Photo: FidelCastro.cu

Over on Foreign Affairs, Francisco Rodríguez puts forth the case for voting in the soon-to-be-inevitable referendum on a new Constitution. His argument is mostly a retread of his support for taking part in May’s election, and its centerpiece is the idea that elections boycotts don’t work, and that’s a political science fact you can take to the bank:

Academic literature extensively documents the futility of electoral boycotts. A 2010 study by Matthew Frankel of the Brookings Institution looked at 171 cases of boycotts and found that only four percent result in positive outcomes. Boycotts do not increase the probability of regime change, but they do cause the boycotting movements to lose control of key spaces of power, thus eroding their capacity to contest the government’s control.

As you can see, Matthew Frankel’s study from 2010 is doing a lot of work in this piece—it’s the lynchpin for the whole argument. If we’re talking about a settled fact, then boycotting is perverse and self-defeating.

Is that true?

To check, it’s worth going back to Frankel’s study. First things first: this isn’t really an academic study. It’s not peer reviewed, its methodology isn’t presented in full, there’s hardly a graph anywhere. It’s a Think Tank piece, really… and not a very good one.

It’s a Think Tank piece, really… and not a very good one.

What Frankel argues, basically, is that threatening to boycott an election (he mentions a few cases: South Africa, Cambodia and Bosnia) is often effective, but actually boycotting isn’t. He presents 171 actual boycotts, and notes just 4% succeed, so the implications are clear: bluff about boycotts if you need to, but whatever you do, do not go through with it.

The problem with this is fairly obvious. Every actual boycott starts as a boycott threat. Less authoritarian governments respond to threats by making meaningful concessions — and then the threat doesn’t need to be carried out (and Frankel counts it as “effective”). More authoritarian governments, for their part, respond to threats by flipping protesters the finger and doubling down on unacceptable elections conditions. Which yields boycotts that, not surprisingly, are very rarely successful.

The point here is that actual boycotts are a subset of threatened boycotts—specifically, actual boycotts are what happens when a regime is so authoritarian that it refuses to make concessions when faced with boycott threats. These governments, Frankel shows, are extremely hard to dislodge from power.

But that’s just a fancy way of saying more authoritarian regimes are harder to depose than less authoritarian regimes. Which is circular, isn’t it?

Actual boycotts are what happens when a regime is so authoritarian that it refuses to make concessions when faced with boycott threats.

Let’s bring this home. At the beginning of the negotiating process between the government and MUD ahead of May’s elections, the opposition asked for a series of basic reforms to electoral conditions, to ensure minimal standards of fairness. If Nicolás Maduro had been willing to make those concessions, the opposition would have participated—and won.

Frankel would’ve been able to say “see, threatening a boycott was effective!”

But through the course of negotiations, Maduro revealed that he was so authoritarian, he was unwilling to make meaningful concessions, even if that meant facing a boycott and widespread international condemnation. Facing voting conditions that every big country in the hemisphere (as well, it turns out, as Francisco Rodríguez) saw as unfair, most of the opposition boycotted. Maduro’s intransigence unmasked the depth of his authoritarianism and left the opposition out of options.

Of course, the boycott didn’t work.

“See!” says Frankel, “Told you!”

Heads I win, tails you lose.

When you look at it closely, Frankel’s study is silly. The actual political science on this stuff is far more equivocal. As you’d expect from a difficult topic with a small N-size, scholars often disagree. For instance, while noting that many comparativists suspect that boycotts are mostly ineffective, Andreas Schedler finds evidence suggesting that in competitive authoritarian regimes “both full participation and full boycott augment the chances of democratic change, while partial boycotts reinforce the authoritarian status quo.” It’s a complex question; definitely not an open-and-shut case.

Of course, none of this is to say that boycotting was the right decision in May. Reasonable people can disagree about this. But pretending it’s a settled question isn’t just objectively wrong, it’s also tactically hamfisted, because it multiplies the chances we end up with the position most likely to reinforce the authoritarian status quo. 

A half-boycott is very obviously the government’s preferred outcome.

