After Quico wrote a furious denunciation of his Facebook status, Alejandro Velasco took the time to compose this wide-ranging reply.

Dear Quico

Thanks again for the rebuttal. I especially appreciate the opportunity to engage.

I think these kinds of polemics often lend themselves more to performance than to argument or debate; more to reading past in order to score points with people already prone to agree with one or another position. I’d like to try to avoid that and take the chance, which I believe your note provides, to parse through what I think are key differences in the way we interpret the recent past and, especially, its relevance for the near (and maybe even longer term) future. That’s what drives my urgency in thinking about Venezuelan history: to shine some light on mistakes we seem to repeat ad infinitum because for whatever reason, we seem constitutionally (ahem) unable actually to analyze the reasons for our miseries, seeking instead (as I noted in my TRT piece) to blame whomever’s in power at any given time, and in the process, promising to do it all differently if only we are in charge. A fool’s errand if there ever was one, except with lives at stake.

So to try to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of performative polemics, let me restate the summary of what I think you’re saying, drawing on your helpful clarification, just so you know that this is what I’m premising my response on:

The authoritarianism that would come to characterize Chavez in 2013 (or much earlier) was already well in evidence in 1999 and increasingly through 2001, independent of anything those opposed to Chavez said or did at the time. That doesn’t necessarily justify but certainly, helps to contextualize and at least, explain (or in any case, needs to be stressed when considering) opposition moves including a coup, PDVSA strike, guarimbas, calling the 2004 referendum fraudulent with scant evidence, and boycotting the 2005 parliamentary elections, each one a last ditch effort to thwart an ever more manifest, and over time, consolidated authoritarianism.

And that’s the reason why Trump/Chavez comparisons such as they’ve been made in mainstream media not only hold water, but may in fact fall short of the urgency they require. Because if elected, Trump will lead the US on the same path Chavez did Venezuela, independent of anything those who oppose him now (and if elected, after) do or don’t do to stop him in his quest to ruin the US, since what ultimately defines them both (in their ascent to power) is a blatant disregard for ‘settled institutional practice.” With the important caveat that in Chavez’s case, he actually believed and wanted to upend the established order; Trump likely doesn’t and in any case, likely won’t. Which makes Chavez unlike Trump in that he was infinitely more dangerous, and therefore deserved whatever it took to stop him.

Finally, it’s far more important for the left to recognize, call out, and come to terms with Chavez’s always-already manifest authoritarianism and what it spawned than it is for the opposition (which can’t be subsumed as “the right” since it’s heterogeneous) to recognize, call out, and come to terms with any illiberalism and antidemocratic tendencies they may have at one point engaged in, since it was at the greater service of preventing the collapse that has befallen Venezuela

If that is in fact your position – palabras más, palabras menos – my first thought is: we agree on more than you might think. I write that not in an asinine let’s-look-for-points-in-common-rather-than-differences sort of way – I have major differences of interpretation as I lay out below – but rather because I genuinely believe that recognizing Chavez’s early authoritarianism as well as the opposition’s deeply antidemocratic 2002-2005 period both helps explain those days more fully, responsibly, and comprehensively than they have been to date, and sets the stage for the kind of future that awaits us, one in which we either do or don’t recognize authoritarian strains in Venezuelan political culture, present before Chavez, and enormously exacerbated since.

Note that I wrote “explain,” not “excuse.” Perhaps you see the two as the same. I don’t. The fact is that everything you write about Chavez between 1999 and 2001 is true. And yet, none of it discounts what I wrote about the opposition, which is also true. The two aren’t separate and distinct. They are mutually constitutive. Chavez’s authoritarianism reinforced the opposition’s radicalism, which reinforced Chavez’s authoritarianism, which upped oppo radicalism, culminating (I think) in the 2005 boycott, which as I wrote in my post, legally, constitutionally, ceded Chavez one party rule. It is very difficult, after that, to express surprise or – I’d go further – condemnation for an outcome we helped usher in, even if it was with the intent of preventing it.

I admit it’s unclear to me why it’s a difficult or controversial idea to hold in balance, that Chavez’s authoritarianism at once fed and reflected opposition anti-democratic radicalism, and vice versa. The uncharitable reading is what I posted – a need to wish/wash away those years/practices in lieu of having to come to terms with them, to generate distance from past actions that sully current (and future) democratic credentials. (The irony of course is that you accuse the left of resorting to similar whitewashing when it comes to Chávez’s authoritarianism. Credibly I should add, but ironically all the same.)

More cooly, I think in part the reason for the difficulty is what you’ve said elsewhere, that linking or even mentioning anti-democratic oppo practices alongside Chavez’s authoritarianism engages in false equivalency.  But that’s true only if you believe the opposition had little or no power in 2001-2005. That’s demonstrably false. It also takes a very limited, state-centric understanding of power to get to that position. If anything, the various oppo tactics deployed in those years suggest how much power they actually held; that the oppo used it unwisely is my point.

But your point, that the correlation of forces in 2001-2005 already granted Chavez a huge upper hand that required desperate measures to stop, seems to me a major stretch – especially considering the geo-political context, well ahead of the “left turn” that would grant Chavez allies and enablers; it’s projecting the present backwards, which is ahistorical (and which may lay bare a deeper disciplinary difference between us, beyond our ideological differences).

But the bigger reason we differ on this point I think has less to do with whether we ascribe equivalencies (false or otherwise), than with the explanations, justifications, or contextualizations we offer for what the government and the oppo engaged in during those days. Your point is that Chavez’s authoritarianism in 1999-2001 – exemplified already in a zero-sum, winner-take-all mentality that broached no dissent in its plan to turn Venezuela into a one party state – either necessitated or in any event, should mitigate oppo excesses in 2002-2005.

