Chavismo is a Machine for Not-Negotiating

In a governing party where Intransigence is treated as a cardinal virtue, the first politico to propose negotiating with the opposition will be a kamikaze.

For insiders, the question about the upcoming legislative election has moved on from a focus on 6D to a focus on 7D. I’ve argued the story of the election’s aftermath is going to be about fast deteriorating regime cohesion: a stunning electoral humiliation sending mid-level bureaucrats in the military and the civil service scuttling for the exits. Dorothy Kronick thinks that’s fanciful: it’s Maduro everyone hates, not chavismo. The more likely scenario, she thinks, is that a chastised PSUV sits down around the table and cuts a deal.

It’s a good debate; it wouldn’t be the first time Dorothy gets one of these right and I get it wrong.

In my view, though, PSUV won’t negotiate because PSUV can’t negotiate. I don’t mean that for essentialist, the-scorpion-and-the-frog type reasons. Chavismo can’t negotiate because trying to negotiate with escuálidos is very much the kind of thing that would destroy regime coherence.

Who are the people who make up the chavista elite? They’re people handpicked by Chávez for that role. But they’re not just the people Chávez originally tapped: they’re the people he tapped and who survived in the inner circle for over a decade. They’re the die-hards, the ones who never jumped the talanquera and never got purged.

And who did jump the talanquera or got purged? Anyone willing to even consider cutting a deal with the other side.

There was a powerful – brutal – selection mechanism at play there. And what exactly was being selected for? Loyalty, most certainly, but not just that. There was ideological rigidity, tactical aggressiveness and – most of all – an absolute, gut level revulsion at compromise.

It’s easy to forget how central intransigence is in the ruling clique’s list of cardinal virtues. But when you think back, there’s basically no principle they’ve been more loyal to than the principle of No Negotiations.

To be clear, Chávez himself wasn’t entirely averse to policy reversals. He would devalue the bolivar now and again to keep exchange rate differentials manageable. He would calibrate his stance to the U.S. for tactical purposes. If anything, he was much more supple than Maduro.

But Chávez never once climbed down in the context of a negotiation with his opponents. Never. It became as much a symbol of his rule as the red shirt. And he made sure he surrounded himself with people who saw negotiation with the enemy in a similar light. Certainly, people who showed themselves willing to truck with the other side did not see their careers advance within the ruling establishment.

Chávez and chavismo were seldom more predictable, and seldom more consistent, than in their preferred response to any political setback: la huída hacia adelante. You lose the 2007 Constitutional Reform referendum? You implement the proposed reforms anyways. You lose the Miranda state governorship? You take away all its money and all its prerogatives and set up a parallel governorship alongside it. This time around they’ve good as announced that they’ll do the same thing, planning to govern “on the streets” if they lose.

I don’t see any reason to doubt this is what the top echelons of chavismo are planning to do: and not just because they’re temperamentally and ideologically suited for nothing else.

The bigger reason to doubt a meaningful negotiation is possible is what is sure to be the poisonous factional blame-game to follow on the government side after the election.

Maduristas will be keenly aware that the knives are out for them, Diosdado’s clique too, as will the military narco-elite and what remains of the civilian leftwing faction. In those circumstances, sticking your neck out and proposing the government sits down across the negotiating table with Julio Borges and Henry Ramos Allup will be tantamount to factional suicide. Anyone proposing such a thing would be turned into mincemeat within seconds. There’s an obvious coordination problem here: it may be better for chavismo as a whole to sit down and hash out a deal, but the first person to propose that will be on a kamikaze mission.

But let’s say the top three or four factional leaders sit down in a smoky room and agree to negotiate with the opposition. What do you think that does to the prestige of the PSUV elite in the eyes of a movement rank-and-file that that already suspects them of deviationism? How does the leadership sell negotiations with the escuálidos to a movement that they’ve been dressing in “No Volverán!” t-shirts for years?

And even if the faction leaders do manage to somehow sell a negotiating track to the rank-and-file, how long can such an agreement hold? Won’t the pressures to defect-and-grandstand turn overwhelming as soon as the first painful concession is demanded?

PSUV cannot hold together as a coherent governing party as it negotiates with the opposition because PSUV was invented for the specific purpose of nullifying the possibility of negotiating with the opposition.

It’d be like trying trying to use a toothpick to chisel a slab of marble. You could try, but it’s entirely evident you’ll smash the toothpick, so why bother? It’s senseless.

Forget about talks. What’s going to happen is, they’re going to lose. They’re going to try to huir hacia adelante. And it’ll backfire.