Let’s think back to the Dominican Republic. The one outcome of that negotiation scholars like Schedler suspect has the lowest chance of success is the partial boycott. And boy is that where we ended up!

In May, one part of the opposition took part in the vote, another faction sat the vote out, open warfare between the two ensued, and Jorge Rodríguez laughed all the way to the baranda del CNE. Hilariously, Henri Falcón disowned the election’s legitimacy after polling centers had closed.

This kind of half-boycott is very obviously the government’s preferred outcome. And by wedding part of the opposition to a no-boycotts-never-ever position, Francisco makes that outcome much easier to achieve.

If one faction commits itself to participating no matter what, dividing the opposition becomes super easy: just a matter of carajear Julio Borges until he says “no more!”

Reading Francisco’s piece left me with this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that when the government calls a referendum to ratify the new Constitution, we’re going to repeat the whole Dominican Republic “dialogue” charade all over again.

And end up in the worst of all possible worlds, again.

Because we keep playing checkers while G2’s playing chess.

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49 COMMENTS

  1. Boycott or don’t boycott the vote? It is a meaningless question, since the outcome is already determined.

    Chavismo doesn’t fear the people.

      • Disagree, the outcome will be pre-determined but the optics matter. The vote will only be recognized by a dozen countries (known to us all). If the ANC brings their constitution to a vote the streets should be empty, voting centers empty, make the regime so obviously again fake the numbers. Give the rest of the international community more evidence that the citizens reject the regime and everything it does.

        • Less and less do the optics matter waltz….to the regime, to Venezuelans, and to everyone on the outside looking in.

          Does anyone anywhere really need more proof of what this regime is?

        • I agree. Optics matter.

          Here is what I see: No riots. No mass protests. Nobody showing up to oppo called rallies.

          I see teachers and nurses and doctors and oil workers bitching about better wages but not the loss of their liberties and the death of democracy.

          I see poor people threaten to not vote for Maduro “next time” if he doesn’t come through with more free shit.

          I see Chavista mayors and governors give excuse after excuse, and nobody does anything about it.

          I see the GNB and the PNB repressing and everyone cowers.

          That is the optics I see. So yeah optics matter.

    • Oh they fear the people, when there is a posibility of protest even by old people they fill the streets with robocops, a revolution could get them out of power very quickly, the country is kind of dry grass waiting for ignition, but it would have to be genuinly generalised and radical and focused on the regime and not against the commerce, it just happen that the people fear the goverment even more and that not many people understand the crisis or where we are headed even at this point so most just rather play along and blame everyone else but the goverment, but the fire could start at any moment, it’s more likely the fire starts inside the military facilities tho, but they’re afraid too

  2. Because we keep playing checkers while G2’s playing chess.

    That one sentence explains the entire Chavista takeover. Great article.

  3. You keep on talking about Francisco Rodriguez as if though he was a decent person. I can understand that, since it must be hard to come to terms with the fact that your long time friend actually turns out to be a complete bastard. Your friendship with him may be blinding you, but the truth is that Henry Falcon participated in May’s elections not with any intention of winning at all, but in order to give the government what the government needed (namely, what you explain in your article: a half-boycott). Everyone in Falcon’s team, including Francisco Rodriguez, knew this, which means they are all a bunch of mother fuckers.

  4. For the regime having elections is like a naked person covering its gross nudity ( its raw authoritarian form of governance) with a fig leaf of make believe legality , no ones fooled , but they do love appearances and will go to great lenghts to use them …

  5. “when the government calls a referendum to ratify the new Constitution”

    We’re going to get a newly ratified constitution.

    Seriously, are there even enough people left in this country who oppose this regime to make a difference? I wonder.

    When the government sends every man, woman, and child who has a Carnet de la Patria 600 Bs S (60,000,000 Bs F), for most, more money than they’ve ever seen in one place in the entire lives, how do you overcome that, especially when they’re not bright enough to comprehend what it’s doing to their country’s economy. As I’ve said before, many don’t even understand the concept of inflation, and of those that do, a majority have bought the government’s line that it’s being caused by external forces.