Thank you, first of all, for what I believe is an honest admission, one that I have not seen much at all: that in fact 2002-2005 were years of oppo illiberal excesses – even if you couch them as a response to Chavez’s authoritarianism. (I know that you’ve written on this before, and that CC is not averse to oppo criticism of many stripes. But this is rather an exception to the mainstream of domestic and international oppo thinking.)

But where I disagree is that I don’t think that collision pit a pluralist, tolerant, inclusionary, democratic liberalism against an exclusionary, illiberal authoritarianism. Instead, it featured a contest over competing authoritarianisms.

My point is that opposition excesses in 2002-2005 nurtured and fed the very thing they aimed to prevent and oppose. I realize your position is that Chavez would have cemented control anyway, as was his plan all along, by doing away with any kind of opposition. I’m of two minds here. I think you’re partly right, but not for the reasons you put forward. You’re right that Chavez understood early – as did, increasingly, his opponents – that the 1998 election put Venezuela on a collision course.

But where I disagree is that I don’t think that collision pit a pluralist, tolerant, inclusionary, democratic liberalism against an exclusionary, illiberal authoritarianism. Instead, it featured a contest over competing authoritarianisms, one determined to preserve its privilege, the other determined to wrest it away (if this sounds familiar, it should; it’s the core of David Smilde’s recent op-ed in the NYT, with which I agree; chavismo has become the thing it rejected. More below).

On one hand, entrenched interests that had built up an increasingly exclusionary political and economic order in which they held control over crucial auxiliary institutions well beyond the executive, like political parties, PDVSA, the military, and FEDECAMARAS (as Corrales and Coppedge and Crisp and others noted in their earlier work); on the other hand, a firebrand executive determined to alter how political power and economic resources were distributed, not more evenly – ojo – but rather decidedly against the interests of those who’d previously held power.

In other words it was, already, an existential struggle between one system of government and the interests that had long benefited from it, in and out of the state, at the expense of the majority of the population, and an entering elite seeking to upend that social and economic privilege in favor of those who’d been excluded, by design or by default.

So you’re right: Chavez used the rules of the existing game, created by those he sought to replace, to change the game and create new rules that would benefit those he felt he represented, at the expense of the prior elite. It’s entirely unsurprising and even understandable that those who felt their way of life under threat, responded as they did, recognizing that what was at stake was their survival. But that it responded undemocratically, with the aim of preserving its privilege, seems to me clear.

Of course, I suspect we disagree profoundly on this interpretation of what was on the table in those years, and why the political battles took the shape they did. Moreover, you have ample evidence to argue that time has proven you right on the central issue driving those battles, that turning PDVSA from an autonomous entity whose primary mission was to extract and sell oil, to one whose primary mission was to act as a social arm to distribute resources to its clients, was a grievous, catastrophic mistake.

But I also believe this is a policy question, particular to the Venezuelan context, not a question about liberalism and authoritarianism. When sooner than later today’s opposition is again in power, and it moves ahead with reversing chavista policy towards PDVSA, through privatization, technocracy, or something else, arguing that a national oil company has no business serving as a social institution, but solely as an oil company that pays dividends to the state, then that, too, will be a policy issue. And depending on the circumstances of that transition, I suspect they’ll find strong opposition, certainly among those who’ve benefited from PDVSA at the expense of those left out of the oil pie, with the aim of preserving their privilege. And nothing suggests that the official response will be substantively different from the way Chavez wrested control, even if the justification may be very different (though I suspect this, too, will be very similar: in the interests of and mandated by an exhausted pueblo demanding change.)

To believe this, you’d need also to believe – as I do – that there’s no such thing as “settled institutional practice.” You’re right, again, that what links Chavez and Trump is their disregard for what you call “settled institutional practice.” But I differ in two key points.  

First, the very notion of settled institutional practice I find deeply problematic. There’s a troubling overdeterminism in an argument that says because something is, it means it should and will evermore be, especially when we’re talking about humans and the societies and institutions they create. (It’s the core of Fukuyama’s idiocy, which I’ve recently and happily learned, has earned him the opprobrium of his field, if not of pop political analysts.)

Maybe I’m a sap for contingency and the unpredictable, and you, a believer in structure and the rational.  But history, even at its most Hegelian, understands progress as a messy evolution of things and ideas held sacred. Hegel (and maybe you) imagines that evolution always leads towards more and greater “freedom.” Hereditary monarchies were established institutions until they weren’t. Racialized slavery was an established institution until it wasn’t. Legalized segregation was an established institution until it wasn’t, etc, etc, etc.

Trump isn’t sui generis or anathema to US liberalism; he’s the product of its contradictions, much as Chávez was the product of puntofijismo’s contradictions.

But the thing is that institutions – like populism – can be both exclusionary and inclusive; they’re elastic that way. That’s why the vaunted institutions of the modern US liberal democratic order – state, capital, media (crucially not labor,  which neo-liberalism did away with) – gave rise to Trump.

Trump isn’t sui generis or anathema to US liberalism; he’s the product of its contradictions, much as Chávez was the product of puntofijismo’s contradictions.  One doesn’t have to be a Marxist, or even an historian, to see that. To think otherwise is to assume that institutions somehow exist outside of the social and political contexts in which they operate, contexts that change, evolve, and devolve. In other words, institutionalism isn’t natural law, or scientific certainty (no matter how much political scientists and economists may want it to be so). So the idea that institutional practices are ever settled seems, again, not just ahistorical, but even self-defeating, since holding that idea leads to the ossification and eventually, the rejection of those practices, especially when consensus seems to be most settled among our peers.

