The Only Thing We’ve Learned is Helplessness

The thing that's keeping chavismo in power isn't CNE, or the Supreme Tribunal, or even the army. It's the opposition's deep conviction that we're powerless against them.


The political moment is full of contradictions. The Maduro government has, in a non-trivial sense, already fallen. Nobody really believes PSUV is electorally competitive anymore and nobody truly believes it can just keep putting off all elections forever. PSUV right now is like Wile E. Coyote before he notices he’s already run off the cliff. As Naky and Elecé like to say, we’re really having a long, involved discussion about the when, not the if.

But somehow, the opposition’s supporters simply refuse to believe it. Seventeen years of heartache have taken their toll. Like the grown up elephant in that video above still tied down by a rope he could easily snap, we’ve internalized our helplessness as an existential condition. Our trainer knows it, which is why he’s existentially devoted to maintaining the illusion. The minute it breaks, his power is gone.

The new reality is an overwhelming national consensus on the absolute priority of show this government the door in a peaceful and orderly fashion.

It’s amazing to think that just ten years ago Hugo Chávez came within a few hundred thousand votes of extending his sphere of influence from the Rio Grande to the Patagonia. To our younger readers, the idea anyone anywhere once saw bolivarian socialism as a model worth copying must read like some grim kind of satire. In Venezuela today, PSUV is a toxic brand. With likely voters breaking 8-to-1 (eight to one!) in favor of recalling Maduro, Venezuela isn’t really even “polarized” anymore. That’s old think.

The new reality is an overwhelming national consensus on the absolute priority of show this government the door in a peaceful and orderly fashion. That  consensus bringing together Caracas and the regions, public employees and private entrepreneurs, the working class and the middle class, even people who think of themselves as chavistas with people who oppose them. We’re so used to thinking of the country in terms of rough-halves we find it hard to conceive of the new reality: the conflict today isn’t against half the country, it’s against a tiny parasitic elite that’s entirely isolated, reviled by virtually everyone, living on borrowed time and banking on inertia.

Even within the left and even within the ruling party itself calls for a change at the top have grown from a murmur to a hard to miss roar. PSUV, as an institution, looks more and more like the Acción Democrática of 1998: formidable on paper but riven by rivalries and old grudges and utterly unable to put forward a vision for the future, to mobilize its ostensible supporters, to inspire or lead, much less govern.

The “they” in “they have the guns” turns out to be an empty category. We’d recognize it as a paper tiger if our helplessness wasn’t so thoroughly learned.

The standard retort is that none of that matters because “they” have the guns and “they” are entirely ruthless and don’t mind using as much violence as they need to to cling on to power. The “they” in this formulation is always left conveniently vague, as though it was some one else’s problem to get to the specifics.

In reality, the “they” who have the guns is the state security forces, and “they” turnout to be living the same crisis everyone else is. “They” can’t find food at the shops or at their barracks, either. “They” can’t get medicines if they get sick. “They” have families and friends and lovers and children whose future has been decimated by this crisis every bit as decisively as everyone else’s. The “they” in “they have the guns” turns out to be an empty category. We’d recognize it as a paper tiger if our helplessness wasn’t so thoroughly learned.

There’s a deep, corrosive contempt of MUD strewn across our political class: a contempt for its tactics, for its ethics, for its factions, for its leaders, for its very being.

More and more, I’m convinced that that’s the real basis for the government’s power: learned helplessness. The simple inertia of having been conditioned for so long to believe the other has power you lose sight of the tectonic forces eating away at its foundations.

For the last few weeks, my social media has been a monument to opposition Learned Helplessness. There’s a deep, corrosive contempt of MUD strewn across our political class: a contempt for its tactics, for its ethics, for its factions, for its leaders, for its very being. People were angry that Chuo called a cacerolazo on September 1st, then when that call transformed into the events of Villa Rosa they were angry that the margariteños didn’t just lynch the guy. People spew vile over MUD’s lack of creativity, then spew more vile when MUD gets creative and calls for a 10 minute stop work protest. We’re primed to be sold out, certain, like Maria Corina, that some shady deal is being cut behind our back to rob us of the 2016 referendum, sure Zapatero is a Cuban agent, adamant that MUD is useless, hopeless, helpless. Helpless.

