The Limits of Chavismo’s Strategy

Chavismo spent 20 years making people dependent on Papá Gobierno, then it ran out of money. How does loyalty work in times of hunger?

Original art by @modográfico

The claim that the current all-out crisis is exactly what chavismo wanted has become widespread in opposition circles recently. This point of view didn’t come out of nowhere; not so long ago, for example, we heard Tareck El Aissami saying “The more poverty you find, the more loyalty there is to the revolution and the more love there is for Chávez.”

But what exactly is it about poverty that keeps people chavista? In my view, widespread destitution is useful, but not enough.

The real reason why chavismo doesn’t want Venezuelans to break out of poverty is to keep them economically dependent, forcing them to remain loyal. It’s not quite right to say chavismo wants people to be poor: it wants them to depend on the State. For that, it helps if they’re poor.

For over a decade, the oil boom allowed chavismo to finance all of the messy, arbitrary plans of every power group while keeping regular Venezuelans relatively happy. Yet no one got prepared for the logical conclusion, the day Papá Gobierno ran out of money and could no longer feed all those hijos de la Patria. The growth of public payroll, las Misiones and Grandes Misiones, the poor training of Venezuelans enrolled in the Bolivarian educational programs, the increasing number of pensioners, grassroot social and communal organizations and, more recently, the CLAPs, had one goal: to convince Venezuelans their survival depends on government gifts.

It’s not quite right to say chavismo wants people to be poor: it wants them to depend on the State. For that, it helps if they’re poor.

Now that shortages have met hyperinflation and PDVSA is about to collapse, Papá Gobierno can’t provide for its huge family. Raising the minimum wage is not enough, the Clap boxes tend to get lost and the subsidized pernil never appears. Having 16 million signed up for the Carnet de la Patria won’t do much if it comes with no benefits. Thus, loyalty trembles.

This doesn’t mean the poor will just switch sides, but the poorest will support whoever can deliver. Does the opposition know this?

International Humanitarian Aid used to be a distant hope, now it’s a necessity. What if the Maduro government uses it to gain political advantage, feeding the food-for-loyalty system it counts on?

Chavismo has created an awful reality: most people cannot fend for themselves in the economy we have now, so they (and any new government) will have to juggle: provide for people in the short term, while giving them tools to fend for themselves. The thing is, providing short-term help to the poor can either be done as a means of creating dependence or as part of a clear-eyed social policy to help modernize the country.

The difference between the two won’t be obvious right away, and we’re so used to criticizing any policy in this direction as mere populism that any new government will face plenty of criticism.

Will we have the wisdom to wait and see, and a new government to explain it in terms everyone can understand?

Color me skeptical.