It’s like a Tropical Godwin’s Law: you know your thread has run its course when somebody throws an ¿Y tú qué propones? (What do you propose?) at you.
The line’s been abused enough to become a bit of an inside joke — what you say in a kidding-sort-of-way when you know you also don’t have a good answer.
It’s easy to see how a seemingly innocuous question like this one became a conversation-ender in Venezuela: faced with a governing clique that has all the power and none of the scruples, there’s never going to be a good proposal. Good proposals, like toilet paper, have become a luxury beyond our reach.
Even then, though, I find myself staggered by the depth of proposallessness the mainstream opposition has reached. Faced with a straight-up dictatorship, the new Frente Amplio’s main line of action seems to be… asking that dictatorship, pretty please, to be more democratic.
“Fighting for improved electoral conditions” is how this is generally framed, which makes it sound like, well, something.
But scratch beneath the surface and it doesn’t take long to figure out there’s nothing there. To the question “why on earth would a government you’ve repeatedly told us is a dictatorship agree to improved electoral conditions?” the mainstream opposition has no answer of any description.
Faced with a straight-up dictatorship, the new Frente Amplio’s main line of action seems to be… asking that dictatorship, pretty please, to be more democratic.
The only consensus the mainstream opposition has reached this year isn’t about what to do, but about what not to do: participate in an election under current circumstances. Mind you, they’re not proposing an actual electoral boycott — a series of coordinated protest actions culminating in not voting, the kind José Ignacio Hernández speaks of. They’re proposing not doing anything on election day.
The mainstream opposition has given up even the pretense of arguing that acting this way will hasten the end of the regime. There isn’t any sort of logical connecting thread between their position and the ostensible goal of driving the psychopaths who rule us out of power. Explaining to them that election boycotts almost never work misses the point entirely. They’re not interested in what works.
In ethics, there’s an old debate between consequentialism (the position that actions are right or wrong depending on the consequences they have) and deontology (actions are right or wrong in themselves).
The mainstream opposition takes deontology to an extreme: it straight up refuses to contemplate the consequences of its actions, or to consider those consequences as in any way important in judging whether they’re right or wrong. The mainstream opposition is interested in truth only, consequences be damned.
There’s a certain comfort in this extreme position: once you’ve convinced yourself that there is nothing to be done, why sully yourself with the moral compromises of staking out a consequentialist position? Why open yourself up to caricature, allow yourself to be painted as a crazed warmonger by talking about international military intervention, or as a craven appeaser?
Explaining to them that election boycotts almost never work misses the point entirely. They’re not interested in what works.
Consequentialism means wrestling with the real, nasty, disgusting realities of power politics as they actually are, away from the safe but barren ideological certainties of deontology. Deontology is “safe”, psychologically, at the price of being nakedly defeatist as a practical matter.
To me, political leadership demands consequentialism — if you want to feel safe in the certainty of your righteousness, you can go be a priest, or a social worker, or a professor. To be a political leader is to seek certain outcomes, and that implies sizing up the challenges you face realistically and proposing a course of action that brings your capabilities and goals into rough balance. In circumstances as extreme as the ones we face, it also means sizing up the compromises you’re willing to accept, understanding that they won’t be small.
Conceptually, there are really only two ways a government like ours is shown the door: por las buenas or por las malas. You can either persuade them that leaving power is in their interest, or you can use violence to seize power from them.
In principle, the por las malas, coercion-based approach could come in a variety of guises: regime implosion, military coup, foreign invasion. Last year’s protests should be interpreted as a desperate, brave, but ultimately unsuccessful bid to set off a defection cascade leading to regime implosion. It was my favored tactic, but it unfortunately backfired: protests fizzled before the regime collapsed, strengthening it instead. A military coup could very well come, but there isn’t very much anyone in the opposition can do to influence it, and is more likely to yield a military dictatorship than a return to democracy. A foreign military intervention, for its part, remains vanishingly unlikely — and is also enormously risky: even if it was ultimately successful, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where success comes at the costs of thousands or tens of thousands of casualties, and years of war. To me, that risk is self-evidently unacceptable.
Conceptually, there are really only two ways a government like ours is shown the door: por las buenas or por las malas.
That leaves the por las buenas approach: persuading regime hierarchs that handing over power is in their best interests. This implies accepting that because Venezuela is not a democracy, what the voters think is relatively unimportant. What matters is persuading key groups currently in power that they — not the people, they — are better off handing over power.
This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Many of the groups keeping Maduro in power long ago ceased personally benefiting from the regime, simply because there are no more rents to share out. Many — in the military, in the civilian bureaucracy, even in PSUV itself — understand perfectly well Maduro has no idea how to put the hyperinflation genie back in its bottle. Even the Cubans must by now realize that a chronically unstable, impoverished Venezuela bleeding refugees across its borders, isn’t really in its longer term interest: after all, a parasite has a rational interest in keeping its host viable.
Of course, for any of this to work, you’ll need to be disciplined about lowering the Exit Costs for the current governing clique. That implies moral choices that are deontologically abhorrent: you’ll have to promise Venezuela’s torturers and state-sponsored murderers impunity, you’ll have to allow many of them to keep at least some of the money they stole from people who were hungry as they were being stolen from. There is no softballing the revulsion any decent person should feel at this prospect. It’s fucking gross.
And even then, it might not work.
To look carefully at the consequentialist avenues open to us is to realize with renewed urgency the utterly dire situation we face. When your best alternatives involve either rewarding the very worst criminals in society or possibly getting tens of thousands of people killed, you’ve more or less hit rock bottom. But rock bottom is what Venezuela is all about now, and even countries at rock bottom need leaders with the courage to size up the situation with a cold head and propose a course of action that brings you closer to realizing your goals.
Y eso… eso es lo que yo propongo.
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