We don’t see the way we project the helplessness we’ve learned onto our leaders, we don’t see how that operation itself is perhaps the last thing keeping the government in power. How much they’ve invested in making sure we lose faith in our ability to ever actually dislodge them from power. We don’t see how absolutely critical to their plans it is for us to keep thinking that way. We don’t notice the way the last thing keeping us from winning is our inability to notice we’ve basically already won.

Nothing is so dangerous as allowing a single person to stay in power for a long time. People get used to obeying him, and he gets used to ruling it, and that’s where abuse and tyranny come from. Ironic, isn’t it, how all the psychological insight you need to peer into the rot inside the Bolivarian regime has been hiding all along in a quip Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad coined?

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  1. Very well put.

    It is, somehow, the task of the opposition leadership to infuse people with this new idea you stress: that they are not helpless any longer but that the people, the opposition both in and outside chavismo, are the ones who are becoming The {ower … they (and their leaders) just have to discover/learn how to organize and use this new Power effectively to get the transition done and over with and be prepared for what comes next.

    As someone once said, “All Power to the People!” Perhaps it will become, in Venezuela, “All Power to the AN!” at some point if Maduro dares to continue to override all peaceful, constitutional paths to a transition.. Really, it is the only remaining legitimate institution, the most clearly legitimate one, and one that the people recently elected.

    A huge problem with this way of thinking, it seems to me, is the legacy of leaving … it affects democratic movements in all countries that face oppressive governments who have had failed initial movements. It is the same in North Africa now … so many with the professional and modern middle classes, esp. the youth, who were with the democratic movements are now gone abroad.

    Well, I am not Venezuelan, and I am not there nowadays. But, this is what I sense from afar and from Venezuelans I have spoken with in recent months.

  2. Great post.
    And I must refer to “Uncivil Society: 1989 and the implosion of the communist establishment” by Stephen Kotkin and Jan T. Gross
    That book forces you to think about the immense difference that exists between a civil society that serves as an escape valve to communism, and a civil society that does not impede the failed communist balloon to inflate until it explodes.
    We have had way too many escape valves… people sitting down in front of a TV screen and feeling better after a: “There he said it! At long last someone told them the truth”
    But the balloon of pent-up frustrations, much filled by the non-event of 1S, is now really close to explosion, and so any minor little pricking on it might suffice.

    • Yes, but the difference between 1989 Eastern Europe and 2016 Venezuela is the public support shown to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain from world leaders such as Reagan and Thatcher, and especially the then Polish Pope, as opposed to today’s silence coming from most of the world’s capitals. Everyone in Poland KNEW whose side the Pontiff was on. At one point the Vatican sent a strongly worded note to Brezhnev himself in the Kremlin that he, Pope John Paul II, would would “lay down the crown of St. Peter and return to his homeland to stand shoulder to shoulder with his people” at the threat of an imminent Soviet invasion in 1979. Pope John Paul II was well-read on economics and clearly understood power politics. This current Spanish-speaking Argentinian Pope, however, is simply lost.

      As demonstrated last week with the canonization of Mother Teresa, Pope Francis I showed a very left-wing understanding of economics and why countries such as Venezuela fail. Emmett-Tyrrell wrote this:

      “For days now I have been reading all the commentary about this singular woman of God (Mother Teresa). Of course, I also have been thinking of my old friend Malcolm who had spent so much time with her. Yet there is one comment I cannot fathom. It came from Pope Francis. He said on Sunday, “She made her (Mother Teresa) voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created.” Their “guilt?” The “crime of poverty they created?” Who is his Holiness talking about? Stalin? Adolf Hitler? Fidel Castro? The corner pickpocket? Members of the local drug cartel? George Soros? Could someone send the Vatican a book on economics with statistics about the reduction of world poverty over the last 30 years? Much of it has been achieved with market economics. As Stephen Moore (WSJ) has written so many times, free market capitalism has done more to alleviate poverty in the world than any other system known to man, including charity.”

