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?