The bigger issue, though, is that while you’re right that what links Trump and Chávez is their disregard for settled institutional practice, it matters what reasons they provide for dismantling those practices, and what they propose instead. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Chavez’s “Movimiento V Republica” couldn’t be more different.

The former seeks to return to an imagined past greatness where white straight men drew on the institutions of liberal democracy to rule in the interest of white straight men, paternalistically, of course, but in any event, through a sense of enlightened entitlement. The country is naturally theirs to rule, because they are naturally superior. That’s his program. It’s racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic, and that’s why he must be loudly condemned.  But it’s not because he proposes to upend institutional order.

I would have much preferred Bernie Sanders over Clinton, because he, too, proposed dispensing with settled institutional practices that I believe are at the heart of why Trump exists in the first place: a tax and finance system that perpetuates inequality, the influence of private money in politics, the military-industrial complex and the endless foreign interventions it requires, media agglomeration and what it means for vaunted freedom of the press. These are the features that gave rise to Trump. They’re not separate from “settled institutional practice.” They’re constitutive. And they need to change. And to the extent they don’t, the US is headed for another, far more successful Trump. (On that note, an image just popped into my head of an 85 year old Caldera awkwardly dancing the Macarena with Bill and Hillary when they visited Caracas in the mid 1990s; Caldera presided over the last gasps of what he failed to see was a dying institutional design. I don’t think Clinton will do the same, but Trump’s popular and institutional support is rather an indication of the urgent need for deep transformation. We’ll see whether, if elected, she recognizes this and proceeds accordingly. I’m skeptical.)

MVR, by contrast, dispensed with the very notion of the past. It was revolutionary in the Arendtian sense: it believed its mission was to wash away the past and begin history anew (which is why its deployment of Bolivarianism was so distorted); it didn’t draw on existing institutions (say, the GOP to Trump) but sidestepped them altogether.

It was a proposition fraught with danger, especially in a country like Venezuela which is already, for structural and cultural reasons that Karl and Coronil well laid out in 1997, so prone to collective amnesia. In Venezuela, the idea of dispensing with the past is especially conducive to future failure. (It’s what I argued in a 2011 chapter for a Duke Press edited collection, based on a paper I delivered at LASA in 2006, if you’re interested.)  Insofar as Chavez in 1998 had a plan, it was indeed to upend an existing order, and replace it with another that inverted the flow of resources away from those who had historically received the bulk of it, to those who hadn’t.  That is decidedly a different purpose and underlying framing. And in each case, what they point to are fundamental problems in the existing order, problems that remain out of view – conveniently in the short term, ruinously in the long term – by pretending the trouble is the person, rather than the rot of the system that gave him rise.

Of course, your point is that even if there are valid reasons for wanting to change what appear like settled institutional practices, there are norms, rules, and – valga la redundancia – practices that should be followed. Ultimately, I think you’re saying, the greater risk Trump and Chávez pose/posed in common isn’t their style, it’s their rejection of settled practice.

But the question, for me, remains: could/should the opposition have resorted to less anti-democratic tools?

I submit to you that that’s precisely what the 1999 Constitutional Assembly process did – draw on existing institutional practice to create new institutional practice. And I also submit to you that insofar as Chávez himself violated the very constitution he pushed through, as early as 2000, understanding it to be insufficient to bring about the changes he sought in the context of a struggle not between enlightened liberalism and incipient totalitarianism, but between entrenched interests and new ones, I agree with you.

But the question, for me, remains: could/should the opposition have resorted to less anti-democratic tools? That’s complicated,  I think the underlying question, for which I’m still working out an answer, is whether there were other scenarios that the oppo could have resorted to. I believe there was. And, in fact, I believe there is.  

The main one being: ho hum politics. The fact remains that after all these years – and despite the horrible crisis – the opposition remains naggingly unable to consolidate popular support among people most hit by the crisis.

It’s difficult to explain the gap between rejection of Maduro and support for the opposition, unless one accepts that, in fact, the opposition has not done the basic work of explaining to one time government supporters who are now disenchanted that it is better positioned to speak on their behalf.

Here I’d argue that the reason why is an underlying sense of entitlement among the most intransigent oppo sectors of those days – the ones to whom you ascribe clairvoyance despite their handing Chavez the state in a silver platter, which appears incidental in your framing and is central in mine.

Ojo – I don’t mean entitlement in the “niiños de papá” sort of way. I mean it in the sense of being the best prepared, trained, educated, most qualified, and therefore, the ones naturally endowed to lead. (Of course, none of that preparation or qualification helped them prevent the collapse of the previous order, so there’s an obvious flaw in that logic.)

It seemed, in that context, self-evident that even if we didn’t have the votes or the majority, we should be in power, even (or especially) if it meant contravening popular will – which after all, and I agree, is not the sole marker of liberal democracy. But rather than building a majority, through ground games, explanations, proposals, in short, pateando la calle – all of which, I am convinced then, and now, would have been far more productive in the medium and long run – the oppo resorted to a variant of illiberal liberalism not dissimilar, if rooted in a different logic, from what it sought to replace.

I think the clearest evidence of this is the misiones (what I mention in that TRT piece): Chavez in 2003, after the coup and the strike, knew that if there was a referendum, he’d lose. Why? Because for all that he’d asked of his supporters in the previous year, there were little concrete mejoras to their lives; they felt valorized, to be sure, but, con que se come eso?