      • There are many differences.

        Once it became clear that the Soviets, and thus later the other governments, would no longer use the military and police to put down the people, the end came. That is not the case here, as far as I can tell.

        Plus you have these massively armed and extensive criminal gangs who still have vested interest in the regime staying in power, which was not the case in those countries.

        • As an eyewitness to events in the former Czechoslovakia, I can tell you that the military and the police were fully mobilized. The government had mobilized tanks when the opposition called a general strike that turned out to be the tipping point. This is after terrorizing people with street shootings and arrests. I remember people telling observers to put away their cameras, because they fully expected a drawn out period of repression. Did public support from the Pope make a difference? I think the examples that people held up and which built solidarity and unity were the people on the street who had put their lives on the line, at that time, and in earlier revolts. It was nice that the Pope supported the cause, but people went into the street to defend their neighbours. Solidarity is mostly local, when it comes to standing up to guns and tanks.

          • Gotta mention that there were attacks from the colectivos against some protesters in the 1S march, that were promptly repelled by the protesters themselves who almost lynched them.

  3. BRAVO!! Nailed it!

    “…the conflict today isn’t against half the country, it’s against a tiny parasitic elite that’s entirely isolated, reviled by virtually everyone, living on borrowed time and banking on inertia.”

    That is so good, I may have to “borrow” it… repeatedly.

  4. Una descripción muy acertada de la realidad con la que es difícil no estar de acuerdo. Estamos todos entonces a la espera de ese “when” y tengo mucha curiosidad por saber lo que ocurrirá “after”

  5. ¿Acaso los mejores ayudantes a esparcir la tesis de la desesperanza aprendida no fueron los mismos que desde 2002 acuñaron la idea de que “si vas a la calle los chavistas te matarán a tiros” y la otra de que “Venezuela necesitará por lo menos 50 años para poder medio recuperarse de esto”?

    De hecho, no hay vaina más tóxica que esa de decirle a la gente eso último, que palabras más palabras menos significa que “no tienes futuro en Venezuela”, a nadie le gusta escuchar y mucho menos va a aceptar que va a perder toda su juventud en un fiasco de dictadura para llegar a la tercera edad sin haberla podido disfrutar y tener que largarse a otro lado si quiere vivir.

    Por cierto, la otra idea que ha contribuido a esto es esa otra falacia estúpida de que “Chávez tiene una conexión mística emocional de amor con los pobres”, fortalecida por la idea todavía más estúpida del asesor que le dijo a todos los carajos de la MUD que estaba totalmente prohibido atacarla con la excusa inútil de que “eso haría que los chavistas se arrecharan y que no se pasaran de bando”

    • I was going to mention he same article. It looks like the Chinese realize their money is in trouble and are looking forward to a new Government to protect their investments

  6. “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

    The opposition needs to be able to imagine that a life without chavismo is possible, only then it can make that happen.

    • I think you are misunderdtanding that, what that means, in my opinion, is, as Sun Tzu stated, the wars are won before they were faught but not for optimism or lack of it, but for way more and sustantial reasons.

  7. People might be 8 to 1 against Maduro. How many want to change Maduro for a true chavista revolutionary? El rancho en la cabeza es duro de sacar.

  8. Some of this “learned helplessness” is not just an accident of time and circumstances. I think that much of it has been carefully engineered. I don’t wish to sound all conspiracy theorish, but the Chavistas (however hapless they may seem) have the Cuban G2 running their Psy-Ops for them. They are working with nearly a century of experience accumulated by the Russians (NKVD, KGB, etc.), the East Germans (who, in turn, learned from the Nazis), and of course, the experience garnered by the Cubans themselves in the last 58 years of maintaining their dictatorship by keeping the population resigned and passive.

