was built had been pierced.

Salvando las distancias – Venezuela is not Romania, and Nicolas is not Nicolae – I think the real significance of 6D is that it could become our Ceaușescu moment.

Unless the election is crudely stolen, Venezuela will wake up on December 7th with a large opposition majority in parliament and, more importantly, an overwhelming opposition advantage in the National Popular vote. Even if the election is crudely stolen, it will be obvious to everyone chavismo’s popular legitimacy has crumbled. The myth of chavista invincibility will break.

People keep asking me what an opposition majority in the National Assembly might mean for the country’s politics over the next few years. What is MUD’s plan, exactly? Will it abide by its formal, signed commitment to seek to change the government as quickly as possible? Will a 2/3rds supermajority that entitles MUD to call a Constituent Assembly lead the opposition to overreach? Will chavista fear of overreach lead them to strike pre-emptively? Can any meaningful negotiations happen between Diosdado Cabello and Henry Ramos Allup?

To me, these questions miss the point. 6D is likely to prove pivotal, but not for institutional reasons. That’s not how governments like this one fall.

Strongly authoritarian governments that have become wildly unpopular aren’t toppled from the outside; they implode from the inside. They collapse when the class of mid-ranking military and civilian bureaucrats that sustain the top leadership’s power defect en masse, in response to a coordinating event that overcomes each one’s fear of defecting alone.

6D, in other words, could be Ceaușescu’s Last Speech.

What happened in Romania in 1989 is what happened in East Germany that same year. It’s what happened in Venezuela in 1958. It’s what happened in Iran in 1979, in Indonesia in 1998, in Tunisia in 2011 and in Ukraine in 2013.

Most famously, it’s what happened in Russia in 1917, when Kerensky’s provisional government – having been abandoned by everyone – went down without a fight, as one Russian history professor explains, giving rise to Lenin’s famous phrase:

Because there were no forces to fight for the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks had almost nothing to overthrow. As Lenin himself put it, the Party “found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up.”

Today, in Venezuela, just about nobody supports the government enthusiastically. In the October Datanalisis poll an insignificant 3.6% of respondents said they thought Maduro is doing a very good job. Less than 10% think the country’s situation is positive. Venezuela is no longer divided into two roughly equal blocks of government supporters and opponents: Venezuelans overwhelmingly hate the government and want it changed.

It’s in that context that 6D matters: not so much for the notional legal powers that the parliamentary majority elected will hold but through the sheer capacity to demonstrate vividly to the regime’s middle strata that continuing to support a government everyone hates is not in their self interest.

That the top echelons of chavismo will never give up power willingly is clear to me. Neither did Ceaușescu. Or Kerensky. Or Pérez Jiménez. Or the Shah of Iran or Honecker or Suharto or Ben Ali or Yanukovych. They didn’t leave power willingly, following a spasm of democratic conscience. They kept yelling orders to the very end, never noticing that the people they were shouting those orders to were turning their backs on them en masse.

6D looks to me like it has a very good chance of becoming the kind of coordinating event that sets off mass defections from chavismo’s middle ranks. If that happens, the opposition won’t need to seize power: it could just find it laying on the street. Is it prepared to pick it up? Or will it sleepwalk past it?

63 COMMENTS

  1. Good post. I would add Venezuela 1998 to the list of places with power lying on the streets. That was the way Chavez picked up his power.

  2. I hope it is, though I’ve become a little worried. The election is in 11 days, and so far the MUD has put VERY little propaganda in my state (Carabobo). I hope they don’t get too confident. PSUV propaganda is flooding my city (they’re even putting ads of candidates that don’t even belong to the district), and that’s not a good sign.

  3. Un buen análisis ajustado a la realidad. Será muy interesante ver cómo evoluciona todo hasta su final y cómo sale el país adelante de una vez por todas o bien, dentro de uno o dos años y con el petroleo a 100 otra vez, Venezuela se embarca en la siguiente ola de populismo como si no hubiese pasado nada durante los últimos cuarenta. Veremos…

  4. You nailed it with: “Strongly authoritarian governments that have become wildly unpopular aren’t toppled from the outside; they implode from the inside.”
    With public finances in such a mess let’s just hope that middle echelons aren’t receiving the goodies that keep them wanting Patria forever…

    • 1-The flow of spoils has stopped. All they get now is promises of more and more pay rises that can’t keep up with inflation. (It’s telling that the first thing Ceaușescu did when he started to panic in his Dec. 21st speech was start promising wage increases.)
      2-It’s plain that the MMGs upstairs are narcos.
      3-Their family members have to stand for hours in line for TP

      Then we start to see things like:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=PX99yyD_ldI

      I just think all the ingredients are there.

