From Chavismo to Trumpism: the Felipe Pérez Martí Case

The way a former Chávez minister came to be a critic of Maduro and a Trump supporter shows how a certain way of thinking makes you prone to conspiracy theories and political cults

Photo: Contrapunto

Back in 2013, Felipe Pérez Martí was one of several people I relied on to help me rethink my views on Venezuela. Along with Margarita López Maya, Damian Prat, Nelson Bocaranda, Rafael Uzcátegui, and the writers of Caracas Chronicles, Felipe, I thought, was a reliable, intelligent analyst with good values and the fact that he had come out of chavismo to become a vocal critic convinced me that he had personal integrity. Felipe had been Chávez’s minister of Planning and Development and the economic advisor who designed the unfortunate currency controls that ultimately became “the seedbed of corruption,” as Carlos Tablante put it. 

The fact that he seemed somewhat “ungrounded”, that is, prone to unrealistically optimistic pronouncements (that the Maduro government was always “about to fall” within days, weeks or months), and to believing in utopian social models (the “altruistic economy” or “fourth way”) was worrisome, but I just figured everyone has his or her little quirks, right? 

I read his long screeds and found them interesting but felt someone really should explain “word economy” to the economist trained at the University of Chicago. I spent a few years subscribing to his “Qué Hacer” group, where I occasionally found some brilliant articles. But then, in 2020, Felipe, as coordinator of the “Liberators Movement,” came out in favor of Donald Trump, at which point I discreetly had myself removed from the mailing list and sent a personal email to Felipe. He responded in a September 14th email, saying he understood how I felt about Trump (I’d made my views known in Beware Your Friend Trump), and that he also saw him as a populist, but that “we support Trump because he supports Venezuela.”

I have no interest in attacking Felipe, since he strikes me as a sincere person, but I’m afraid that the reality he’s currently touting is anything but the reality that we in the U.S. are living. This became clear to me in his recent post at “TwitLonger.”

Listen to Trump or Chávez or Maduro disqualify, even demonize the opposition. That’s the very currency of populism to divide society between the “good people” (the populist’s followers, of course) and the “traitors.”

I warn the reader that it’s long and, at times, puzzlingly cryptic. But what’s clear is that Felipe has consumed and assimilated the entire fishy kettle of the Trumpian narrative and has joined his voice to the whole crowd of conspiracists who believe Donald Trump, the “great friend of Venezuela”, was robbed of his second term as president by a cabal of “fake media,” “global elites” and Biden Democrats, not to mention Dominion Voting Systems Inc.

Many of the claims Felipe makes in his 5,500-word “message to all U.S. citizens” are too ludicrous to deal with point-by-point, nor would Caracas Chronicles editors, kind as they are, tolerate such an unwarranted imposition on the readers, even if I wanted to take the time and space to respond in such a way. But a couple of points should be made about the way that Felipe has framed his argument, since he’s made the same mistake analyzing the situation in the U.S. that I did for nine years in analyzing Venezuela. 

First, Felipe confuses the actual parallels between both nations. The U.S. is not a “petrostate” with problems of “rent-seeking” as a primary activity of its citizens. In this sense, it’s simply not true that “In the U.S. what really is happening reflects the same pattern” as in the Venezuela of rent-seekers. Viewing the American political process through that frame blinds Felipe to the actual parallels between the Trump and the Maduro regimes: they’re both populist. 

Despite having suffered along with the rest of Venezuela under a populist regime for more than two decades, Felipe seems to have learned little to nothing about the nature of populism. He seems to believe that only the populist Trump can save Venezuela from the populist project of Maduro, and the real problem is that Democrats “invent treasonous behavior like in the Russian affair hoax” and haven’t recognized that Trump has “favored the poor, the unemployed, women, blacks, Hispanics, and the elderly.” According to Felipe, the “U.S. president has done a very good job overall” on dealing with the pandemic, even though the U.S. has the highest number of cases in the world (double that of India, for instance) and highest death rates among 18 other countries with more than 5 million people and over $25,000 per capita GDP. 

Felipe goes on to worry about the “toppling [of] Mr. Trump by what is essentially a coup d’ État” before resorting again to utopian fantasies that sound like the dreams of an unrepentant chavista: “A world authority is really needed. But not the UN, EU, much less the Deep State: it would be a decentralized worldwide republic to serve the world citizens.” Can anyone say “protagonistic participatory democracy” to replace the “false liberal representative democracy?” Have we seen this movie before? But, as the English philosopher John Gray ironically wrote in his fascinating book on contemporary utopianism, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia: “The migration of utopianism from Left to Right testifies to its vitality. An irrational faith in the future is encrypted into contemporary life, and a shift to realism may be a utopian ideal.” 

Populists like Chávez, Maduro and Trump surround themselves with their “family”, buying the loyalty of their followers and operating, as much as possible, outside of the State to eventually take control of it.