    They undermine the Opposition’s self-confidence and resolve in a hundred different ways everyday. I am about 99% certain that many of the comments on this blog come straight from TeleSur’s Troll Corps. In the last few months, I have noticed some new commenters (“Juan”, “Jose”, et al) who appear to agree with the themes of this blog, but seed hopelessness: “They will never leave. Get out while you still can.” and “Venezuelans are too lazy and cowardly to rebel.” Sound familiar?

    I agree that it is now likely a matter of “when and how, not if”, but we should not underestimate the power of the Chavista propaganda machine. If they can trigger a massive exodus from Venezuela, such as they did in Cuba, they might still hold on. The other day, we read a post from José Jesús Milano Ferrer who has had enough and is leaving. Every one like him who leaves is a victory for the Regime. When all of the wolves who can think for themselves leave, what remains are the sheep. And sheep can be herded.

  9. This article took an unexpected turn.

    The feeling I got all around on the ground on S1 after the next actions were announced wasn’t helplessness, it was empowerement, maybe even over-empowerment.

    The people I see criticizing the MUDs slowness of action, or its timid demands, do so precisely because they are so convinced of the overwhelming support that they feel empowered enough to ask for more and to do it sooner.

    When they criticized pot banging, it was because they didn’t need to feel they where a majority. They knew that, and now they wanted more.

    Even when Maria Corina says she’ll not endorse a negotiation that keeps the government in power for any longer, she doesn’t sound like she doesn’t believe that the support for referendum this year is 8 to 1. It sounds like she believes the support is so strong that negotiating anything less than a 2016 referendum (that’s equivalent to Maduro’s resignation) is…well, learned helplessness.

    Now the growing feeling of distrust towards the MUD may be helping the government and they are for sure fueling that. But the root of those feelings, doesn’t seem to be on learned helplessness but in an actual empowerment of wanting to take the government out as soon as possible, while watching a leadership taking a much longer road.

    Maybe it’s more like all captive grown elephants realized they can break free, but the matriarch is telling them to wait until the captors go to sleep, so they can make a more peaceful escape and be able to go further for a better chance of not getting recaptured, while many other elephants don’t care and feel so empowered that they want to take a run for the forest right now. That feeling may even get to the point of thinking the matriarch is on with the captors for making them wait, as before the night falls, the captors may well come with stronger chains to put on their feet, and they may never get another chance.

    That may end up ugly, and the MUDs leadership communication should be better than that of those elephants.

  10. Learned helplessness is the way civilized life work , people are culturally conditioned into refraining from violence (even if such violence is justified) and not give rein to their angry or unruly passions except thru use of certain iconic institutional means , the more socialized you are the tighter the social leash which holds you back . social discipline is one of the features of the middle class ethos , from earliest age its members are taught to obey rules , not to make a fuss , to follow peaceful methods to resolve any conflicts …… even where authority abuses and victimizes them . The psychological leash is not so tight for people who are less socialized , who are raised in a free wheeling poorly regulated environment .but in Venezuela apparently they haven’t shown that much an appetite for street rebellion .despite having the provocation to do so…!!

    When the Nazis started rounding up jews from different countries those living in the most culturally disciplined societies had the bigger number of people killed because they obediently did what was ordered of them in terms of providing names , addresses , rounding up people to be deported etc , for example the Netherlands , where societies where less organized more of their jews scaped , because the net that was supposed to hold them did not work !!

    this is a hold back , another one is the healthy respect one has for the protection of ones own skin, facing bullets and professionally organized armed violence is not easy , people fear for their lives , in a show down between a mass of people and an armed group lots of people get hurt or killed , we hear all these inspiring epic stories how the insurgent masses do battle with armed groups overpowering them and making them run….in actual fact that’s not a very common occurrence . battling guns and bullets with our bare chests and fists is something that some brave people may do but most people are simply too scared… attempt it.

