Two Big Macs

A while back, I bet Raúl Stolk two Big Macs that there’s isn’t going to be an election for the Constituent Assembly on July 30th, like the government keeps saying. I still think I’m going to win that one.

In the days ahead of the December 2015 elections for the National Assembly, one big debate among the Venezuelan opposition was about how the government would react to this strange new reality where they didn’t control every branch of the government.

On one side were the nihilists like yours-truly who thought they would never, ever accept an accommodation with an opposition-run National Assembly, that the one thing we could be sure about was that chavistas could not, and would not, share power, ever. On the other side, there were people like my friend Dorothy Kronick who thought that given a bad enough result Maduro & Co. would swallow hard and find a modus vivendi with a fully empowered National Assembly, and that at any rate acting as though they might was in our best interest.

Knowing what happened over the next 18 months, you’d think I’d feel pretty good about my side of the argument back then. But I never have, because I think the logic of Dorothy’s reply has never really been put to the test.

Quico has written that, even if faced with an unambiguous choice between compromise and irrelevance, chavista politicians won’t negotiate not in public, not in secret, not ever. They never have, and therefore they never will. But desperate times, desperate measures: mothers bench-press cars, climbers self-amputate with dull knives. An oppo supermajority would change PSUV incentives, and incentives, they tell me, shape behavior.

For Dorothy, past reactions couldn’t really predict how chavismo would react when it was really up against the wall. And the fact that Maduro remains in power is all the proof anyone should need that their back hasn’t really been put up against a wall. Dorothy’s argument, in other words, hasn’t really been refuted. We won’t be able to say chavismo definitively won’t budge until it genuinely faces an existential threat: negotiate, or lose everything.

This was the debate that was on my mind as I watched Maduro hurtling head-first into the total disaster of a Constituent Assembly now scheduled to be elected at the end of July. The Assembly proposal is so crazy, so destabilizing, so plainly untenable, that it’s always seemed to me to be likely to be an unconventional bit of pre-negotiation positioning. The proposal is too unpopular inside chavismo, inside the government bureaucracy and inside the armed forces to be treated as something they actually intend to do. The risks are way, way too great.

I buy him two Big Macs if elections for a Constituent Assembly go ahead as planned on July 30th.

To press forward with an Assembly the country plainly doesn’t want is to invite the kind of civil conflict that I don’t believe the people around Nicolás Maduro actually want. It’s to court the next wave of Oscar Pérezes, this time inside the Armed Forces and organized, to attempt a power play. It’s to invite a situation so explosive and uncontrollable that no politician with a working self-preservation instinct could want it.

And for all the ways I find them distasteful, I do think the ruling clique possesses the rock bottom ability to calculate rationally how to seek to preserve itself.

Which is why I was happy to take Raúl Stolk up when he proposed a bet: I buy him two Big Macs if elections for a Constituent Assembly go ahead as planned on July 30th.

I still think I’ll win that bet, because I’ve come to accept Dorothy’s logic from as long ago as 2015. I think when faced with an existential threat they probably will negotiate. And I think the civilian and military disorder that would follow if they double-down on a Constituyente this month is so dire, it does constitute an existential threat to chavismo.

Are they spinning this psy-op out to its craziest extremes? They sure are. That’s how brinksmanship works!

But if I’m wrong, and Maduro doesn’t intend to call off the Constituyente elections ahead of July 30th, I still think I have some Mickey-Ds coming my way: because I think the shitstorm that will ensue in that scenario will be so intense they won’t be able to hold the election. There’s no Plan Republica on earth that can safeguard an election 86% of the country opposes and 30% of the country is militantly committed to stopping. It isn’t possible.

Come to think of it, I think the last time I had a Big Mac was like 2003 or so. It’s been years and years. They were pretty good, too, if I remember right. Can’t wait to sink my teeth into those two…