That, more than any ideological program (other than, of course, staying in power) is what ushered in the misiones – chavismo’s inner adeco, on steroids provided by the largest sustained windfall of rents the country would receive.

The point is that there was (and is) an opportunity – by recognizing that, in fact, it was many of those vaunted interests that had helped generate chavismo through their presumed, natural leadership of the country at the expense, not just financial but also valorativo, of those left out – to build a majority, not by default, but by conviction. This, more than anything, certainly more than any kind of apego to liberal, pluralist, tolerance, helps explain or at least, contextualize anti-democratic practices in order to fight an illiberal threat.

All that said, if my post implied that the opposition’s strategy in 2002-2005 caused Chavez’s authoritarianism, let me clarify: I neither believe that, nor is that a defensible position. My point was rather that the 2002-2005 opposition strategy did two crucial things: 1) it helped cement the thing it feared, and 2) it helped discredit, not internationally (where what matters most is that one speaks the language and looks the part of enlightened liberalism, more so than enacting it), but domestically, the opposition as hypocritical. This second points is crucial because several of the main players of those years remain highly vocal leaders of the oppo today (MCM, HRA, LL). It’s therefore not just a problem of memory, eliding or dismissing those moments as necessary to combat Chavez’s authoritarianism through anti-democratic means. It’s a problem of political optics and message.

For instance, many people in the oppo expressed shock or surprise when voting in el 23 went against the government in 2015. How could this “most revolutionary” of parroquias go against the government? They’re done! And we’re in! Yes on the former; on the latter, not so much. Indeed, as everything I’ve written publicly on el 23 has pointed to, far more tension than synergy has characterized government/el 23 relations, because, much like the oppo, el 23 is a variegated place. There are radicals and extremists, moderates and even conservatives. They voted as they did less to support the opposition than to register their opposition with the government. That’s an important distinction, especially for prospects of an eventual, oppo government in dealing with neighborhoods and people like those from el 23.

Maybe one day if we’re both in Caracas, I can take you over there and we can talk with folks. As I’ve often, long mentioned: I have never heard as much vitriolic (you might even call it, “aggressively tendentious”) anti-government talk than from people in el 23. And that goes back to 2004 at least, as I recounted in the conclusion of Barrio Rising.  

But especially, now. Speaking with friends and contacts there since I’ve been here earlier this fall, their level of complete and utter demoralization, with Maduro, with the military, with the government in general, with Chavez, with themselves, is profound. And it’s made worse by the realization that as bad as things are, and as bad as they may become, they are far, far more skeptical of the opposition in power. And when you ask them why, beyond the lack of concrete proposals line and others you may find familiar (and unconvincing), they point not just to 2002-2005, and the fact that, again, many vocal leaders remain vocal leaders today.

They are certain that institutions may again work as they once did in Punto Fijo, or maybe even better. But even so, the opposition’s interests will never be their interests.

They also point to the 1980s and 1990s, and cast this as a struggle over control of resources. They are certain that institutions may again work as they once did in Punto Fijo, or maybe even better. But even so, the opposition’s interests will never be their interests. Just as, increasingly, it’s clear that Maduro and co’s interests are not theirs. Chavez, on the other hand, more and more emerges as a deeply flawed leader. But that he had their interests in mind, they do not question. And as battered as they have been for decades, that alone counts for a huge amount. And perhaps, there, like with Daniel James’s analysis of Peron (and some analyses of Sanders, and even of Trump), there are similarities beyond style and policy: their supporters believe that whatever else they did in power, their leaders favored their interests over those who long – and importantly, still – did not.

Which is why, in the comments section of my FB post, you’ll find me doing a lot of agreeing with people with much your same take. And that’s because – again – I don’t see the two positions as antagonistic; my aim is not to exculpate Chavez of his authoritarianism by highlighting that of the opposition. My aim is to tell a fuller story that acknowledges there are no angels in Venezuela, especially in the context not of a battle between a liberal order and an authoritarian one, but between variants of authoritarianism, one which shrouds itself in scarcely responsive or representative institutions, the other explicitly rejecting that shroud, justifying its illiberalism as necessary to upend the marginalization of those who’ve been disenfranchised.

Your position is that it’s more important for the left to accept and come to terms with Chavez’s authoritarianism than it is for the opposition to come to terms with the authoritarian strains within it. To that, I’ll point you to my book, where as I write about in the conclusion, recounting an episode in 2005, Chavez’s authoritarianism was well on display, directed towards his own supporters.

And elsewhere, too, I believe “the left” is, if not coming to terms, at least better grasping those strains. In the pages of the magazine I edit (NACLA Report), the first print issue in my tenure was devoted entirely to this question. I believe you’ll find there an honest assessment of left failures in a range of areas, not just resource-dependency, but also governance. You might disagree with our conclusions, but the diagnosis at least, if that’s what you’re getting at, is far from dismissive and uncritical, and certainly far from absent.

I mention this only in part to say that in fact, I think you overstate the degree to which some left sectors haven’t and aren’t doing exactly what you’re clamoring for. And it’s doing it, precisely so that when it is again in a position to lead, hopefully it won’t repeat the mistakes of the past decade and a half. But that’s the thing: the left is descendant, certainly region wide, and in Venezuela, too.

The oppo is ascendant. And that it has yet to come to terms with its illiberal strains bodes very poorly for the future. So I do, in fact, disagree that it’s more incumbent on the left to come to terms with how Chavez’s early authoritarianism. I believe that’s happening. You’ll say it’s too late. And you may be right.