    In the old days the armed people a govt counted with to do battle weren’t that well organized or armed , so that a group of non professional soldiers could arm themselves and become an insurgent army, that was a long time ago …..after Gomez created a professional army all those insurgent armies became history ….!!

    So if the institutional ways to achieve a regime change are blocked or fraudulently sabotaged the efforts to force that change thru other means is tough …….as they say possession is 2/3 of the law……so the way to go is to gradually erode the self confidence and credibility of the power holders (or that of those who defend it) , attack it from all sides every way possible including street demonstrations or by taking opportunity of every occasion that lends itself to asserting the oppos dominance over a particular social space, by making its international image as blatantly ugly as possible , sooner or later an election will have to be held and then the numbers will underscore how illegitimate they have become in popular opinion, keep alive the anger and discontent that now surrounds the regime from all sides, take every opportunity of making it visible and felt……. !! use all available strategies to confront and weaken the regime in every aspect of its rule ….even while not expecting any single one of them by itself to topple it…….its a question of cussheadedness , persistence , methodical confrontation and waiting for the inevitable crack in the defenses that will open the door for things to really happen …….!!

    I suspect that they are much less in control than they feign to be , that the first order of the day for the oppo is not to get impatient or disheartened when some strategy doesn’t produce dramatic results but to keep at it with relentless resolve…….!! there is a tipping point to the regimes structure that will cause it to collapse on occurrence of some perhaps minor looking defeat …the thing is to keep adding grains to that structure until it falls from is own accumulated weight of contradictions!!

  11. “Gradually”, “wait”, “God’s time’s perfect”, “next time it will be”, “in some more years they’ll be worse”…

    Every time those words and phrases are assumed as the new plan of action, well, don’t blame the people by not believing in them later.

    Some people don’t want to understand that lots of people are literally wasting their lives making the useless lines and suffering all the atrocious communist lash from the regime.

    The worst part is the weak-ass spech that the leadership wants to use to attract dissidents, which is “we’ll respect your magical emotive connection with Chávez, we won’t critize anything about him, Maduro’s the one that betrayed you people, the hyper-centralist rentist model is wonderful! We’ll leave your revolutionaries to hold as much as power as they want, so don’t worry about it, the faces you like will be in power!”

    I don’t see anybody in the MUD nor now not in the next press conference capitalizing on THIS:

    “Maduro’s diet makes you hard, without needing Viagra! LOL!”

    The guy’s straight up MOCKING people who’s starving and malnourished, for Pete’s Sake, and there are those who have the nerve to think son of a bitch must stay screwed to the chair all the way to 2019 because even saying a peep about this would be considered “rrrrrradical”?!

  12. Debo darle la razón a Francisco. Si observan las reacciones de los chavistas, verán que estas han sido de lo más violentas cuando la oposición ha anunciado cosas que dejan ver a la gente lo pasajero de esta situación.

    1) Cuando los estudiantes comenzaron a repartir folletos a la gente que hacía fila para comprar cosas con mensajes que decían “no te acostumbres a esto, esto no es normal”, los militares los detuvieron como no lo han hecho en manifestaciones de ningún tipo.

    2) Cuando los opositores hablaron de un gobierno de transición algo que podría decirse incluso en Europa Occidental (igual que uno gabinete a la sombra), los milicos y otros chavistas metieron preso de inmediato a Ledezma y otros como él

    There are many more examples of this. The opposition can only win if it keeps sending this kind of message.

  13. you may be right but there is not magical march, concentration, demonstrantion or cacerolation that’s gonna bring this down or force tibisay to make the RR this year,

    There is just no mechanism on the table that will enable us to achieve this, we probably need an euromaidan/tahir square type of permanent demonstration that could do it, or better yet that cne employees massivelly revolt against the rectors and just do their bosses’s work, but there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for it

  14. We just need the armed forces of this country to say to Maduro, sorry mate, no more, and that’s the end of it. But that is not going to happen yet, maybe in Dec.2018.

