The other day a journalist asked me if the crisis in Venezuela was a) predictable and b) preventable. We may never know the latter for sure—though I’ll take a stab—but the former we can be pretty sure of. And it was the predictability of the current crisis that makes the lack of effectiveness in potentially preventing it so tragic. There is plenty of blame to go around: those who refused to see the inevitability of the tragic ending of the Bolivarian Revolution and those that did see it but reacted irresponsibly.
Long before the systematic rounding up of political prisoners, before the indefinite postponement of elections, and before the medical and food shortages, political scientists, professional human rights organizations and economists were warning of the direction President Hugo Chávez was taking the country. Whether defining the non-democratic phenomenon of chavismo as competitive authoritarian (see Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way or Javier Corrales’ prescient piece in Foreign Policy) or pointing out the grave economic dysfunction the government was creating (see Ricardo Hausmann), the writing was on the wall years ago. Implicit in both was the unlikelihood—even impossibility—of turning the corner by recreating a democratic system already fully manipulated by an authoritarian state or correcting the economic distortions through simple fixes like currency devaluation.
So if we agree that the situation today was predictable—in one form or another—why didn’t anyone do anything (leaving aside whether it would have made a difference)? The problem was two fold. On the one hand there were those who refused to acknowledge the destination of the Bolivarian Revolution. In countless conversations with regional (i.e. non-Venezuelan) leaders, civil society activists and diplomats the response was usually “it’s an elected government; and Chávez is popular.” Fair enough, but so was former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori through most of his autocratic tenure. The hope implied in those states was that somehow the situation would resolve itself; and the answer was allow Chávez and his government to fail and eventually Venezuelans would wake up. Easy peasy as my 12 year-old son would say. What that scenario never took into account was how much the regime would game the rules and the state to never give up power, even after the regime’s popularity had run its course. It also ignored the mounting evidence of criminality within the inner circles of the government and the military, making this more than just a garden variety authoritarian government.
But there were also those who did see where this was going but behaved irresponsibly in ways that prevented more constructive action. Soon after Chávez was elected, the assortment of opposition groups, many of them with deep ties to the ancien regime, took immediately to the streets. Many of their more dire predictions have come true. But rather than form a long-term plan of organization, popular mobilization and programmatic policy many opted for a quick, easy path of hoping to force a still-popular government out of office through marches. That of course led to the brief interruption and coup of 2002 and the return of Chávez to power with more claims to legitimacy and tools to discredit his opponents. Nevertheless, the short-term tactics continued, with the allegations of electoral fraud in the referendum of 2004 and then the refusal to participate in the National Assembly elections of 2005. As a result, it was difficult for outsiders—governments and NGOs alike—to appear to be allying themselves with the forces arrayed against the governments of Hugo Chávez and later Nicolás Maduro.
In the end, yes, the opposition was correct. They predicted the authoritarian political project’s miserable end of chavismo. But their short-term tactics did little to make it any less preventable.
To say that is not to imply, as a U.S. scholar recently did, that today the opposition shares almost equal blame because it doesn’t have an agenda. Today, with the playing field so tilted in favor of the government and the army and militias in the streets there is no time for platform development. This isn’t Chile in 1988. And in fact, that’s part of the problem.
Today thanks to the Inter-American Charter and the vigilance of civil society groups—many of whom cut their teeth during the days of military dictatorships—the regional community has the ability to avoid out-and-out military coups like that that removed Salvador Allende in 1973 or at least give pause to would-be coup plotters. But today the regional community’s understanding of how democracy gets rolled back needs a good dose of political science and scholarship. It was out there early on. Just no one was listening.