The coming transition and the politics of score-settling

With the light at the end of the tunnel getting brighter by the day, there are still plenty of ways MUD can screw up. Engaging in revenge and score-settling is one of them.

The transition that, in its own muted way, will start on 6D is like likely to be an ugly, dirty affair. There’s more than enough bad blood between the opposition and chavismo to inspire a Taylor Swift double album, with bonus tracks.

One landmine in the transition road is the potential for unrestrained revenge and score-settling against the chavista foes, which could put the prize at risk. If the past 25 years of Venezuelan politics is any guide, it’s likely we could see some Game of Thrones-style politics, but with less dragons or black magic.

For decades Venezuelan politics has been the turf where scores are settled and revenges served. This, of course, happens in most countries. Governments that implement their policy agendas will seek to damage foes. That’s politics.

What is troubling is the degree to which animosity, violence, and even hatred has been a factor in our public life, especially since 1989. Whatever forms it has taken, revenge politics always left most of society worse off. I fear it could continue after chavismo’s grip on the presidency is gone.

It’s bad news. We’ve seen firsthand where the roads of revenge politics lead and it’s not pretty.

Revenge politics started to spill out of control during Carlos Andrés Pérez’s second term. Many people from every shade of the political spectrum and even from his party lent a helping hand in his demise, with some looking to settle grudges dating back to 1945 (Uslar Pietri and his merry band of notables being the notable examples here). Caldera’s second term was quieter in this regard, but also then the crises of those years were used as cover to settle scores among business and political interests.Then came Chávez, and revenge politics went supersonic.

Getting Chávez elected was, for many of his acolytes, an act of revenge; mainly against the establishment they felt had wronged them. When Chávez & Co. came into government, instead of using their newfound power to change the government’s ways, they took it as their right and duty to inflict the same pain they believed to have endured.

The list of decisions tainted by score-settling is depressingly long: the dismissal of thousands of PDVSA employees, closure of TV and radio stations, expropriations, politically-motivated prosecutions, human-rights abuses, the use of exchange controls as a political and commercial weapon, and regulatory reforms aimed at bringing the private sector down to its knees. Their crushing of street protests is driven by their resentment for the way theirs were repressed decades ago, as they have unashamedly admitted while basking in schadenfreude. It’s their turn to throw gas del bueno.

As chavismo fades, the other side may be sharpening their knives. The transition is within sight. The MUD agreement to guide their strategy in the National Assembly allows for a honeymoon period of no more than six months, during which they will try to force a change in policies. If they’re illegally blocked at every turn, they will seek to remove the government by constitutional means. That will trigger a parallel race, with factions jockeying to position themselves to lead the first MUD government, but that’s an issue for a different post.

The most pressing issue inside after a MUD win could be “What to do with the thousands of corrupt and criminal chavistas?”

Those demanding that all the corrupt chavistas be prosecuted are just setting themselves up for heartbreak, because no MUD-led government will (or could) take that road. For many opposition politicians and supporters, these mass prosecutions are a matter of justice, pride and morals. But it’s just like my visions of scoring the game-winning goal in the World Cup final for the Vinotinto: only a beautiful dream.

Any politician worth his locha knows that prosecuting the thousands of politicians and military officers involved in plundering the state –or worse– in the last 16 years would leave the country dangerously unstable. Groups in the Armed Forces could conclude, quite logically, that it’s in their best personal interests to remove from power those who want to imprison them. In the best case scenario, the prosecution of a few of the worst offenders and some chinos de Recadi will have to be enough, at least for the time being.

Closing the wounds could require some sort of Truth Commission, to bring closure and maybe some degree of justice and reparations (a recent article in The Economist deals with this part of transitions to democracy). Countries with worse conflicts than ours, such as South Africa and Chile, used these commissions with moderate success, and found a way to move on.

Concessions will have to be made by all. On the chavista side, many will see losing power not only as a political setback, but as a risk to their freedom and safety. They remember April 12, 2002.

The transition will trigger a race within chavismo as in MUD, with factions jockeying to be the face of the forthcoming “democratic” (and non-imprisoned) chavismo. The likelihood of a peaceful coexistence with the remnants of chavismo will depend on MUD finding somebody to talk to on that side (ditto with the Armed Forces). These interlocutors will have to convince their allies that, in order to survive as a political force, they need to throw their more radical and criminal elements to the wolves.

That will be…interesting.

If Venezuela is going to make real progress on the economy and crime the next government must break the cycle of retribution. It can’t use power to inflict on others the same pain it endured while in the opposition. That kind of self-restraint will be difficult.

For many of us who for years have played such fun conversation games as “Who in the government would you punish first, and how?”, it will be hard to watch. And it will be harder for those who have suffered and lost the most.

Chavismo never got that democracy is about compromise, and that trait is what ultimately will bring its downfall. They see compromise as treason and weakness. If MUD behaves like that, it could be setting the table for its own demise. It wouldn’t be naive or spineless to foster compromise. It would be smart.

There is of course a good chance that I might be worrying too much, that I’m underestimating the maturity and skill of MUD’s leaders. Maybe even those that scream “Send them all to The Hague!” do so knowing that it’s just demagoguery. An empty promise.

But there’s also the chance that my worry is in fact too narrowly focused on politicians. Sometimes it feels like the mood among many opposition voters is not only for change, but for retribution. Let’s hope that a future reform-minded government is smart enough to break the cycle.


Pedro Rosas Rivero

Pedro Rosas Rivero is an Economist living in Caracas, with graduate studies in Economics, and Politics. He wishes we could talk more about policy than politics. News addict, and incurable books junkie.