Certainly it’s possible that Venezuela’s collapse may discredit the left in power for a long, long time, especially if it doesn’t honestly assess its mistakes; much as Venezuela’s puntofijista collapse burst the bubble of its once vaunted exceptionalism (now being irresponsibly reclaimed by Trumpian evocations of a time when all was milk and honey, against every evidence). I don’t see anything similar in the mainstream of the opposition. But I would be happy to be proven wrong.

What I see instead, and your post suggests as much, is a kind of ex-post triumphalism that while trying to embrace context, in fact dismisses it (I admit my post likewise engaged in this). What I see is a real, unreconstructed oposicionismo that did and continues to do itself more harm than good, not just in the short term, but crucially I fear, in the long term. It would be like if someone said to you, in the wake of the Caracazo and the collapse of puntofjismo, that Petkoff and co were right all along, that they should have persisted in their guerrilla struggle because they could see in the seeds of the Betancourt and Leoni governments the harvest of blood and corruption that was to follow in the 1980s and 1990s, to say nothing of increasing poverty and inequality.

That would be a far-fetched statement. You might argue, Betancourt and Leoni were committed liberals. And it’s proven by the fact that people voted for them. But that would appeal to the same narrow construction of liberalism – popular sovereignty – that Chavez appealed to. And, at least what I found and wrote about in my book, support for the vote did not translate into support for puntofijismo; certainly not in Caracas which bore the brunt of both insurgency and state repression.

They eventually did, in the 1970s, after the insurrectionist left had discredited itself, and puntofijismo proved victorious, but only in part by appealing to a sense of liberal democratic superiority. It certainly trod through plenty of civil and political rights on the road to consolidation, and I’d argue, because it failed to come to terms with it, became the thing it was accused of. But it would be self-serving, empirically weak, and ultimately, self-defeating for the future to therefore suggest the guerrilla was right all along, especially if it fails to recognize its own mistakes.  

Which leads me to the following, y con esto termino: just like chavistas carried an adeco inside, and failing to recognize it, eventually became the thing they ostensibly rejected, opositores carry a chavista inside, and failing to recognize it, may fall to the same fate.  Then again, maybe it’s a good thing – the oppo’s inner chavista.

It would be more helpful to accept that oppo strategy was at the same time a response to authoritarianism, and an embrace of it.

Maybe illiberalism is liberalism’s last line of defense. But if so, then it’s important to terms with it (à la Woody Allen’s “how to handle a Nazi” clip) before you again come to power. From the left, by way of a post-mortem, that willful self-denial of an inner demon it suppressed is something it urgently needs to grapple with not just if it wants to return to power, but exercise it better should that happen. I just don’t see anything similar from an oppo poised to return to power. And that strikes me as more urgent at this juncture. For your sake, in particular, for all our sakes in general.

Of course, it’s easy and for some obvious reasons – reputation, shame, regret, etc – desirable to deny the illiberalism of those years, and how they helped set the stage for where we are. But doing so will only set us up for the next crisis. Instead, it would be more helpful to accept – even if it’s by way of an ends-justify-the-means argument – that oppo strategy was at the same time a response to authoritarianism, and an embrace of it.

This, I believe, is what underpins liberal fear of Trump. Not so much what he may or may not do once in power, but rather that 1) he has exposed, unequivocally, deep problems in the very design of modern liberalism (hence the need, against all evidence, to cast him either as “foreign” – Chavez – or sui generis, exceptional, when in fact he is far more a familiar type in US political history going back to Adams, passing through Jackson, Roosevelt (T and F), Nixon, etc), and 2) he will force us to fight him on his terrain, and in the process, expose our inner authoritarian.

This, I think, is the logical extension of your argument sidelining the anti-democratic strategies of the opposition: that if Trump is elected, each of his authoritarian tendencies will require an illiberal response. If so, it’s not much different from what you hear of Trump supporters who, before the election, vowed complete opposition (legal and otherwise) to any Clinton agenda item. After all, for as abominable as we understand Trump to be, his supporters felt exactly the same way about Clinton. And maybe that’s what links the three – Chavez, Trump, oppo: always already misreading their other, and justifying whatever action based on a greater good argument.

The deeper irony, of course, is simple and well captured in that expression: los extremos se tocan. To which I’d add, “pero no se reconocen asi, ni a si mismos.” Chavez claimed a popular mandate to carry out an institutional sea change that to his opponents, was clearly authoritarian, as they had warned. Let’s hope that the opposition, once in power, doesn’t suffer the same. To do, it needs to recognize its inner illiberalism, and either embrace for the good of an eventual return to liberalism, or reject it and tread a different path from what we’ve known in Venezuela. That would indeed, be real change.

Gracias de nuevo for the push back.  I’m not sure I can go another round anytime soon, what with talks and conferences and research while I’m here in Caracas, but I’ll try to reply eventually. And sorry again this is scattered. With less time than I’d like, I wrote more stream of consciousness than I do normally. At least, outside of facebook…




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  1. When I read “Trumps quest to ruin the US” I stopped reading. You DO NOT KNOW who DT is. When you begin to understand this and America in general, is when I will take you seriously. Leave DT out of this.

    America is involved whether we like it or not. BRV has 13 American citizens behind bars. I know two are hostage plain and simple. This is a fact.

    As far as Im concerned, all bets are off with BRV until hostages released. Thus March conviction date for nephews…to give BRV time needed to right a wrong.

    The incoming administration will be comprised of hawks. Career diplomats like Tom Shannon (who does not care about US hostages) are out. The new admin may decide to ignore BRV.

