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.


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  1. Excellent post. As you say, democracy is compromise and retribution cannot be the way to go. A future government will have to look for justice, sure, but in a smart and pragmatical way, not re-starting a new counter-counter-revolution. This compromise could start Sunday night, depending on the appearance of ‘soft-liners’ in the regime and smart politics in the opposition

  2. Well, let’s give the commies and fachos a third, maybe fourth chance? After all, they were “slapped on the wrist” by the invasion and jungle-urban pueblo-slaughtering guerrillas in the 60s, then they were forgiven TWICE AGAIN after the two coups in 92.

    But, like some say, “impunity is the only guarantee for peace”.

    • Maybe, just maybe… it’s more likely we’ll see Diosdado or Bernal in jail that some of the more unknown or obscure chavista politicians and military. Punishing Diosdado will be a priority for many in the oppo (especially with the drug trafficking “issue”). But people like, I don’t know, Giuseppe Yoffreda or Hector Navarro, are probably not very high on the revenge list of anyone in MUD. They will likely survive chavismo’s demise unscathed.

  3. You can’t go after every single chavista bureaucrat or lackey – but if Venezuela is to have any sort of accountability, something must be done about the chief perpetrators – Maduro, Cabello, etc and others who led these efforts. There’s been just too much criminal impunity to allow it to continue even more.

    The opposition might want to hold off initially until it consolidates itself… but after it does, it should certainly go after some of the leaders behind some of the scandals that have racked the country.

  4. I would love to see the lot of them locked up for life, but I know that is not going to happen. There will be some sort of amnesty for the majority of the offenders. We can live with that. What we cannot live with is the thousands of armed “colectivo” gangs, militias, and bandits that have bred and multiplied like cockroaches over the years. If these are not rapidly exterminated, they will morph into a FARC style insurgency that will haunt Venezuela for years to come.

    • I agree. But the prosecutions of politicians and of colectivos are different issues. A MUD government would have an easier task in going after the gangs and colectivos. The Armed Forces would be very happy, and would support the gov’t in this. Public support would be strong. And even most chavista politicias would seek to distance themselves from the colectivos; they’re too toxic. But going after every corrupt politician and the military officer is a whole other game. That’s the tough part.

    • I hate to say it Roy, but even “exterminating” the members of colectivos may have unwanted consequences. In getting rid of them extra-judicially you only foment their “martyrdom” and continue the cycle.

      I believe that it’s going to take a Judiciary that actually has its cojones and cojonas in the right places that will point the way out.

      And that is certainly not going to be easy!

      • “martyrdom” requires dying for a belief or a cause. There is no ideology (or even humanity) left in most of these thugs. In any case, the military is going to have to restore sovereign control, by force, over the areas of the country that have been ceded, such as the “zonas de paz” and the areas in which the FARC and ELN operate. These will not be “police actions”.

  5. So massive corruption to the value of billions, a game changing sum of money, has to be swept under the carpet ? A mind boggling sum of money which personifies death, abuse and destruction in Venezuela to be forgotten.

    If that’s the case we have learned f all. Anyone out there fancy being a Chavez 2 ?

    I accept that it’s easy to forgive when you are also guilty. Whether it’s Cilla’s billions or the Cadivi list they have all had their hands in the till. There’s no thing such as being a little bit corrupt. Nevertheless it’s about the billions which have disappeared. What the hell is Gabriella C doing with $5 billion ?

    And your right, Venezuela isn’t a South Africa or Chile.

    • I didn’t say that the worst offences had to be swept under the carpet. The people you mention -Cilia, Chávez’ daughters- are precisely the types I had in mind when I wrote ” the prosecution of a few of the worst offenders”. I also had in mind the ones responsible for murders and torture. Part of “moving on” needs to involve a degree of justice. But we won’t be able to punish each and everyone of the criminals, it’s just not going to happen. It’s not a matter of “wanting to” (I would love to), but a matter of “being able to”.

