A Dictatorship Without a Dictator

The people who run Venezuela didn't "rise" to power. They found power pre-stolen, in the form of a state organized around a single man who's no longer there.

This is a dictatorship. It is indeed urgent we call it so.

But the act of doing so brings up the most obvious of questions: if this is a dictatorship, then who would our dictator be? Nicolás Maduro? (Guys, seriously?) Padrino López? Tareck El Aissami? Diosdado Cabello? Jorge Rodríguez and his rainbow colectivo?

Dictatorship is defined as “government by a dictator”. This, in turn, is defined as a “ruler with total power”. Do any of these guys have total power? 

The whole system rests, by necessity, on the support of the military and its threat of violence, but the men in olive green support not Maduro, but ‘chavismo’ in general — and chavista kleptocracy, in particular. Worse military support does not come from a single man — Padrino López, say — but from whole theater of ne’er-do-wells dressed as generals wherefrom he derives his own, half-hearted, support.

The peculiarity of our situation arises from the fact that El Aissami, Padrino, Jorge Rodríguez, Diosdado, and so on (henceforth the contenders, for short) have not, as is normally the case, risen to power.

You see the problem. The way power flows in Venezuela (and particularly within chavismo) is still diffuse and, paradoxically, “institutional” — even though it operates in a system built around a single person. It is, in other words, still in desperate need of much sharper definition. Until it gets it, until it ebbs to the shores of a single man, this is no traditional dictatorship. Till then, this is something else entirely, something much slipperier: a diffuse authoritarianism lost in a desperate search for its focal point.  

The peculiarity of our situation arises from the fact that El Aissami, Padrino, Jorge Rodríguez, Diosdado, and so on (henceforth the contenders, for short) have not, as is normally the case, risen to power. Have not fought for it through some Darwinian political struggle. They have not centralised power by way of usurpation or violent elimination. Instead, power has come down to them, as it were, pre-stolen.

Remember: these were men who were happy to operate under Chávez’ shadow as he greedily centralized power in himself. It was he, the gigante with the long shadow, who was doing the power-grabbing. The contenders’ business was, first of all, money and only then power in the debased form of bureaucratic sway. All they needed was for Chávez to continue setting up the theater that enabled them to rob the country of its biggest commodity bonanza and. Their role was merely to administer the state in his name and help him to amass still more power for himself.

Naturally, those in the nominally highest positions of power (those in the military, PDVSA, governorships and ministries) were also the ones closest to the oily golden tit of the state. These greedy suckers are the contenders, the true substance of chavismo.

The last thing they wanted was to exercise power themselves and lay bare their terrifically profitable subterfuge.

Social climbers of petro-dynastic proportions, they are also, perhaps, the purveyors of its true political message: ‘As long as there is corruption, there is hope.’

The last thing they wanted was to exercise power themselves and lay bare their terrifically profitable subterfuge.

The death of Chávez meant the first big blow to the populist theatre that covered up this kleptocracy. The second blow came with the haphazard succession of Maduro, a man so visibly unfit for the role of Master of Ceremonies of the Farce. The tragedy, for him, is that this role is the only plausible justification for the implicit donation of the contenders’ power. The third came with the crash of oil prices. The fourth with the rise of an united Opposition and the loss of the National Assembly.

The final blow was facing imminent defeat in a referendum that could unseat them all and reveal them and their crimes.

With each of these blows, chunks of wood and curtain fell. With each, the power they had only exercised to grab money they were forced to excercise in state violence — sometimes symbolic, more and more often physical. At first, the relatively milquetoast: they bought newspapers and TV stations and even hosted some shows themselves. Later they had to throw hundreds of people in jail. Installed a desperate TSJ. Put the military in charge of food distribution. Ring their friends in the colectivos and bring them to the National Assembly floor. Pass a Budget without a sideways glance at the elected National Assembly. And on it goes.

The farce has been laid bare of necessity.

The end of democracy signals the straightforward surrender of their farce.

The so-called ‘pressure valve’ they blocked off in ruling out a recall was blocked off not only closed to us, but to chavista power-players also.

The end of democracy signals the straightforward surrender of their farce. It imposes an awkward redrawing of the power structure. The puppet-titan who can cast a shadow large enough to cover them is nowhere to be found. Yet find him they must because, that’s the only way they know how to rule. Alas, this puppet needs to be charismatic. Needs to recover all the popular support chavismo has lost. And bring the oil barrel up to two hundred while he’s at it.

It is easy to see Chavismo is in desperate straits. Unmasked and against the ropes, trying erratically to find new ways of ruling that could bring back older, easier days.  For all they know, they might even fail in ruling through violence. They need a pause from all the crumbling. This is why they look for dialogue.

None of them signed up to this to be the dictator, and none of them have the chops to be the puppet they need, either.

Andrés Miguel Rondón

M.A. in Economics from the University of Edinburgh. Madrid based. Wealth management, roots in banking and microfinance. Voracious reader of Classics, specially the Russians, and History. Caraqueño and Caraquista, inescapably a lover of Salsa, wheat talk and Rum. Fascinated by South America's indigestion of modernity, owes his political understanding mostly to Octavio Paz, Ivan Karamazov and dad.