    I guess I get frustrated these days when I read articles about boycotts, protests, negotiations, and international demands that this regime obey human rights and internationally-accepted norms. I understand that it’s this blog’s mission to chronicle or document daily events here. But really Quico, you’re getting a sinking feeling today?

    This one’s over Bubba. It’s been over a long long while now, at a minimum since the recall referendum was tossed aside, though realisitically, well before that. I just use that event because it was the day I finally accepted reality.

  6. Indeed the game of democracy was played and won by the opposition and now that they have exposed what lies at the core of Chavismo – Stalinism. In front of such horror, middle aged men dressed in nice suits haranguing the tyrant look rather pathetic, and the pueblo knows it. In the spirit of Stalin, Maduro ought to say “How may division does the opposition have?” and laugh dismissively and nervously.

    The real weakness of Chavismo is the EPIC mismanagement of the economy. They are incompetent administrators applying the proven destructive ideology of Communism. They too will fail leaving behind the customary red trail… of blood.

    Of course you keep challenging the tyranny embarrassing it at every step, at some point Chavismo will do away with Maduro, because they too suffer the damage. Maduro will be replaced by what I hope and expect to be a short lived Chavismo 3.0 given that Venezuela requires HUGE capital investments to start a recovery IMF and other lenders will not work with Chavismo.

    One has to wonder how depleted of human capital will Venezuela be after Chavismo. Will it be stunted like Haiti?

  7. The take a, way is that so long as an authoratative power is willing to use force to have their way, talking soultions (negotiation, political manuvering, decrees, etc) acis ahieve no change. Unless said regieme collapses from econimic destitution, or is forced out by a greater power – also not afraid to use it – the reins of government will not change hands. This simple fact is what makes all the yakking and protests and analysis seem like such emasculated efforts to effect change. It might make perfect sense what Amargo and others are saying, but the talk is all toothless and the dragon only laughs.

  8. Splitting (Leftist) hairs here. Falcon SPLIT the Oppo?? C’mon, Falcon was nothing but a straw dog, probably well-paid, who lost his own Lara Governorship to a carpet-bagger non-popular Chavista, in an obviously-fixed Regional election, didn’t say a peep, and went on to run against Maduro in the Presidential, probably well-paid, with no popular/not-even real Oppo support. If you don’t have the balls to go full-crunch against suffocating/repressive/vote-fixing criminal suppression, you should at least have a weenie big enough to not legitimize it by going to a fixed vote you cannot win.

  9. Regarding the “new constitution”, I realize that the outcome of any referendum is preordained but I was just wondering if anyone outside of the inner circle has actually seen a final version . Is it going to be revealed to the public before a referendum or must it be voted on before the contents are revealed? I suspect they just cloned the Cuban constitution.

    • The new “Constitution” will be prepared in Cuba, approved by acclamation by the ANC, and will be 2/3 at least “approved” by voters in a Referendum. Falcon/F. Rod will lead the charge of the (phony) 1/3 opposing, the former for flat-out, the latter for someday-over-the-rainbow fat-juicy underwriter, fees.

  10. The author either knowingly or not keeps trying to keep the status quo alive. What is the talk about “government”, “elections”, “boycott”, “opposition” et cetera.
    All double speak, framing terms to appease reality.

    Occupied Nation, invading army, collaborationists, Vichy, disinformation, traitors, and lots and lots of money!

    I used to have great discussions with my barlovento nanny and maid, her son was being shipped to cuba for the early mission Francisco de Miranda doctor experts courses , I posited to her, if cuba is THIS great, why do people leave it in rafts?

    Crickets.

    20 yeas later, venezuelans walk the roads of south america (ant thanks to the darien jungle, not going north)

    • She was a great person, unfortunately for her, and her children, her common sense and ran life education was not enough to foresee and mistrust the Socialismo scam.

      Yes, typical barlovento folks.

  11. Boycotting an election for president, which i think would have made sense due to the absence of guarantees of a free and fair contest, IS DIFFERENT from boycotting a referendum on a new constitution where the voter is asked to say yes or no, period.