  6. When Germany lost WWII most germans had at some point in time gone along with the dictates of their nazi leaders , often aiding and abetting the commission of crimes and abuses of all sorts , of courses there were voices which called for Germany to be destroyed totally as a modern nation and transformed into a ravaged land . Some people however remembered that the vindictiveness of Versailles had the opposite effect and made possible the rise of nutcases like Hitler so they adopted a more nuanced strategy .

    1.- First by way of example they made showcase trials of the really big Criminals sending them to hang or to long prison terms .
    2. Second they denazified the positions of influence of power inside the german social structure . ridding it of the worst offenders and fanatics .
    3. Third they made a strong effort to change the mind and views of those that remained so that in time they became model westerners .

    Of course they had the advantage that germans as a people are really social comformists and disciplined who like following those who lead them ( same as happens with the Japanese) .

    Gomez was a clever man , very often he turned his enemies into his friends by cunning handling of their personal character .

    I know the history of a gentlemen , very honest and capable , who was a rabid follower of Cipriano Castro and that when the latter was toppled suffered both prison and exile . While in exile he wrote a pamphlet ridiculizing Gomez . Unknown to him his letter home were being intercepted and read by govt officials and passed on to Gomez who realized from reading them that the Gentlemen was honest and could be of use to build the country he wanted to build. He proceeded to call him from his exile , explained to him that there had been a misunderstanding , that he really believed he had much to contribute and offered him a job of certain responsibility in an area which he knew the gentlemen really cared for ( the organization of national education) , Eventually he rose to Education Minister , did a good job there, and a few years latter was appointed Minister of the Interior in one of Gomez gabinet. where he remained for some 5 to 6 years .

    The gentlemen became one of Gomez most trusted officials while remaining aware the Gomez was a tyrant , moreover sometimes respectfully but firmly he would oppose some decision of Gomez or another getting him to change it by reasoning with him . He was never afraid of losing his job.

    His son , an early opponent of Gomez , asked his father before he died why being an honourable man he had served a tyrant and the answer was ´because serving a tyrant sometimes you can do things for your country´ .

    • Whilst reading your post I almost forgot the genocide of the Jews and other subhuman groups.
      Very few of the perpetrators were given the death penalty. Indeed many of them were dumped in Latin America to enjoy a degree of freedom they denied to others. Somehow that seems wrong to me, just saying.

    • ^ This, exactly.

      Nothing will do more harm to the long term than score settling. It is the politics of revenge that breeds the Chavezeseses of the world.

      People keep acting like an oppo win at with these elections will signify the winning of a war. To be honest, this would be just the opening salvo in that war. An oppo led AN, regardless of the size of the majority is still incredibly weak compared to the entrenched bureaucracy and other branches of government. Everyone will be watching and waiting for them to prove that they are exactly what Chavez always said they were. Added bonus: lack of a strong and charismatic leader to hold the coalition together.

      Governance of the country must come first above all things. Get food into the stores. Diapers on the babies. Fix the infrastructure woes. Real economic growth and good policymaking. Otherwise, within 10 years, it will be Chavez II.

  7. I agree that meting justice to ALL who deserve it is pie in the sky and anyone promising this is a demagogue. Also things are too inflamed between all parts for such an endeavor. But at least some type of scapegoat is required to insure the peace between parties, if you follow Rene Girard and his ‘scapegoating theory’ 🙂

    The best that could be done is to give Uncle Sam all those thugs it wants, Cabello, el Pollo and others. At a different level this was what Yugoslavia did by sending Milosevic, Mladic to The Hague.

  8. grande Pedro!

    I only take exception to the comment that Caldera’s second term was quieter than CAP’s in the whole ‘settling grudges’ aspect, please correct me if I am wrong but it is my understanding that the banking meltdown of 1994 was in part due to his unwillingness to help out the banks he deemed to be ‘adecos’.