  5. Very good post! I believe your analysis is spot on. 6D will become the seminal “hundredth monkey” moment in which everyone realizes that, “The Emperor has no clothes.”

    I think that the leadership of the Opposition does realize this and does have a plan. I went to an election rally last night assisted by Lillian Tintorini in Margarita. (BTW: She is VERY impressive. She commanded the audience from the moment she arrived.) The language and rhetoric from the national figures tells me that they know this is their moment.

  6. I feel a bit embarrassed at praising this great Fco piece because it reflects so punctually my very views on how regimes crumble that its like inmodestly praising oneself , some blogs ago I tried to say the same ( with much less expressive punch and clarity) but didn’t feel the idea got any traction . It is however exactly what you see from reading history , purportedly very strong authoritarian regimes almost imperceptibly lose their mojo , their inner militant energies as a crisis reaches a tipping point and the regime crumbles from within !!

    We could well be facing such a moment in the life of Venezuela , not that it can be assured , the vagaries and uncertainties of history are to great to make it predictable , but the signs are there that something is about to happen in the short term…..!! Once again the best of Fcos journalistics talents and acumen manifest themselves.

  7. Well, the Soviet Republics fell because the USSR collapsed economically, and Gorbachev, after so much US and European pressure, and even from the Vatican, was not willing (nor he could) fight for them. That was the external scenario that allowed these Soviet Republics to “implode from inside”. However, this is similar to what is happening in Venezuela indeed, because Venezuela collapsed economically just like Romania, and I doubt that China, Unasur or Russia will be willing to do much to save Maduro. Cristina and Dilma can barely save themselves from jail. Maduro is alone with his army/FARC… If he loses that, he’s just like Ceausescu indeed.

    And Russia entered a brutal Civil War after Kerensky fell, so it’s kind of stretch to say that the government was “up for grabs”. But I see your point, and I agree with your last paragraph, this the opposition “finest hour”, and it can be done if there’s brave people enough to do it.

    • Good point: one thing that never changes, worldwide: “It’s the Freaking Economy, Stupid”

      Or en criollo” la ejcasej, el pollo esta caro, no hay harina pan, subieron el presio de los huevos.. y mucho crimen tambien.. pero, who cares.. donde hay tomate, vivienda, se hue la lus, no hay agua…ya no puedo it pa un restauran’ , a como el kilo de carne”

      Bottom line. When the “pueblo” is as ignorant and under-educated as in most of Latin America or Africa, that’s what really matters, that’s what topples authoritarian regimes. They actually don’t necessary “implode” every time, it’s just that an entire population cannot be direct beneficiaries in modern Kleptocracies.

      • Exactly, it’s as if they had to be punched in the middle of their faces to wake the fuck up! Not until they open their fridges and find that there’s not that much food to give to their offspring, they change sides. They just love handouts. When the nightmare ends, the countries in Latin America will have to descentralize power from the executive government and copy the institutional-framework of the most democratic countries in the world asap. If we don’t do that, we run the risk of keep falling for the same trap every 4 or 5 years.

        • Correct. And it’s starts with a robust, truly independent Judicial System. Criminal Impunity has to be stopped. That’s how we do it in Singapore..

          Then, with basic Real Education and a fair Capitalistic System, unruled, you can have real democracy, or close to that ideal.

          I wonder why Chile is doing so well, after the devastating 17 year Pinochet murderous dictatorship.. sorry to point it out. and no one will give those thugs credit for stopping Allende, Castrismo and Chavismo in Chile, at a very limited human lives cost, comparatively speaking.

  8. It appears that there is another international political earthquake emerging in the news. A Venezuelan diplomat Misael López Soto is denouncing the sale of Venezuelan passports to terrorists from Venezuela’s Consulate in Baghdad. This, coming immediately following the Paris attacks, is going to get a lot of press coverage.

    • Interesting. Thank you, Roy (and Misael López Soto). Note the irregular provision of Vzlan documents to Arabs et al who henceforth become voters in Vzlan elections….

