For as long as chavismo has been in power, people in the opposition have been denouncing its “totalitarianism.” The word, I suppose, sounds to people like a broad synonym of “dictatorship,” though maybe stronger. People who really, really hated chavismo called it “totalitarian” without much thought about what they were actually saying. I beseeched them to stop.
Because survivors of the 20th century totalitarian catastrophes wouldn’t recognize their experience in the two-bit tropical autocracy Hugo Chávez built. Talk to a Russian mother marched off to a gulag for 20 years’ hard labor after her second grader denounced her to a schoolteacher for rolling her eyes at something Stalin had said on the radio, and the idea that Venezuela was experiencing “the same thing” would seem baffling and false to her, like a left-wing Spaniard sounds to us when he says life under Rajoy was just as bad for him as life under Maduro is for us.
I’d say a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s S21 Prison would find our claims equally absurd, but that would be deceptive — there were virtually no survivors at S21. The order was to torture everyone to death.
The scale of the crimes committed by totalitarian dictatorships should make it clear that the word doesn’t mean “dictatorship, only more so.” It’s something different, and far more monstrous. Totalitarianism is, thank the Lord, rare. It’s only happened a few times in human history. Dictators are common. True totalitarians are rare.
Totalitarianism is, thank the Lord, rare. It’s only happened a few times in human history. Dictators are common. True totalitarians are rare.
Totalitarian regimes do something normal dictators don’t try, because they don’t need it: they try to destroy every human bond, except for each individual’s bond with the state. In a totalitarian regime, you can’t have friends or intimates, you can’t have loyalty to your city or your baseball club or your family or, in fact, anyone other than The Leader. These regimes give themselves a mad, seemingly impossible goal: achieving total control of each individual from the inside. That is, their goal is not only to control your outward words and actions, but the deepest recesses of your soul. That’s the “total,” incidentally, it’s the one Hannah Arendt was getting at when she coined the word.
How do totalitarian regimes achieve this monstrous goal? There are a number of mechanisms, but the most important one is The Purge.
Purge, again, is a word that’s often abused. It means more than just “a series of arrests.” It means a series of arrests carried out for the purpose of getting those arrested to give up the names of the next set of targets. As an understanding of this dynamic spreads through the group being targeted, the conviction spreads that every social connection is dangerous because anyone you come into contact will be under extreme pressure to give you up if they themselves are arrested.
Arendt, as usual, puts this more clearly than I could hope to. The goal of ensuring nobody in the Soviet Union could have any kind of bond with anyone else, she writes, “was achieved by the skillful use of repeated purges.”
In order to destroy all social and family ties, the purges are conducted in such a way as to threaten with the same fate the defendant and all his ordinary relations, from mere acquaintances up to his closest friends and relatives. The consequence of the simple and ingenious device of “guilt by association” is that as soon as a man is accused, his former friends are transformed immediately into his bitterest enemies; in order to save their own skins, they volunteer information and rush in with denunciations to corroborate the nonexistent evidence against him; this obviously is the only way to prove their own trustworthiness. Retrospectively, they will try to prove that their acquaintance or friendship with the accused was only a pretext for spying on him and revealing him as a saboteur, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, or a Fascist.
His former friends are transformed immediately into his bitterest enemies; in order to save their own skins, they volunteer information and rush in with denunciations to corroborate the nonexistent evidence against him.
Merit being “gauged by the number of your denunciations of close comrades,” it is obvious that the most elementary caution demands that one avoid all intimate contacts, if possible—not in order to prevent discovery of one’s secret thoughts, but rather to eliminate, in the almost certain case of future trouble, all persons who might have not only an ordinary cheap interest in your denunciation but an irresistible need to bring about your ruin simply because they are in danger of their own lives. In the last analysis, it has been through the development of this device to its farthest and most fantastic extremes that Bolshevik rulers have succeeded in creating an atomized and individualized society the like of which we have never seen before and which events or catastrophes alone would hardly have brought about.
It’s this passage that has been bouncing around my mind, as I read about the repeated waves of arrests Maduro’s Military Counterintelligence has been pursuing inside the Armed Forces. DGCIM prisons are, by all accounts, now bursting at the seams, with each new wave of arrests bringing interrogations that are then the occasion for new arrests and new interrogations, in a never-ending cycle. In other words, what we’re seeing inside the Armed Forces has all the hallmarks of a purge, a real purge — a totalitarian purge aimed at ensuring nobody inside the institution can form any kind of bond with anyone else, that all bonds of trust are only and exclusively with the state itself.
The purge is, at this point, confined to the Armed Forces only. It’s not a foregone conclusion that it will spill those boundaries and that similar tactics will begin to be used in the civilian world. But you’d be on thin ice betting against it. For the first time since 1999, I think we can say, without the fear of overstatement, that actual totalitarianism is a feature of the Venezuelan regime, at least with regard to its military.
To me, this is by far the single most worrying feature of a national reality positively overrun with worrying features.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.