Felipe appears to be unaware that Trump was defeated in the November 2020 elections, as even Republican election officials agree. Rather, he seems to believe that Trump’s loss was the result of “tricks, unfair or criminal practices.” Felipe reassures us, despite all we know about Trump from the past four years, that he “is willing to resort to dialogue and to more sophisticated and diplomatic ways while keeping his strong standing against those mafias which should have zero power” in the U.S., presumably the “mafias” in control of President-elect Joe Biden. And in the end, Felipe reminds us, we should remember that “the fight here is not so much between Right and Left, but between right and wrong.”

(Misunderstanding) the Nature of the Beast

This latter statement is quite revealing. Even though the statement is followed by the spiritual closing of an “experienced Catholic”, it’s more consistent with the Manichaean views of a populist. In any case, it’s not consistent with the views of a liberal democrat. The populist, indeed, sees political contests between “right and wrong”: listen to Trump or Chávez or Maduro disqualify, even demonize the opposition. That’s the very currency of populism to divide society between the “good people” (the populist’s followers, of course) and the “traitors,” the escuálidos or (in the case of Trump) the “communists” and “socialists”. 

What Felipe seems not to understand is that deliverance from malignant populism can only come through the restoration of liberal democracy, and not from another version of populism. This is because the outstanding feature common to all populists is that they inevitably end up destroying the democratic institutions that brought them to power. And liberal democracy is the people’s project, building up institutions and making laws and guidelines for the conduct of their democratic processes. 

Felipe, in the final analysis, seems strangely unclear about just who the “mafias” are in the U.S., but he should know that populists work exactly in the way of mafias, while liberal democrats operate in institutions. Populists like Chávez, Maduro and Trump surround themselves with their “family”, buying the loyalty of their followers and operating, as much as possible, outside of the State to eventually take control of it. This is exactly what Trump has done for four years, taking over the Justice Department, appointing judges he thought would be loyal to him, and requiring the personal loyalty of all his underlings. When he didn’t get his way, laws, democratic norms, principles, not even basic codes of decent conduct stood in his way as he pushed it all aside to grab what he felt was his by inheritance. Because, ultimately, populism is the rule of the “great man,” the caudillo who pushes aside the rule of law and the liberal democratic order.

Neither one of us thought to question whether or not the story we received was true: it was enough that it fed into our hope.

Today, as I finish writing this piece, I see images of the riot Felipe’s ally has incited and directed and as the protestors vandalize the congress, I recall the chavista attacks on the National Assembly by chavista mobs in June of 2017. That’s populism: doing an end-run around the law, delegating public order to mobs. Is that why the mafia is also known as “the mob”? Perhaps Felipe can explain to us which political leaders in America and Venezuela are the real mafias, ruling by mob terror and violence.

By contrast with populism, liberal democrats eschew nepotism, most especially when it involves bringing family into administrations. They valorize institutional, and constitutional loyalty and work to avoid even the appearance of favoring their constituencies in favor of impartial administration of the State. Furthermore, liberal democrats don’t frame their political struggles as a contest between “right and wrong” but rather as a contest between two or more parties, competing to represent their constituency so they might ultimately govern their nation for the good of all. Listen to Joe Biden, or for that matter, Maria Corina Machado and other liberal democrats in the U.S. and Venezuela. Rarely do they disparage the followers of their opponents, and when they do, they pay the price as Hillary Clinton did for her “basket of deplorables” speech. They work in accord with democrat process, rule of law, and public order carried out by delegated authority.

Of course, no liberal democracy is perfect; it is premised on the very idea of imperfection. But those are its basic guiding principles.

Felipe’s ignorance about the U.S. is strikingly like my own ignorance of Venezuela in 2013, so I understand completely how he went wrong. He swallowed Trump’s poisonous lies much as I ate up the ready-made fiction of the chavistas when I arrived in Venezuela, in 2004. Neither one of us thought to question whether or not the story we received was true: it was enough that it fed into our hope, our belief in a utopia beyond the “vale of tears” we felt we lived in. Both of us felt there is a better way than liberal, representative democracy, but in that way, we have both, thus far, been proven wrong.

And so there comes a time to wake up to reality and acknowledge one’s errors and bad judgment and to understand that there are some dreams that lead inevitably into nightmares. I had to reevaluate everything when I recognized the truth about Chávez and Maduro, and then again when I realized that much of the Venezuelan opposition I trusted was less interested in restoring liberal democracy than it was in simply a different brand of populism. 

I hope Felipe and other Venezuelans like him will begin the process of self-reflection. It’s long overdue.

Clifton Ross

Clifton Ross recently published his political memoir documenting his conversion from Chavismo to the opposition. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife and co-editor, Marcy Rein, and their two cats.