Henri and the Challenge of Stability in Transition

It’s April, 2017. You are the Interior Minister in Venezuela's MUD-dominated transition government, and you’re sweating. Profusely.

You hate the idea of passers-by seeing the Interior Minister sweat, but you can’t help it, even though the air conditioning in the Miraflores ante-chamber is cranked all the way up. The pretty girl from protocol tells you President Henrique López Allup is running a few minutes late, finishing up a meeting with the Cuban ambassador —the latest in a tortured series of negotiations to send back the last of the 12,000 Cuban “doctors and sports trainers” (many, obviously, spies) still in the country. Part of you suspects it’s a pretext, that he’s keeping you waiting because he’s sick of your damn face. Who wants to deal with an Interior Minister who only ever brings bad news, anyway?

 
It’s been six months since the days of the revocatorio. That was back in October, and the euphoria that followed it seems impossibly distant now.

It’s been six months since the days of the revocatorio. That was back in October, and the euphoria that followed it seems impossibly distant now. The historic cadena, back in July, when Tibisay was forced by street riots and intense international pressure to accept a 2016 recall vote seem like positively ancient history. Even November, when López Allup managed to bring together all of MUD and beat Aristobulo’s despondent bid to hang on to the presidency, feels like another century.

As you sip the marroncito the mami from protocol brought out, you flip nervously over your briefing notes — another week of riots, this time in El Tocuyo, Cabimas, Porlamar, Punto Fijo and Guarenas, always Guarenas, entire barrios still barricaded by FFM operatives and under their control in Maturín, Acarigua, Valencia and Barquisimeto, a fourth failed raid in Calabozo in search of clues of Diosdado’s whereabouts, twelve PNB destacamientos still not following orders, yet another wildcat strike in the Costa Oriental del Lago has shut down 125,000 b/d in production, a shady coded message from Erika Farías on YouTube giving what look like instructions to her cadres but your guys can’t decipher. You close up the briefing book and wonder how much longer you’re going to keep your job if you can’t bring this mess under control.

 
You’d tried to warn the president elect that if he didn’t prepare an olive branch, armed, organized chavista opposition would swallow the new government whole.

You’d tried to warn the president-elect that if he didn’t prepare an olive branch, the armed chavista opposition would swallow the new government whole. You’d tried to explain that you didn’t have enough guys you could trust in SEBIN to even begin to piece together a picture of where the chavista arms caches were, to map out their command structures, to figure out who was training whom where and for what, to tap into their communications and try to organize a fight back. You tried to explain to him that you were outgunned and outmatched, that you suspected half the guys on your payroll were feeding you false information precisely to give chavismo time to organize the resistance. You tried to get him to prioritize this shit, to put it at the center of his agenda, because if he didn’t, the country would never be calm enough to reap the benefits of the reforms the economic team was implementing.

You weren’t surprised he didn’t really listen, though. The PJ-VP-AD-UNT negotiations over cabinet posts sucked up virtually all of his attention during the quick transition period, and from that it was straight into negotiating the mammoth IMF bailout needed to finance it all. You’d get a couple of minutes at the tail end of the cabinet meeting when the president would turn to you and the National Guard commander sitting next to you and say “…and you guys have whatever security fallout this might imply covered, right?”

Then he would turn to the next agenda item, as though you had some kind of magic wand to deal with the tsunami of sabotage coming your way, as though the Planning Minister’s talk of privatization didn’t imply still more jobless, armed young ideological opponents with too much time on their hands, as though the minutely honed network of UBCh, FFM, colectivo and militia units chavismo had spent 13 years building could just be disappeared through a decree on a Gaceta Oficial. You know without a minimum of calm, the country will never be able to attract Foreign Investment on the scale the economic team is projecting, but what on earth can you do?

 
Normally you’re so busy putting out fires you don’t have time to think, and honestly it’s almost better that way.

You sit there, nervously, your Whatsapp exploding in your pocket with more reports from the field each moment, clear that you don’t have any of the resources it would take to really calm down this situation, and think back on that one quick chat you had with the new defence minister along the Miraflores hallway the week before about how he couldn’t cope with the hundreds of junior officers spread all around the Armed Forces, guys who’d entered the Military Academy with Chávez already in office, guys Chávez had in many cases personally trained, guys who’d decided to become military men precisely to emulate Chávez, and darkly hinting that he was sure if those guys were plotting something, the Intelligence Services wouldn’t tell him.

What the hell is taking him so long with the Cubans?

You hate the wait, because it gives you time to think. Normally you’re so busy putting out fires you don’t have time to think, and honestly it’s better that way. But now you have time to think, so you think back to the briefing the new economic team had given at the start of the last cabinet meeting about how reforms would need at least a few months to start to show results, so it probably won’t be until 2018 that people start to see any tangible improvements. You think how that means you still have months of hunger riots, of depressed wages and inflation and shortages and desperation to contend with.

You think about the way chavista underground propaganda is already selling its people on the idea that this was all the fault of the new neoliberal government. You think about the way CAVIM was handed over to the new government without a single record of any munitions stores. You think about the intelligence report you read a week earlier warning you at least 6 out of 10 cops you command are corrupt or ideologically opposed to you or both and either way can’t be relied on to follow orders. You think about the way every single order you get from up above is an order you can only deliver on by in turn giving orders down the line, orders to people you don’t trust, orders to people who want you to fail.

You think so much that by the time the president walks into the waiting room to greet you your eyes are closed and you’re rubbing your temples so hard it takes you an awkward few seconds before you realize who’s there…


 
Economic reform won’t work without political stability, and political stability can’t be established unless you extend minimum guarantees to some very nasty people.

It’s easy to dismiss Henri Falcón’s call for a Government of National Unity until you really sit down to think through the security challenges the next government will face. To a worrying extent, the mainstream MUD opposition is happy to wish away that challenge —bueno, sabes, eso se maneja— without really getting into the nitty gritty.

Henri Falcón’s pitch is simple: economic reform won’t work without political stability, and political stability can’t be established unless you extend minimum guarantees to some very nasty people who, like it or not, have the weapons, the training and the organization to destabilize any new government.

That’s realpolitik —starting from the world as it is, not as it ought to be.

It’s not a message I expect anyone wants to hear. But it’s also not a message we can afford to ignore.

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