There’s a scene right at the end of The Lives of Others, Florian von Donnersmarck’s brilliant 2006 film about the oddly intimate relationship between a dissident East German playwright and the
SEBIN STASI agent assigned to spy on him, that I can’t get out of my head.
Eastern Bloc communism has fallen and Georg Dreyman, the playwright whose intensively spied-on life we’ve been watching for two hours, finally gets to sit down and read his own Secret Police file, piecing together intimate details about how the state barged into the most private nooks and crannies of his life without him even realizing.
By now, though, that state is no more. And so the tables are then turned: Dreyman now knows details about his spy, Gerd Wiesler, that Wiesler himself has no clue Dreyman knows. Now it’s Dreyman who gets to gawk on an unsuspecting Wiesler from a distance.
It’s odd watching that scene as a Venezuelan. The system of oppression that has intruded into every aspect of our lives has a shared lineage with the one that brought Gerd Wiesler and Georg Dreyman into their warped inimacy. The STASI learned its methods from the same KGB that taught the Cubans that went on to teach SEBIN. When our own criollo Georg Dreymans sit down one day —hopefully soon— to read their SEBIN files, what will they find out? What will we?
My sense is that a lot of things that don’t seem to make sense about the Venezuelan political scene today are not going to make sense until that happens. Mysteries like, how can it be that MUD, the opposition umbrella organization, has more or less stopped working now, with millions of Venezuelans suffering, 3 in 4 losing weight, and an overwhelming consensus in the country that the government is to blame? How can MUD have botched its recent reorganization so badly, saddling itself with an obviously unwieldy, unmanageable decision-making structure that makes it impossible to act decisively when decisive action is needed? How, in short, can the opposition be at its weakest precisely at the moment the government is most vulnerable?
I think the answers to these questions must be in a SEBIN hard drive somewhere. It’s the only sense I can make of it.
Little could be more corrosive for a political movement than pervasive distrust of this kind.
Because the problem in MUD is, at root, about trust. MUD leaders don’t trust one another enough to cooperate effectively. They don’t trust one another’s motives, they don’t trust one another’s agendas, they don’t trust one another’s loyalties.
Little could be more corrosive for a political movement than pervasive distrust of this kind. It eats away at MUD’s ability to collaborate, to coordinate, even its ability to communicate.
Some of it, I’m sure, stems from the normal competitive dynamics that make it difficult for politicians anywhere to trust their colleagues fully: careerism, incompatible ambitions, old grudges, tribal loyalties, the whole sad catalogue of human frailties magnified by the drive for power. But some of it, I’m pretty sure, goes beyond that.
A Buyers’ Market
Members of Venezuela’s National Assembly earn a salary — when it is paid — of around $9 a month. Suplentes —alternate members who stand in when the main deputy can’t make a session— earn Bs.1,500 a day, about 36 U.S. cents at the black market rate.
In practice, this means that there are two kinds of parliamentarians in Venezuela: the Independently Wealthy, and the —how can we euphemize this?— “privately sponsored”, let’s say.
Everybody in Venezuelan politics knows this.
The soup of ambition and frustration and greed you create when you pay high-ranking politicians misery wages while regime-connected cronies skim off tens of billions into offshore accounts makes a perfect caldo de cultivo for influence operations.
It would be an interesting exercise to go through and figure out how many parliamentarians belong in each group. Out of 224 opposition deputies (main and alternate), how many are Independently Wealthy? I can’t say I really know. Maybe 30? 50? Not more than 75, surely.
That leaves you with a political class that, on the whole, has to hustle to serve other clients to put food on the table. Here you find a whole variety of livelihood strategies, from the relatively vanilla —professional consulting gigs, that sort of thing— to the decidedly un-vanilla.
The soup of ambition and frustration and greed you create when you pay high-ranking politicians misery wages while regime-connected cronies skim off tens of billions into offshore accounts is dangerous. It’s a perfect caldo de cultivo for influence operations. Cynics that we are, we tend to imagine these will always take their most debauched forms, because, as everyone knows “¡están vendidos!” We want to picture greasy politicos pulling into Fuerte Tiuna to get their Mensalão directly from Diosdado Cabello.
In reality, I’m sure it’s often a lot subtler than that. The regime has its pick of cut-outs and middlemen to provide a minimum buffer, not just between the regime and the politician, but between the politician and his own conscience. A proliferation of cash-flush bolichicos, boliburgueses, bolinarcos and bolieverythinginbetweens is on hand to provide routes into opposition politicos figures.
Each case is different, and the way you compromise each figure is different too. On one end of the spectrum, I’m convinced Hermann Escarrá must have been caught on tape by SEBIN doing unspeakable things to barnyard fauna. (It’s the only way any of it makes sense.)
Other figures probably require a lighter touch. It’s easy to see how, say, if your kid is getting treatment for a life-threatening disease abroad, even the hint of the possibility of a prohibición de salida del país must weigh heavily on your mind.
Ask any opposition politician, on his second or third drink, and I guarantee virtually all of them understand this dynamic is at play.
The point is that there’s enormous scope for creativity in the wide space between the brutal assrape of Hermann Escarrá’s dignity and the subtle, cynical manipulation of Carlos Ocariz’s personal tragedy. Some guys you’ll buy, others you can rent, some you’ll badger, others you’ll threaten or extort or bully or manipulate or exile or ban from travelling.
And some, you’ll find, already agree with you and so you don’t even have to spend any resources pushing them to do what you want them to do: they’ll just do it out of conviction. Those guys, I suspect, are by far the most valuable to the regime.
Ask any opposition politician, on his second or third drink, and I guarantee virtually all of them understand this dynamic is at play. And it matters. It colors their interactions with one another in a deep and ineffable way that’s distorting the opposition’s entire internal dynamic. It’s serious, and it’s bad.
In any given conversation between any two given MUD leaders, both of them are, in the back of their minds, wondering: who’s this guy really play for? Who pays his lunch? Is he recording me? Is Tareck El Aissami going to get debriefed about this conversation? Or Victor Vargas? Or Alejandro Betancourt?
Is it really safe for me to speak candidly with this person?
More and more often, more and more opposition actors are answering “no, it isn’t.” And it isn’t even necessary for the other person to truly have been compromised for that dynamic to develop. Just that you suspect that he has been. That’s all.
Look, we won’t know the true extent of the regime’s influence operation against MUD until we have our own The Lives of Others moment. For now, all we can do is speculate. But we don’t speculate on the basis of nothing. We speculate on the basis of facts that are out in the open. We speculate about dynamics so clear it would be a dereliction of duty not to point them out.
Venezuela right now doesn’t make sense in the absence of a stunningly effective influence operation against MUD. That’s not evidence, I know. Pero es lo que hay.