    But one thing is for sure, nothing will happen so long as Joshua Holt remains in BRV. That I can almost promise.

    • We actually know a lot about DT. Thanks, mostly, to DT.

      And we know from those who rush to his defense with suggestions that he is treated unfairly and is persecuted that he attracts a cult-like devotion from people, people who purport to have a special understanding of him. By cult like, I mean, they promise to support him, regardless of the facts. Or alternatively, regardless of their assertions that nobody knows the facts.

      These are also people who purport to have a special understanding of “America in general” that others somehow do not have. And people who make the most scandalous accusations about the motivations of people within the current administration (i.e. Shannon) without a single fact in support. ‘There are hostages, ergo, he does not care about hostages..’…that sort of thing.

      “When I read “Chavez’s quest to ruin Venezuela” I stopped reading. You DO NOT KNOW who Chavez is. When you begin to understand this and Venezuela in general, is when I will take you seriously. Leave Chavez out of this.”

      Sound familiar? To many, who know Venezuela, it will sound depressingly familiar…

  2. Thank you Pete.

    Point # 4 of my post below: Trump’s 100 days plan: PRESERVE THE CONSTITUTIONAL RULE OF LAW.

    Así o mas claro.

  3. I would have much preferred Bernie Sanders over Clinton

    You would have preferred Bernie Sanders, who loves him some left-wing despots like Fidel and Daniel Ortega. Good old Bernie, who told us that Vermont could learn from Marxist wannabe Sandinista Nicaragua, the Nicaragua that endorsed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and jailed a Polish national on suspicion of belonging to Solidarity. Good old Bernie, who thought that food lines were a good thing in Sandinista Nicaragua. Food lines are such a great thing in Chavista Venezuela, right? I guess that rather proves the title of your post: The Chavista Who Lives Inside Every Opositor. Not to mention that Maduro endorsed Bernie Sanders.

  4. Alejandro,

    I agree with most of your comments, even if I don’t see the oppo in 2002-2005 to have been equally as undemocratic as the chavista regime. The only real gripe I have with this response is your belief that the opposition has learned from its mistakes. Regardless of whether you think their strategy now is correct, they have shown two very important qualities, in general, that contradict that:

    1.- The opposition evades the topics of the “Cuarta Republica” and the 2002-2005 years and tactics. In many cases, the opposition leaders outright critique it. For example, it is common to hear mentions of the errors of the leaders pre-chavez, ignoring the poorest people and doing everything necessary to remain in power. Also, it is very common to hear critiques of the 2002 “coup” and the 2005 boycott of the elections. They do prefer, of course, to evade the topic and ignore questions and comments regarding them. Of course, this is due to political reasons. They are intrinsically linked to those movements, so it is better not to mention them or to pivot to something better.

    2.- More importantly, the opposition has pivoted to a much different approach since the 2010 elections. The opposition has acted, in recent years, very differently. And yes, they have resorted to protests which have turned violent, but these are very different to the “coup” attempt of 2002. Every other strategy that the opposition has practiced has been through legal channels, attempting to cross all democratic roads before having to resort to the anti-democratic ones.

    In words, and especially in actions, the opposition has shown it has learned from the events of the past. And the leaders have continuously reined in the efforts of radicals to follow a separate path. It is very telling that VP is now the face of that radical movement, when it asks for only a continuous pressure in the form of protests, which is enshrined in the constitution. Yes, there are those in the opposition that wish to go the direct and antidemocratic route, but their effect on the coalition has been small to non-existent.

    And these realizations should point to the way they seem to be willing to govern. They adhere to democratic rules more than in the requirement for popular support.

    • I agree with this point and would take it even further – to the extent the MUD represents the contemporary opposition, if there is a single unifying ideology or purpose to what is otherwise a heterogeneous group, it’s the ousting of the government through constitutional and democratic means. And on 6D, they succeeded in mobilizing votes in an overwhelming manner. I simply don’t think the passage quoted below is useful in understanding the post-6D reality:

      “But the question, for me, remains: could/should the opposition have resorted to less anti-democratic tools? That’s complicated, I think the underlying question, for which I’m still working out an answer, is whether there were other scenarios that the oppo could have resorted to. I believe there was. And, in fact, I believe there is.

      The main one being: ho hum politics. The fact remains that after all these years – and despite the horrible crisis – the opposition remains naggingly unable to consolidate popular support among people most hit by the crisis.

      It’s difficult to explain the gap between rejection of Maduro and support for the opposition, unless one accepts that, in fact, the opposition has not done the basic work of explaining to one time government supporters who are now disenchanted that it is better positioned to speak on their behalf.”

      If a massive electoral victory in the face of what were, at least, unequal electoral conditions wasn’t a consolidation of popular support, then I’m not sure what possibly could be. Everybody agrees that the opposition would win any election at this point in time – that’s the basis of the current political crisis. The polling data that exists indicates that the opposition is far more popular than the government. Huge numbers of disenfranchised government supports don’t need anyone to explain to them why the opposition is a better bet to serve their interests and run the country – they understand this point just fine, and expressed their support with their votes on 6D and will again the next time they have the opportunity.

    • This learning sadly doesn’t translate to the most important action they should be taking; which is listening to it’s base, display willingnes to be held responsible for mistakes and taking advantage in possitive ways of the civil displays of unrest. Which they may want to take, and i mean the mud as a movement, but something most Oppo leaders aren’t very eager to do.