  9. Que Dios te escuche Quico! One factor to consider is how the cubans will react. They are more dependent on us than ever, and cannot afford to lose this colony. Vamos a ver…

  10. Although it seems that the opposition will control the National Assembly, I doubt the power it can have to regulate others, because we will still be outnumbered “powerly” speaking (4 against 1), and those middle ranged military and bureaucrats will still have reasons to stay put with the regime. Anyhow, I agree that this could be the start for those middle ranged military and bureaucrats to question their position in the future.

  11. Very good historical perspective, sharp, original analysis. I would still caution against the 18 tricks of the book plus Smartmatic, plus Cabello buying and/or intimidating future MUD diputados. I don’t think much at all will change early next year. Will they free Leopoldo and all the political prisoners? That’s huge.

    The second observation is this: Historical perspectives are often interesting and even somewhat useful in anachronistic practice. But times have changed very, very fast in 100, 50, or even the last 20 years with i-phones and all. Romania then and Venezuela now are completely different animals.

    Sadly, I think we should get ready for a violent 2016 year in Venezuela. The Chavista criminals will not let go of the ma$$ive coroto without a fight, and bribing millions more people with very low moral values.

  12. My concern is that Maduro will be taking orders from Havana and will overstay his time as leader causing much violence and disruption. The Castros are willing to sacrifice all of Venezuela to keep Maduro in power.

    When people stop taking orders from Maduro, he still can talk to his little birdie friend.

    It is over when Maduro keeps a fueled Cuban plane on continuous standby to transport him quickly out of Venezuela. This is already done for the Castro family in Cuba to get to their houses in Argentina ( or wherever they will be accepted)

  13. I agree with the article as one of the most plausible scenarios but… the only doubt I have is who is going to be the one finding and picking the power on the street.

    I cant be sure, distance makes judgment difficult, but how possible is to have a revolution on the revolution? I mean, are we going to find out that between accepting an opposition victory and defending Maduro, a big enough group decides on a third way?

    • It would take a detective of Poirot’s guile to find where the heck in that piece I argued that “Disappointment in the goverment = Voting for the MUD”…

      • Un dicho poco recordado , gana la guerra no quien tiene mas aciertos sino quien se equivoca menos !! punto de partida: todos se equivocan pero hay errores desastrosos y otros que al final no lo son tanto. !!

  14. Great post. I totally agree with the comparison. The behavior of both regimes is rather parallel and the outcome is one that I think is likely if the Venezuelan leaders do anything shady on the elections or advance any further repression. People are very very fed up and you can already see the rats fleeing the sinking ship.

    To me, the big question mark is how far the cartels will go to support the government. They must understand that Maduro and the Chavez experiment are over. While the cartels are infused in high positions in the government, they must understand that for their own economic well being that they have to find a way to extricate themselves from the Chavista regime. I think that this is the big unknown..how far will they go to support a government that has no support among the masses. Given that the military is heavily influenced by the cartels, this is no small question….

    In the mean time, I see Maduro and company taking a very heavy beating in the election. If they go forward with any voter fraud or repression, it is all over for them.

    • But this is just what I mean:

      I’m *certain* the, say, 30 or 50, or 100 military guys raking in substantial sums from the drug trade are not going to just give up power. I’m sure they’re willing to order anything to stay in power.

      That’s not who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the 5,000 junior, mid-rank and high-ranking-but-not-enchufado officers they’ll be giving their orders to. It’s when that middle strata in the military, but also in the civilian bureaucracy, stop paying attention to the orders coming from the top that the regime implodes.

  15. I agree that the 6D could cause a Ceaușescu-style collapse, but I think people are discounting the chances of Maduro being replaced from within chavismo, and not by the Diosdado crew. What if people from Maduro’s group (Jaua, Arreaza, Rodriguez, whoever they are) replace him with one of their own group, to preempt a Diosdado takeover? If they decide that Maduro is done, they could think “Let’s get rid of Maduro before Diosdado gets rid of us all. We’re not going down with Maduro”. It could happen with a Khrushchev-style soft coup. They just sit down Maduro and tell him: “Hey, bro, just wanted to tell you you’re not the president any more. You just resigned due to personal and health reasons. Thanks for everything”

    • Sure, but the big fat question here is: Who can they possibly replace Maduro with? They are, all of them, hated right now. For that strategy to work, you need someone that crediby looks like an alternative within chavismo. Even in Maduro’s case, his only claim was that he was the Chosen one.