    Falcón was a controversial figure for much of the opposition whilst on the upcoming referendum the voter won’t be confronted with a matter of TRUST between two candidates but simply asked to support Maduro’s constitution or not.

    It is a much easier choice…

    • Ummm—no the “new” constitution will be advanced by an Unconstitutional body. To even acknowledge a vote is occurring is to give that body, the ANC, an heir of legitimacy. Until someone is willing to fight the regime on their terms the most basic act of civil disobedience will be to deny them any legitimacy.

  12. Again guys, really? Does anyone care what is that the new constitution says, let alone voting or not voting.

    The story line here is that Maduro, his chavista elite, his military, and collectivos, have all the marbles and will play their own game forever. At one time, they did care some about optics on the international stage. Not, now.

    They are well aware of the highly illiterate, mindless, chavista population. They are controlled by propaganda, and give-aways, and WILL BE FULLY CONTROLLED, by this new constitution, which NO ONE can do a damn thing about. It is a done deal.

    I know calling for assassination, sabotage, protests, and all out revolt is easy. It is not my ass that will get shot, not my foot that will be amputated, and not my family member that will be raped.

    But it is also, not my country of birth, or that of my childred or grandfather.
    America has given me freedom, opportunity, and a life of immense satisfaction.
    I would fight and die for my country. Why? to pass on what was given to me, to my children.

    Venezuelan MUST BE THE SAME. NO?

    • “I would fight and die for my country. Why? to pass on what was given to me, to my children.

      Venezuelan MUST BE THE SAME. NO?”

      Maybe not. What’s there to pass to your children in Venezuela? The country has to be rebuilt from scratch, and most people have no idea how to do that, or that it is even possible, or, sadly, that there is a need to rebuild.

      Speaking for myself, the resolution to never, ever, have children if I had to raise them in a place like Venezuela was an important factor in my decision to emigrate. And I reached that conclusion more than 35 years ago, when I was only a child. Even then, in the days when everybody would tell you that Venezuela was cool, my impression was that it was a shithole with lipstick, and that one day there wouldn’t be enough money to buy all the lipstick that was needed.

      I was lucky. I could get a European passport, had family abroad, and while in Venezuela tried to make the best with the education opportunities that were available then, but as soon as I earned two dimes to rub together I bought a one-way ticket out of the country.

      Other than the European immigrants that came to Venezuela in the 50’s and 60’s, and the few American expats who inexplicably fell in love with the place and decided to stay there after they finished their tour of duty with some oil company, and other than the mantuanos who could afford to educate their children abroad, there are very few people in Venezuela who have any idea of what a well run country should look like. They have never experienced or lived in such a place.

      Maybe the reason that nobody revolts is because nobody wants to take responsibility for cleaning up the place. It is going to be a thankless job.

      • “A shithole with lipstick”

        You ma’am just wrote the very best description on venezuela i’ve ever read.

        Hats off.

      • Damn, the price of that barrel of Orinoco Oil is Skyrocketing.

        My inside sources say that oil will skyrocket to $500 within the month.

        Gotta call my broker to get in on this action

  13. Dale, I think that what the new constitution says will be of great importance if they have pretty much cloned the Cuban constitution. Will it proclaim a one party system ( yes ,I know that is already the case for all practical purposes), will it proclaim all private businesses seized by the state, will it proclaim all private real estate/ property to be seized by state. It’s a scary thought but is certainly a possibility.

  14. Constitutions are irrelevant in a Venezuela where the regime controls all institutional manifestations of public life ……including poll results……., lack of violent street protests is not a sign of regime approval but of a sense of futility at all traditional forms of protests to oust this regime which is by far what most people would like.

    • I fully agree that a Constitution is irrelevant when the regime does not even bother to follow whatever Constitution there is in Venezuela.

      • Chavista behavior with the “perfect” Constitution: we will do whatever we want, regardless of what the Constitution says- even if it is the Constitution that Chavistas wrote.
        New “Constitution:” Chavistas, you may do anything you want.

