The Two Big Macs Bet – An Accountability Post

Last month, I bet Raúl that there would be no Constituyente election on July 30th. I lost that bet. Here’s my attempt to figure out where and why I went wrong.

Part of my job is to make predictions. Broadly, there are two ways you can do that. You can take the Luis Vicente León approach and hedge every call to within an inch of its life until it really isn’t a prediction at all, because there are no circumstances in which it can be falsified. The appeal of this approach is clear enough: the guy’s never ever wrong because he never ever takes a risk. Bo-ring!

The other approach is to make clear predictions. That’s the one I go for. It’s risky. It means some times I get to take victory laps and other times I have to take the walk of shame… this one is, erm, one of the latter.

Basically, I read the politics wrong, and also MUD’s reaction.

Back in June, my partner Raúl Stolk bet me two Big Macs that the Constituent Assembly election would go ahead as scheduled on July 30th. I bet him they wouldn’t. I owe him two burgers (Emi is vegetarian, so she sat this one out).

Here’s how I got it wrong.

My argument, originally, was that going ahead with a widely despised Consituyente election was just too risky, and the government would eventually come to see that. Specifically, I argued:

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.

My argument had two parts: first, that the Constituyente election was likely to destabilize the regime, and second that the regime would recognize that, accept that view, and respond by cancelling or postponing the vote. The first part of the analysis had serious problems, the second part was just plain wrong.

First the first part: protests were pretty strong in early June, and my assumption is that if people were destabilizing then, they’d be that much more raucous come Assembly Election time. Basically, I read the politics wrong, and also MUD’s reaction. MUD didn’t really dare to mount a coordinated attempt to sabotage the vote  and even so election day left 15 dead. The government then immediately pivoted in what I have to admit was a brilliant, JVR-style gambit to sucking MUD into a fratricidal discussion on gubernatorial elections. Together, the images of the Constituent Assembly officially convening with Delcy Rodríguez at its head, alongside anger at MUD leadership and its visible powerlessness ended up sucking all the air out of the protest movement instead.

Jorge Rodríguez/Raúl: 1, MUD/Quico: 0. 

Of course, I also argued that going ahead with Constituyente elections would destabilize the Armed Forces, and I was partly vindicated by the Fort Paramacay fracas. There are lots of signs of military discontent, they are ongoing, and it may yet be that the government rues the day it decided to go ahead with such a polarizing election. (But that wasn’t what my bet with Raúl was about, so I still lose those Big Macs.)

I plainly misjudged exactly how much risk Maduro and the people closest to him were willing to tolerate.

It’s in the second part of the argument that I really had it wrong: I thought the clique around Maduro would eventually come around to understanding how destabilizing the election would be. I thought they’d share my analysis and realize it was in their best interest to avoid it. This just didn’t pan out at all. 

Jorge Rodríguez/Raúl: 2, MUD/Quico: 0. 

The reasons are many: Diosdado Cabello’s faction and the radical civilian wing of chavismo both mobilized to keep Maduro to his word, and their opinion plainly outweighed the voices urging a postponement of the vote. Though it’s clear the government was repeatedly warned by multiple voices, both inside and outside Venezuela, about the dangers of going forward, Maduro concluded the warnings were just overblown. The ones that were coming from within his own security aparatus, I think, he dismissed as just overly cautious: exercises in bureaucratic ass-covering by analysts who didn’t want to be blamed if “something” happened and they’d failed to issue the appropriate warnings.

One thing July 30th has taught us is that the Armed Forces aren’t really a veto player within the regime. Their instinctive conservatism and their private warnings to Maduro were just disregarded by a leadership clique that has a higher tolerance for risk than they do. Like them, I plainly misjudged exactly how much risk Maduro and the people closest to him were willing to bear.

Turns out they’re willing to tolerate a lot more risk than I thought.

Personally, I still think that’s likely to catch up with them sooner rather than later, but that’s neither here nor there. The voices counselling caution ahead of July 30th weren’t strong enough to get the Constituyente election called off, and next time we meet I get to sit in stony silence while Raúl enjoys two gorgeous burgers in front of me.

I went out on a limb, and I got it wrong. For an analyst, it’s an occupational hazard. Posts like these aren’t a huge deal of fun to write, but I’d still rather do it this way than hedge everything to the point of meaninglessness.