      • It does not matter. You can replace Maduro and Cabello with even worse or better thieves. There are maybe 1000 top Thieves in power. They really do not believe in Chavismo, Socialismo, nothing. They belive in a fat bank account and early retirement. That includes most of the military, the CNE, the TSJ the police, and keep counting.

        • There’s still a certain difference between Cuba and Cubazuela btw:

          The Castros do love the Good Capitalistic, Luxurious Life, no secret about that, heck, even Garcia Marquez was delighted in their company.

          But to some extent, like Lenin, or Giordanni, they do believe in some stupid Communist ideological crap. (As long as they have a nice Quinta and chofeurs)

          But I digress. Vzla’s pseudo-socilista bolivarian rebolusionarian mambo-jambo is nothing more than a monstrous lie, designed to deceive the ignorant, poor people for as long as possible, while they steal as many billions as possible. Simple as that. If you have any questions about it, ask Chavez’s billionaire daughers or Danielita, Cabello’s beautiful sifrina daughter. Puro Imperio,,

      • I agree, they don’t have an obvious candidate. But it’s either going to be the guy they choose -with all his weaknesses- or it’s going to be the guy Diosdado chooses. Or Diosdado himself. They’ll prefer to roll the dice with one of their own group, rather than opening the door to Diosdado. Of course, maybe Diosdado or MUD will beat them to it, but if they have a chance, they’ll rather try to salvage their position.

      • If Maduro is replaced from within his own faction, I wouldn’t bet on the replacement lasting very long. I just think they’ll try to do it, not that it will work long term, or even medium term. Don’t think Maduro will be the last president from this regime, even if the replacement(s) only last a few days.

  16. What we can really expect out of 6D, is massive fraud. And a 55%/45% laughable result. Ok. 52/48%.

    People forget about 32 Ministerios (Planet Earth Record right now) and 6 Million Maduristas directly Enchufados. That’s over 20% of voters right there. Then educated, smart inteernational exiled readers and bloggers tend to forget how uninformed and.. well.. gullible, is our “pueblo” truly is. Plus they are, demonstrably, highly corruptible.

    People forget how the elections were Stolen from Capriles, and how they did the same thing in Brazil, with Chavez’s Smartmatic, late-evening prorrogas.

    But we have Ramos Allup, the Derwick Bolichicos, and the clearly Socialista MUD and Capriles to lead the way. And the PDVSA morally intact executives, and our impeccable military buddies in charge with CapoCabello y sus 40 Ladrones.

    Sooner or later, people will see next year that the “Parlamento” is a Tragic Joke. Not to mention the TSJ..

    Sooner than later, they will notice that the Economic crisis, in 2016, is not getting any better, but worse, not to mention daily street murders.

    Then, perhaps, we will understand the true nature of the enemy : Massive Ignorance / Massive Corruption.

  17. I was in Prague in the late fall of 1989 when that hideous regime collapsed. What I saw were repeated, massive, relentless marches and protests that filled the city, make-shift monuments to protesters and leaders who the regime had shot – sometimes right in the streets, the broad involvement of organized labour capable of shutting down the country, military personnel who were prepared to stop their tanks on the outskirts of the city- probably in defiance of orders. And they call this the “Velvet Revolution”. I think without solid organization, consensus, determination and resilience in all sectors of society, it could easily have dissolved into an extended period of instability, chaos and violence.

    People broadly do not like Nicolas. But beyond that, what is it that they want to change (besides the massive drop in oil revenue that had been supporting the country, which cannot be changed)? And are they united, organized and determined in that goal? There is the Velvet Revolution, but there is also the Arab Spring.

    • You make a good point. I happened to witness to the Rose Revolution in Georgia, which was exquisitely planned and executed, and succeeded without a single drop of blood. But, even with that one, there were very tense moments, and a single error could have resulted in a bloodbath. The fact is that that every revolution represents some sort of event horizon, beyond which, even with the best of planning, we cannot really see or predict with certainty. But, at some point, existing conditions become so bad that people are willing to gamble on the unknown.