    • My first draft mentioned the banking crisis as an specific example of score-settling. I took it out because explaining it would take too long. Still, I do think Caldera 2 was quieter, in relative terms. During CAP 2 they brought down the government, put the president on trial, and supported two coups. What happened during Caldera 2 was the continuation of that.

  9. There won’t be peace without actual justice.

    And chaviztas’ ONLY interest is to keep the enchufados in complete impunity for their crimes, nothing less.

  10. Call me a radical but actually I miss the revenge, score settling behaviour you write about. IMO la guanabana actually provided ealry chavismo with the incentives to begin their embezzlement raid, as a continuation of previous prastises, nothing new, bussiness as ussual you may say.

    Ad the later indoctrination and control by cuban aparatik and the nature of the regime took a turn for the worse, it was not the corrupt nationals in their normal raiding (with the expectation of a later 5yr. cycle to cool down in hiding), but a colonial power extracting all the rent.

    The Chavistas puppets of the later period (last 10 yrs.) have been figure heads to distract and to confuse.
    The real power has neveer been interested in a post control scenario since they will move on to a new gig (enter obama the Fool).

    The puppets, will find it very hard when they realized they overplayed their game (My hope) and that doing the old quitate tu pa ponerme you switch may be impossible, as we are discussing here, there is a novel idea of justice, prosecutions and indictments for th ecorrumpt.

    if we only achieve this evolutionary stage, the “revolution ” would have somehow benefited the nation, if only for this coming of age growth. I am trying to make it rime somehow with maduro! but my rethoric fails me here.

    Again, all bets are off as soon as oil prices rebound and the chivo, tire pal monte.

  11. I know after reading the comments responses that probably you considered doing the economic argument of this discussion, but took it out in favor of a more consistent article, but that’s a practical side of the discussion that shouldn’t be left behind and most people don’t quite think about: in a postchavismo era, with a crisis to deal with and a population so used to subsidies in so many levels, a revenge policy is not only economically infeasible, but economically inconvenient anyway.

    There would be no money whatsoever to bring people to justice, or if so, it would be so obtuse to focus on that rather than solving this crisis that the spiral of economic inestability won’t be over soon, hence, the political inestability won’t be over.

    It’s not possibe to sustain such a revenge/retribution policy even if people, voters, wanted it that way. And unfortunately, they do.

    • Hasta cuando Abigail!

      “…It’s not possibe to sustain such a revenge/retribution policy even if people, voters, wanted it that way. And unfortunately, they do…”

      It has nothing to do with revenge and retribution, but to Justice and rule of law. No se confundan (o traten de confundir!)

    • Impact[edit]
      E.T. Bell wrote about Lobachevsky’s influence on the following development of mathematics in his 1937 book Men of Mathematics:

      The boldness of his challenge and its successful outcome have inspired mathematicians and scientists in general to challenge other ‘axioms’ or accepted ‘truths’, for example the ‘law’ of causality which, for centuries, have seemed as necessary to straight thinking as Euclid’s postulate appeared till Lobatchewsky discarded it. The full impact of the Lobatchewskian method of challenging axioms has probably yet to be felt. It is no exaggeration to call Lobatchewsky the Copernicus of Geometry, for geometry is only a part of the vaster domain which he renovated; it might even be just to designate him as a Copernicus of all thought.[18]

      YOur avatar suggests you are intelectually honest and a chllenger to the status quo.
      Your comment does not.

      If you want to pursue an economic rationalization , valuation of the pursuit of justice and the enforcement of law, perhaps you have a systemic problem in front of you. Why do societies where both minor and major offences to the rgulations and the laws, do actually have lower trnasaction costs and higher efficiencies thatn others that do not.

      For heavens sake, we are not talking traffic violations here, but lesa humanidad, political assassinations, multi-trillion 4 level embezzlement and high treason.