  5. Me parece que hay poca comprensión de lo que significa vivir en dictadura y sobre todo de lo que significa hacer política en dictadura. Para mí es imposible hacer política electoral como la que pretende la MUD en dictadura, simplemente porque las distorsiones que crea el abuso del poder no lo permiten.Lo puedes intentar, pero no hay manera de evitar caer en contradicciones y corromperte; al final, siempre vas a formar parte del sistema y nunca vas a podar generar cambios. Ese es el juego largo que el chavismo ya ganó. Quizás los analistas no tienen suficientes herramientas para analizar la situación o quizás simplemente están muy sesgados. Es posible que estén descubriendo ahora mismo los límites de su formación. Después de todo, el escenario que vemos se sale de los esquemas y conceptos que manejan nuestros intelectuales. El fracaso de la MUD es una prueba de que en medio de una dictadura no tiene sentido apuntar hacia una política que voy a llamar electoralista, sino hacia una política de resistencia.Eso no significa salir a la calle y protestar por protestar, ni esperar cambios inmediatos, ni optar por la violencia. Eso implica simplemente tipos de organización diferentes a los que hemos visto hasta ahora. Esos otros tipos de organización son los que debemos estudiar ahora y usar como referentes. Hay quienes creen que se pueden hacer las dos cosas al mismo tiempo, apostar a lo electoral, y apostar a la resistencia. En realidad, no. No se puede. Para que el ala electoral avance, el ala de la resistencia tiene que caer. La primera siempre va a tender a eliminar la segunda, casi que por inercia. Eso es lo que hemos visto hasta ahora. Y los avances del ala electoral, debido a las distorsiones que nadie quiere analizar, son muy pobres y relativos. Lo lógico sería aprovechar el quiebre actual, para transferir todos los recursos del ala electoral, hacia el ala de la resistencia. Eso no implicaría un gran cambio, simplemente que rueden dos o tres cabezas, y así empezamos una nueva batalla que puede durar seis meses o seis años, pero por lo menos tendríamos la oportunidad de ganarla en algún momento, cosa que si seguimos como estamos nunca va a pasar. Lo importante es eso, no seguir en la misma dirección.

  6. I submit to you that that’s precisely what the 1999 Constitutional Assembly process did – draw on existing institutional practice to create new institutional practice.

    I think this is the heart of the disconnect between our visions. That’s what Chávez promised the 1999 Assembly would do. But it was an enormous bait-and-switch. That’s the whole point of the Guaicaipuro Lameda 2000 Wage Hike Anecdote. They didn’t change one set of institutions for another set of institutions: they did away with institutionalized decision making altogether, and replaced it with the whim of a single person.

    Ni es lo mismo, ni es igual…

    • Exactly. If at this point it is not clear that all the window dressing of new Constitutions, new Institutions, new Laws were just charades… I mean is not like they are subtle about it, right? Is not like you have to work hard to get them to admit and go at length to describe how in the end their whole conception of the system the country should be run is not one in which institutions fullfill their roles, but one in which EVERYTHING bows down to what they want. If that means anything from bizarre readings of law or force, they are ok with it.

      A bunch of guys that can go IN THE SAME SENTENCE from “we are democratic” to “the opposition will never come back into power, votes or not” is not a group of people trying to create a new and better set of institutions. Is one that just want to play at having institutions while everybody agrees that in the end is their way or the highway.

  7. Alejandro, thanks for your thoughtful remarks. I’ve been to two of your talks, first as an undergrad at Brown, and then as a bond-dude at an AS/COA panel in NYC. I don’t always agree with you, but I appreciate your sincerity and courage to call it like you see it. Thanks!

  8. So, we have the “Chavista that lives in every Opositor” (illiberal liberal), but, also the Far Lefty Who May/Will Learn From His Past Mistakes (of his disastrous model)–wishful thinking, at its best….

  9. From the very beginning Chavez was bent on turning his regime into a brutal dictatorship , he always had the instinct of the thug and sought the conquest of absolute power , still he was cunning and went about it slowly , methodically , carefully , trying at first to keep up some appearances , but anyone with the least bit of discernment could see where it was all going ,

    Think of Hitler , Churchill knew all along what Hitler intended , others like Chamberlain wanted desperately to believe that he could be appeased , that you could do business with him ….., Historians now agree that if on moving to the Saarland the allies would have moved he could have been stopped , they balked at acting and thus laid the ground for his turning Germany into an almost unstoppable military world power…….!!

    If the oppo had remained civically passive he would in time have found a way to attain absolute control over the country , he was the snake charmer , the guy who could teach the dissafected masses to hate the established order , the elements of civil society and use their rage to destroy its democratic institutions!!

    Some elements of the oppo understood what was at stake , took a gamble and failed ………same as the allies could have acted to stop Hitler but didnt…….!! That doenst mean that you can fault the oppo for what they did for what they did (even if it failed) is the same thing that Churchill wanted to do to stop Hitler and under the circumstances would have been justified.

    Francisco is right in his message , you can be too goody goody in confronting an unscrupuous enemy and sometimes will have to use his same methods and weapons to stop him from doing you in.

    Now if there was the least bit of respect for the Constitution on the part of the regime it could democratically be toppled from power , the possibility however difficult for an electoral way out is there an cannot be discarded , but if the regime sabotages that possibility then any stragegy will be justified that saves the country from its total ruin……..!! Dont know that anyone in the oppo in its heart of hearts could have a different view on the matter.!!

  10. Why the fixation with Trump? We seem to constantly see the comparison between Chavez and him. Which, in my opinion, is nothing more than an effort to smear him and his supporters. Ultimately, it distracts from what is happening in Venezuela, NOW.
    And maybe that is the intention.
    The main similarity between the two is that they took advantage of the established political elites not listening to the “people”, to win power.
    And all of the hand-wringing about Trump not following the established rule of law is laughable, when the current President has had more decisions/executive orders overruled by the US courts than any other modern day president.

