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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