      No vale, no paso nada, dejemoso asi. Es muy caro hacer cumplir la ley, vete tranquilo para aruba y luego hablamos,

      Pendejos que somos!

      • I know it’s hard to swallow, but in practice “lo urgente no deja tiempo para la importante” Mafalda dixit.

        It’s not that we’ll just forget everything, but it won’t be feasible to put a 100% justice policy in front of everything else.

        Whether you like or not. The sooner you accept it, the better.

        The number of violations is so terribly high that we need to start talking about sampling here. We have a justice system that accounts for 90% impunity. That isn’t changing any time soon, even with the will of doing it, and there is no money to change it faster. What about the turmoil after a political landscape change? there is no way people aren’t scaping already, whereas literally or moving the capital outside the country. Are you investigating those now?

        The only thing we will have in our favor is time, and not all violators will get caught soon enough.

        Post wall Germany and Europe are a proof of that to bring up just one prominent example.

        I insist, it’s insanely hard to even think about it, but that’s why you need to be pragamatic enough sometimes. Math told me that, no need for you to explain that to me.

  12. Nice piece Pedro!!

    I somehow see Diosdado as a key player during the transition. Oppo could certainly benefit on his power and reach within the Armed Forces to help stabilize the newborn government (“Interlocutors” as you called them). Concessions will have to be made by the MUD and this will be one, I think, especially when there is as much profit for the oppo as there is in keeping Diosdado within the new coalition, vs. the retaliation path which yields zero benefit.

    This is what oppo ‘would’ be bargaining for. What it would be bargaining with is his freedom and relative impunity, since he’s managed to get some enemies along the way.

  13. So – compromise and let them free for the sake of being able to govern. Then the incentive for the next generation of politicians is to steal – as they see it gets unpunished. And the wheel goes on, the rich from chavismo, will join the rich from the Guanabana, who joined the rich from Perez Jimenez, who joined the rich from Jose Vicente Gonez – ally he way to the rich from Guzman Blanco, the Monagas brothers

    The wheel of misgovernment and corruption will not stop if we let this last cadre of corrupt politicians free.

  14. The ramifications of lobachevscki’s point are only avoidable in a dream world in which Venezuela actually had money, instead of the highest inflation rate in the world and a currency you cannot sell in any capitol market on earth. The recovery movement has shown that no one can ever transcend their current position without clearing the wreckage of the past (including prosecution of those whose thievery is so Homeric it amounts to treason). This is not revenge, but justice. But just now Venezuela cannot afford wholesale justice, not with the health care situation so grave that many hospitals are operating with little to no medicine and people are dying of things like dehydration for the lack of IVs – I know this because my daughter is doing her residency in Caracas. Point is no matter who wins the election and by how much, ANY government is going to be in full on survival mode for several years and those who have committed crimes against the state will largely go unpunished for lack of resources to prosecute. There’s a bottom line in all of this that determines what is and is not possible, regardless of what we all want to see to the people who looted the country and handed the rest of it over to Cubanos.

  15. Reading the comments I see that my post lacked a few specifics. When I say revenge and score-settling, my concern is not only with the prosecution of criminals. Justice is necessary, of course, although I believe that for numerous reasons we won’t be able to prosecute and punish all the criminals. To the best of my knowledge, no country in transition to democracy has been able to prosecute and punish all. I don’t think Venezuela will be the first one.

    But what I call revenge politics goes well beyond prosecutions. It means firing thousands of chavista employees from the public sector just because they’re chavistas, seeking to crush businesses that are close to chavismo, denying government contracts to companies that dealt with chavismo, closing private pro-chavismo media, destabilizing banks of chavistas, expropriations, prosecutions that do not adhere to the Law, playing politics with the Armed Forces promotions, using power to favour MUD parties in elections, torturing the torturers, etc. It’s the kind of things that chavismo did, and others before them. It has to stop. There’s no progress in behaving just like chavismo but without wearing red shirts.


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