    • Excellent statement, “The main similarity between the two is that they took advantage of the established political elites not listening to the “people” to win power”–and look at all the liberal/pro-Hillary press/crowds whining at the outcome (no, I wasn’t a Trump supporter, but, fair is fair….)

  11. Sí, las élites puntofijistas se deslegitimaron por muchas razones, y el descontento de los ciudadanos los llevó a dejarse manipular por Chávez. Pero ¿fueron autoritarias esas élites frente al chavismo? Trataron bien a los golpistas y los dejaron salir sin castigo a los dos años. No lo inhabilitaron para participar en elecciones. Apenas hicieron la tímida e inefectiva maniobra de adelantar las elecciones parlamentarias para evitar que el chavismo controlara el poder legislativo. Las Fuerzas Armadas lo aceptaron como jefe de Estado a pesar de haber traicionado su juramento. La Corte Suprema no bloqueó el proyecto inconstitucional de la Constituyente. La oposición aceptó participar en las elecciones para la Constituyente y luego para la Asamblea Nacional con un sistema electoral totalmente sesgado, que por primera vez en muchos años ignoraba la representación proporcional. Un régimen autoritario habría condenado a Chávez a muchos años de prisión y lo habría inhabilitado para ser candidato; habría cambiado el sistema electoral para que los chavistas nunca pudieran ganar; habría inhabilitado a muchos líderes alternos del chavismo y los habría acusado de terrorismo; habría controlado al poder judicial para que nunca decidiera contra el ejecutivo; habría convertido a las fuerzas armadas en defensores incondicionales del régimen.
    Si las élites puntofijistas hubieran sido autoritarias, Chávez jamás habría podido llegar al poder.

    • Si de verdad la cuarta hubiese sido tan mala, el podrido y todos sus compinches habrían sido fusilados o tiroteados en la frente el mismo 4 de febrero del 92.

  12. Y a la inversa, si este gobierno hubiera respetado la Constitución y las leyes, ya hace tiempo se habría hecho el referéndum revocatorio. Pero eso no va a pasar, hasta que no estén seguros de ganar cualquier elección “como sea”.

    • Gracias; como veras el debate es sobre un periodo previo. Completamente de acuerdo contigo en lo actual. Pero bajo la misma lógica, y de hecho, sí se llevó a cabo un RR 2004, que muchos – y sin fundamento – dijeron fue fraudulento, abriéndolelado al desastroso boicot del 2005. El punto es que es fácil tomar solo la evidencia que nos sirve. Lo difícil es tomar lo que nos sirve y lo que nos va en contra (jeje) y de allí armar un análisis. A propósito, estoy de acuerdo en lo que dices sobre cómo PF cedió paso a HRC. Tal como escribí. De nuevo té agradezco.

      • El RR debió llevarse a cabo en 2003, no en 2004, Chávez hizo fraude al retrasarlo un año donde no se vería amenazada la permanencia del régimen chavista si él llegaba a perder la elección ya que el régimen obligó a recoger las firmas como cuatro veces alegando esa porquería de excusa de las “firmas planas”, hizo fraude al regalar millones para comprar votos y usar a las hordas rojas para presionar a la gente para que votaran por él, hizo fraude con la hija de la m****a lista de Tascón para añadirla a la inmundicia agusanada del apartheid chavista, e hizo fraude con las máquinas de smartmatic y la malnacida de la tibisay, que nunca se ha demostrado que hayan dado el resultado verdadero de la elección.

        Las acusaciones de fraude fueron barridas bajo la mesa simplemente porque a los carajos de la Coordinadora democrática de aquel entonces les dijeron lo mismo que luego en 2005 para que abandonaran el boicot a las elecciones legislativas y que les han dicho bastante últimamente: Que si no dejaban la cómica los metían presos o les mataban a la familia.

      • Por supuesto que no comulgo con el lenguaje desaforado de Ulamog, pero, hablando con calma, si el argumento para defender un supuesto no-autoritarismo del chavismo es el revocatorio del 2004, es débil, porque las maniobras ilegales, inconstitucionales y simplemente tramposas para retrasarlo, y la infame lista de Tascón más bien abonan la hipótesis del autoritarismo. El “fraude” estuvo en negar de hecho el referéndum hasta que le conviniera al chavismo hacerlo, en lugar de hacerlo en los tiempos legalmente establecidos. Con respecto a si hubo fraude o no en el resultado, es cierto que todas las encuestas habían previsto un triunfo del No, pero no en la magnitud en que se produjo. No soy experto en temas electorales ni mucho menos, pero los artículos publicados en la revista Statistical Science en noviembre de 2011 al menos dan que pensar. Más aún, me atrevería a decir que fue gracias a las exigencias de la oposición sobre la comunicación de las máquinas que en las elecciones posteriores no se han producido nuevas acusaciones de fraude por parte de analistas académicos (excepto, quizás, por un artículo de Manuel Hidalgo y otro autor que en este momento no encuentro). Por eso, no dudo de que el resultado iba a ser de todos modos favorable a Chávez, pero tampoco me parece que carezca totalmente de fundamento la acusación de fraude. Al menos es un debate abierto, que no se resolverá sino dentro de muchos años, cuando se abran bocas y archivos que hoy están cerrados. ¿No crees entonces que también puedes estar tomando “lo que nos sirve” y no “lo que nos va en contra”?


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