If This is a Show, Who's the Audience?

A little horde of chavista agitators waltzed past the National Assembly's security yesterday and onto the floor. It was a squalid bit of showmanship, aimed at showcasing Jorge Rodríguez's control over PSUV's means of political violence.

Supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro storm into in a session of the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Venezuela’s political crisis has gone kinetic since last Thursday’s government move to kill the recall referendum. On Sunday, in a National Assembly session that was Extraordinary in more ways than one, opposition lawmakers officially declared that the “hilo constitucional” — the Constitution’s core doctrines on who gets to rule the country — had been broken, and redefined its task as helping re-establish constitutional rule in the country.

Amid seven other points, the Assembly’s motion explicitly calls on the Armed Forces to disobey orders against the Venezuelan people.

PSUV’s response came in the form that feels most natural to chavismo today: political intimidation.

This is a remarkable moment in the nation’s history. If there are precedents, they are not recent. The opposition explicitly called forth the Armed Forces into the settlement of the political crisis, even if it was in the form of a negative duty (what they must not do) rather than a positive demand to rebel.

The real shape of this fight is becoming more and more explicit. When institutions fail, the men of violence have the last word.

Soon, we had PSUV’s response. Not in the form of the lame propaganda speeches its Assembly members were repeating from memory. PSUV’s response came in the form that feels most natural to chavismo today: political intimidation. A small group of colectivos, visibly led by Caracas mayor Jorge Rodríguez, burst into the chamber and proceded to threaten, intimidate and in a few cases assault opposition assembly members. They waltzed past the National Guard security cordon around the assembly with no trouble.

To my mind, Jorge Rodríguez’s visibility in both being seen to lead and (even more importantly) being seen to stop the violence was far from a mistake. Just the opposite, it was the point. JRod needs to be seen to control the means of starting and stopping political violence. That is how power is tallied in PSUV. It’s not about speeches or ideology or mobilization or even having political clients, much less about policy: it’s about having your hand on the violence spigot.

JRod understands that. That’s the basis he’s competing on.

With whom was JRod communicating through his little stunt? With the same people the MUD majority were communicating with through their historic motion: the men in olive green. As the shape of the confrontation comes into focus, PSUV’s message to the military will not come in the form of words, but in the form of threats.

Chavista factional jockeying has become a competition for the means of creating — and controlling — chaos.

“Side with our enemies,” JRod was saying, “and you’re going to have to face down our people too.”

And he was communicating with other factions in PSUV — like Diosdado’s — and saying clearly: anything you can do I can do better. Chavista factional jockeying has become a competition for the means of creating — and controlling — chaos.

Why? Because controlling the means of political violence is how you establish yourself as impossible-to-ignore in chavista politics today. It’s how you establish your claim to power, and your leverage at the negotiating table. Violence has become the currency of power.