    • And here is a perfect example of the type of troll I was describing above. Divad Nosregor (David Rogerson; Roger Davidson?), whom we have never seen here before, uses “we” like he is in Opposition, but promotes doubt and “helplessness”.

  15. Between learned helplessness and unjustified optimism (very close to the wishful thinking) I’m not sure which one is worse. Yes, the question is always, always, ALWAYS when and not if. Even Castro and Kim will fall… some day.

    Now, 8:1 seems a bit of an overstatement, a 4:1 or 5:1 at best is probably more accurate and if we account for the “chavistas no maduristas” the ratio is probably 2:1. Just 10 months the government obtained more than 40% of the votes or a close 4:3. Asuming the chavismo can not regain popularity with money coming Concesión del Arco Minero, narcotrafic or who know what will happen with the oil prices until 2019 seems a bit… naive. At the end of the day they don’t need a real 51% popularity to win elections, they probably need just like 40% and the help from CNE, colectivos and other pre-election and on-demand tactics to convert that number to 51% of the votes.

    Is it a long shot? Probably as long as thinking that they will do nothing from here to 2019 to avoid losing the power. Feeding only THEIR supporters and allowing oppo voters to exile are just two of the more obvious choices and they have a full deck of cards marked cards to use in the 2 years.

  16. I suspect that you are missing one very critical point here… the Chavistas will not let go of power.

    You need to really understand this as the days/weeks/months roll by. At some point, they are going to do much more to FORCE their will upon the population.

    Think of it this way, do you honestly believe the military and communist government will just let a vote take place where they can lose power? Peacefully? honestly?

    Communists and control freaks resist any form of change and they are not going to go quietly.

    Learned helplessness is what the title of this article is, but, also realize, “great, I can change. But what am I going to do different that is not just possible, but probable?”

    The world no longer judges Chavistas… they sit far off and make speeches while other suffer.

    I hope I am wrong. My hope is that the people of Venezuela can turn it around peacefully. Time will tell.

  17. OK, an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans want Maduro to go now and a substantial majority want the chavernment to go now. How does it happen?

    Write out the story. What actual sequence of events brings this about?

    Name the actors.

    The officially recognized procedures don’t allow for it. The constitution provides for recall, but does not specify the timing; the chavernment can delay the recall to 2017, thereby continuing its tenure in power.

    An extralegal process could do it, but only if the security forces go along. How can that happen? Which commanders will go along? If no commanders will go along, will the security troops revolt and go along? Which elements of the security forces? The FANB? Which units of the FANB? The national police? Which branches of the police?

    What will the colectivos do? Specifically, what will each known colectivo group do? (Has anyone in the oppo compiled a list of colectivos: names, leaders, location, numbers?)

    And going back, what would that extralegal process be?

    As it stands: the oppo would have to occupy the seat of executive government physically, and the security forces would resist that – it seems.

    Or – general disobedience of the government by a very broad set of workers, including those in key positions in oil production, utilities, and transport. (AIUI, that was what led to Chavez’ resignation in 2002. The threat of workplace actions rendering the country ungovernablemade key security commanders tell Chavez he had to go,)

    Or – mass actions by the general populace against chavista-controlled official institutions, all across the country. (But which institutions?) That is of limited plausibility, as a large part of the population still seems to support chavismo, and blames only Maduro. (The analogy here is “the Great Fear” during the French Revolution, when peasant rebels all across the country occupied courthouses and chateaux, and burned the documents which defined oppressive feudal dues and privileges of the aristocracy.) I don’t think there is any popular groundswell for the restoration of confiscated property. The key chavista-controlled institutions are PdVSA, BCV, and Cencoex. Can one envision a mass action to seize the offices of these bodies?

    To summarize: one cannot walk from “here” to “there” without seeing where to take the steps.

    And in the present situation, there are no steps that the oppo can take.


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