      • I recently heard the historian Margaret MacMillan make the comment that history is not a good tool for predicting the future (I’m paraphrasing from memory; it was a lecture on the radio). I was surprised because I thought that was the whole point of studying history, besides the interesting stories. But yes, with the massive events we saw- who really could have predicted they would unfold that way?

        • Interesting. It reminds me of one of my favorite comments: “Climate is what we expect. Weather is what we get.” History is a good indicator, but it cannot predict the future for certain. Still, it is better than nothing.

          • I believe it was Santayana who once wrote , those who forget history are bound to repeat it . I agree with Roy that there is no way of precisely predicting events , but that history does give us some guidance on what range of possibilities exist in a certain kinds of situations. Of course people who dont read history can never be aware of how like events tend to give rise to like results because they dont know enough to be able to determine what is it that links them together !!

            There are quite a few writers who explore how some people develop an historical sense which guides them to improve on their historical fate.!

    • Spot on. The risk of the government collapsing due to public pressure is further and possibly dramatic erosion of law and order. What is the likelihood of civil war in Venezuela, has this been given some thought?

      • ed:
        Spot on. There is a risk of the government collapsing due to public pressure and of further and possibly dramatic erosion of law and order. What is the likelihood of civil war in Venezuela, has this been given some thought?

  18. It’s not the same, I’m afraid; the most that might happen is Diosdado steps in, with the military, end of story. PSUV stays for another 10 years. Se van a guitar la mascara, the gloves come off…. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m quite pragmatic.

  19. Well, there is a little bit of oversimplification about the Kerenski regime crumbling like that…or Ceasescu’s
    weakness becoming only present so late.

    About the events of Russia’s revolution(s):

    The October revolution came after 1) a lot of very noisy blunders by the Kerenski government and the whole mess of WW1 and Kerenski’s refusal to make peace but also 2) after a well planned, systematic campaign by the Bolsheviks since well before 1917.

    The Germans gave Vladimir Ilich Uljanov a huge amount of money by means of which he and his collaborators were able to recruit more people, get arms, pay to distribute on a massive scale propaganda when a lot of people were starving.

    Here you have a little bit of references:

    http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/spiegelspecialgeschichte/d-54841257.html

    (in German, Spiegel, use MT to get the essence)

    I was a teenager when Ceasescu was killed. I still have the articles I collected from El Nacional about the whole process of Romanian protests starting in Timisoara and other places in that region…but I also have the letters of friends who were writing me for years earlier from Czechoslovakia, from Bulgaria…and the articles from the Soviet Union.

    Romanians had been getting information – by bits but at a constant pace- about the whole process evolving in all the other nations in the area for a couple of years already. Romania, let’s remember, was one of the very last to fall.

    Let’s remember Gorbachev had visited Romania in 1987 and pushed for reforms, which Ceasescu did not want to accept. East German Honecker, Ceasescu’s closest abroad, had been forced to step down in October and it was already clear that Germany was going to unite.

    Perhaps Argentina’s latest events are actually a start…

    • Last time I was in Romania, I thought very much about the similarities between Venezuela and Romania: a hated leader, bad historic governance by the party in power, abuse of human rights, widespread corruption, and great distrust for all the leaders by the rank and file. I’ve thought for the last year that a Romania exit was much more likely for Maduro than something more benign if the government remains autocratic. I pray for a peaceful transition every day. I hope that 6D is a wakeup call for what’s left of Chavismo.

  20. Great post Quico. The best part:

    “That the top echelons of chavismo will never give up power willingly is clear to me. Neither did Ceaușescu. Or Kerensky. Or Pérez Jiménez. Or the Shah of Iran or Honecker or Suharto or Ben Ali or Yanukovych. They didn’t leave power willingly, following a spasm of democratic conscience. They kept yelling orders to the very end, never noticing that the people they were shouting those orders to were turning their backs on them en masse.”

    That’s what I have unsuccessfully tried to explain to those that have lost all hope. You said it so much better in your piece.

  21. I am a bit baffled by the Ukranian parallel, one bunch of corrupt pro Moscow goons, replaced by a better dressed and better english speaking goons, equally corrupt? Shudder! I do hope that is not what is in store (or the civil strife that followed).

  22. What’s so historically complicated about a 2016 Venezuelan Cleptocracia? (call it what you will, please attempt to be more accurate)

    Takes google and basic education to grasp the basics. Then again, “el pueblo” probably lacks those essential tools.

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