    • Davy, yep and the quartet of musicians quietly playing Nearer My God To Thee as the great liner slips beneath the waves……

  15. Speaking of property being seized,

    “A US judge ordered that the shares of the parent company of Citgo Petroleum Corporation, based in the United States, be auctioned if the Venezuelan government does not pay a bond.

    The decision was made after a hearing with the interested parties, which requested both the intervention of Citgo and the Russian oil company Rosneft, reported The Wall Street Journal.

    The US newspaper says that the loss of control of Citgo could mean for Venezuela that oil revenues from the United States are at risk. The country has a debt of about 6,000 million dollars, which it has paid to the creditors by other means.

    The company is considered the largest asset of Venezuela based in the United States.”

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/judge-orders-sale-of-citgos-parent-unless-venezuela-posts-bond-1535061779

  16. John, I hit a paywall requiring me to subscribe in order to read the article. If it’s not too lengthy could you copy and paste it here? Would like to read it! Thanks in advance.

  17. A federal judge has ordered that shares of Citgo Petroleum Corp.’s U.S.-based parent company be sold at auction unless Venezuela posts a bond.

    In an order filed Thursday, U.S. District Judge Leonard P. Stark of the U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Del., ordered that U.S. marshals begin the sale process following a hearing with various stakeholders who have asked to weigh in, including Citgo and Russian oil giant Rosneft , which has been pledged shares of Citgo as collateral for a loan.

    For cash-strapped Venezuela, losing control of Citgo could jeopardize one of its only remaining sources of oil revenue, the U.S. If Venezuela wants to hold on to PDVH—the company that contains Citgo—during a continuing appeal process, it will have to put up a bond, the judge says. It is unclear if Venezuela or any of its entities will be able to front the funds as the country is already in widespread default on $6 billion in debt and has resorted to paying creditors by other means, including by giving away bonds it has held in reserve.

    That raises the likelihood that a sale could happen sooner than later.

    Typically in such cases, the amount of the bond is the judgment award plus interest and is a means to insure the plaintiffs against the possibility that there will be no money left to pay a judgment once the appeal process is over. But federal judges have the discretion to lower that amount.

    The shares are being sold as part of a case with a defunct Canadian mining company, Crystallex International Corp., which is attempting to get paid on a $1.2 billion arbitration award related to Venezuela’s nationalization of its assets under former President Hugo Chávez.

    Citgo is largely considered Venezuela’s largest U.S.-based asset and shares of the company are also pledged as collateral to bondholders in the country’s state-owned oil company. So far the holders of that bond, due 2020, are among the only creditors that have continued to be paid amid the country’s economic crisis.

    Calls and an email detailing the judge’s order sent to Venezuela’s Information Ministry weren’t immediately returned.

    “We are grateful for this next step in the process to recover the debt Venezuela owes us,” a Crystallex spokesman said.

  18. Look – we all know that no matter what, Maduro and the PSUV leadership will do everything in their power to thwart the will of the Venezuela people and maintain power at all costs (see only the illegal creation of the ANC to go around their having lost control of the AN as but one example.) So, given that, whay participate at all?
    Simple. You can’t just hand these thugs their malevolent mandate on a silver platter! As a prime example of boycott stupidity, go no further that the boycott of the 2005 National Assembly. The result was a ‘Parliament’ of 167 Chavista deputies who legislated nothing, gave over absolute legislative control to Chavez, and spent their days in serious deliberation over the best ways to venerate him. Yes, the opposition would have not had control of the AN had they participated, but they would have at least had a voice, no matter how small or muffled or denied.
    No matter how pre-ordained the outcome, the oppostion needs to participate in as vociferous manner as can be managed. Even if it be like a lone wolf howling in the distance, it will and must be heard. To though up ones collective hands in despair and crawl away serves only to embolden and further empower this ignoble band of incompetent criminals hell bent on reducing el pueblo Venezolano to nothing more than a feckless mass as enfeebled as el pueblo Cubano.

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