Every time Bill Murray wakes up in Groundhog Day, he gets to live the same day over and over. People do and say the same things, and any variation can only be brought about by Bill’s actions. At 6 a.m. every morning, he wakes up to another Groundhog Day in full knowledge of what happened in every previous repetition, while no one in Punxsutawney has any idea what’s going on.
Caracas’ mayor Jorge Rodríguez thinks he’s Bill Murray. He’s not. He thinks he can rerun the playbook from late 2016; when the government could promise all kinds of things he never intended to deliver and suffer no consequences. That only works in the movies.
As the government’s main strategist during the 2016 negotiations, Rodríguez made what can now be judged to be a huge blunder: he completely screwed the other player. He baited the opposition into a dialogue by dangling the carrot of elections, of freeing political prisoners, made lots of promises to get them to do what he wanted, and then gave them nothing.
Like Bill, Jorge was playing what game theorists call a repeated game: a situation, or “game”, that repeats continuously, and players make choices in every round, which result in payoffs. In repeated games your reputation is everything: if you screw the other player in one round, he or she will be unlikely to cooperate with you in the next round.
You’ve proved yourself unreliable and untrustworthy.
Bill gets to play his repeated game in hyper-easy mode: all of his opponents play the game for the first time, while he’s gathering information and acquiring new skills in each iteration. Bill’s whole advantage in his repeated game lies not in the fact that he knows everything that’s going to happen, but rather in that he’s the only one who knows. Bill’s reputation doesn’t matter; it doesn’t even exist. If others retained information as Bill does, his advantage would vanish.
…Your reputation is everything: if you screw the other player in one round, he or she will be unlikely to cooperate with you in the next round.
Jorge plays as though he thinks he’s in his own #TropicalMierda Groundhog Day. As though the government’s reputation doesn’t matter later. Result: now the government can’t get anyone to sit with them. The MUD parties that matter today, PJ and VP, want to hear nothing of dialogue, while the Vatican is loath to get involved again until the government fulfills its previous promises, thanks in no small part to the lobbying of another aggrieved player, the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference.
Where did it all go wrong for Jorge? Back in 2016, when he drew the dynamics of this game in his silly digital board, he misjudged the game in either of two ways (or both).
The first option is that he misidentified the game: he thought they were playing a one-round game. Under this scenario, all the government had to do was kill the recall referendum, make it to January 2017, and they would be home free until at least late 2018. Had this been a one-round game, then he played it perfectly, taking all the payoffs available.
In the first months of 2017, it seemed like this was the case. The opposition was deflated, and MUD was distracted with the re-registration of political parties. Jorge’s play seemed smart.
But the truth is that we’re living in a sort of permacrisis, with the opposition and the government engaged in a repeated game: since 2013, every few months something happens that leads the opposition to put the government under pressure. This year, the precipitating event was a civil uprising caused by the government’s law firm, the Supreme Court.
Result: now the government can’t get anyone to sit with them. The MUD parties that matter today, PJ and VP, want to hear nothing of dialogue…
The late-2016 dialogue didn’t end the troubles for the government; it deferred them to the next round of the game. It failed to kill the protest movement, which simply lay dormant until it was reawakened by an overconfident government.
Thing is, unlike the good people of Punxsutawney, we remember everything. Which brings us to the second scenario.
The second explanation is that Jorge knew he was playing a repeated game, but he thought he was Bill Murray: that only he learned anything from each round, and thus could crush the other player, and then do it again the next day with the same play.
In this second scenario, Jorge misread the dynamics of the 2016 protests. While the protests were called and lead by MUD, it was then apparent that the appetite for protests in the MUD’s roots was growing beyond the control of the leadership. This was laid bare in October, when the politicians were barely able to contain the hundreds of thousands that were itching to take a stroll to the presidential palace.
MUD leadership is no longer fully in charge of the protest agenda, as evidenced by the daily and nightly protests that sprout all around the country without any prompt from politicians, including Western Caracas. The protesters are not taking “no”, or “dialogue”, for an answer.
This year, the precipitating event was a civil uprising caused by the government’s law firm, the Supreme Court.
Not only did the dialogue fail to quench the thirst for protests: by screwing MUD so completely, Jorge also made it politically impossible for MUD to agree to be screwed again. The political cost would be prohibitive.
Both the people and the politicians learned from the 2016 round. Did Jorge?
Had the brightest head in PSUV given MUD something to show from the dialogue, they would have an easier time fooling them again now. Back in December, they could have freed a few political prisoners, made a show of signing some harmless laws passed by the National Assembly, and taken containers full of medicines from friendly countries.
That would have given MUD a reason to try negotiating again in the future.
Or they might have paced the negotiations more slowly. Hell, the government could still be negotiating with MUD right now. The protests erupted just five months after the opposition declared the end of negotiations. The government could have easily kept MUD at the table for that long, by rationing out reasons to continue exasperatingly slowly.
What Jorge didn’t understand is that the carrot and stick strategy only works in a repeated game if you give the other person a piece of the carrot once in a while. If you dangle the carrot, and then bludgeon them with a medieval mace, they’re not coming for that carrot again.
Only Bill Murray can get away with something like that.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.