Through the years of Chavez rule, the best writing about Venezuela in English appeared on a blogspot run by two Venezuelan expats, Francisco Toro and Juan Cristobal Nagel. With preternatural timing, the authors of that blog released a re-edited compilation of their very best pieces in the very week of Hugo Chavez's death. If you want to understand the deceased president's bizarre regime, Blogging the Revolution, the book-form version of Caracas Chronicles, is the place to start.
Chavez's admirers insist their man was leading a bold socialist revolution in favor of the poor. His detractors denounced him as a Castro in the making.
Clarity please? Start here:
Nothing surprising ever happens on state TV, and won't, no matter how many new chapters they air. Nothing even remotely like a real debate, a non-choreographed exchange of views or a contrarian perspective has the faintest chance of being heard.
So we really do have all the characteristics of leftist totalitarian communications here: the dualism, the unthinking sameness, the systematic demonization of opponents, the none-too-subtle denunciation of dissidents as enemies of the state and, above all, the repetition, the dreary, obdurate repetition, the drip-drip-drip of the same messages packaged and repackaged again and again and again, at every chance and on every space available.
Venezuela is witnessing every element of a communicative practice that, in other times and other places, has typically gone hand in hand with the massive use of state violence to intimidate, marginalize and, ultimately, physically eliminate dissidents.
And yet … where are the concentration camps? The secret police torture rooms? The death marches? Where is the reality to back up all that talk? It just isn't there, and nine years into all of this, I really don't think they are coming.
When Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot and the Interahamwe mobilized the state media to systematically demonize their opponents, the real world cost of these discursive practices was measured in millions of lives. When Chavez does it, the cost is measured in tons of bullshit ….
If not a totalitarian regime in the making, then, what was Chavez operating?
Toro and Nagel use the term "petro-state" to describe Venezuela: a regime, in their definition, in which political actors use control of the state's oil money to buy control of the state's power. This is how Venezuela has been governed since the discovery of oil, and it is how Chavez governs now - but with a sinister twist.
The pre-Chavez petrostate was built upon an elaborate hierarchy of patronage: from neighborhood boss to mayor to governor to national faction leader to president of the republic. Everybody took a cut, everybody shared something with his clients. Toro and Nagel have no nostalgia for this system, but after some funny real-world descriptions of how it delivered the goods, they offer this backhand acknowledgment: "[W]hile it was inefficient, bloated, antidemocratic, and everything else, the system was not totally useless, and in its own amoral way, corruption served as a rough-and-ready way to spread the oil money around …"
Thus was Venezuela governed from the 1930s until the 1980s. Chavez supporters often talk of pre-1998 Venezuela as if it resembled Batista's Cuba: an oligarchic dictatorship that lorded over an impoverished, oppressed peasantry. This is simply ridiculous. In 1958, Venezuela packed off its last military dictator and established a multiparty democracy. Most of the social benefits that define Venezuela today were instituted by the pre-Chavez governments.
Unfortunately for Venezuela, the old petro-state was overwhelmed by the oil bonanza of the 1970s. Too much money drowned the old way of life - and invited a borrowing binge that turned to disaster when oil prices collapsed in 1986. Venezuela was wracked by savage riots in February 1989, ultimately by a violent crackdown that killed somewhere between 600 and 1000 people, whose bodies were then dumped in mass graves.
The effect the 1989 riots - known as the Carazco - had on Venezuela's public life was in some ways analogous to 9/11 in the US, an event so deeply traumatizing it could be summoned just by its date: 27F. Until then, Venezuelans had seen themselves as different, more civilized, more democratic, better than their Latin American neighbors. Thirty-one years of unbroken, stable, petrostate-funded democracy had made us terribly cocky. In a sense, the riots marked Venezuela's re-entry into Latin America: the country was no longer exceptional, just another hard-up Latin American country struggling to put its democracy on a stable footing.
Hugo Chavez launched a military coup in 1992. He came to power via election in 1998. And what he proceeded to do was dismantle the old patronage system in favor of a new one. In the new system, there would be only one patron: the president himself. Chavez did not institute socialism, he did not launch a revolution. He simply streamlined the old petrostate, cutting out the middleman and constituting power, responsibility and (of course) wealth in his own hands.
Under all the revolutionary argot, the new state functioned just like the old state - only worse.
What would the revolution look like if we watched in 'on mute' as it were: tuning out the discourse entirely and focusing exclusively on the way money, power and influence flows through society? What would we see then?
Well, we'd see a tiny elite, well-connected to the centers of state decision-making that controls petrodollar flows, exploiting its access to grow enormously rich and live extravagant lifestyles.
We'd see a much broader middle class benefiting handsomely from petrostate largesse in the form of deeply subsidized travel, imports, Internet transaction and energy.
We'd notice that the truly weighty microeconomic policies, the ones that move sums large enough to alter the overall distribution of national income, channel resources resolutely up the economic scale.
And we'd see some mass based social programs that are unsustainable, lack systematic evaluation mechanisms and are funded mostly in the run-up to elections and designed to benefit only politically docile clients ….
Of course, that's not the way Venezuela is reported in the United States. Toro and Nagel marvel at the paradox that the "government we have is passionately hated by the people it benefits the most, and passionately upheld by many it treats as an afterthought." (LOC 980-984)
In Toro's and Nagel's perceptive telling, Chavez's distinctive contribution to Venezuelan politics was his ability to give voice to the longings of Venezuela's people for a beneficent cacique - to espouse their hatreds of vague and mysterious others (one reason for Chavez's late-life discovery of antisemitism) - and to exploit their wrongheaded conviction that their country is magnificently rich and able to afford anything.
If this telling is correct, whatever else Chavismo is, it's not sustainable beyond the lifespan of Chavez himself. Without Chavez's demagogic gift for distracting Venezuelans with his passions, his rages, and his buffooneries, the enduring reality of the petrostate will reappear - and reappear more hateful than ever, since its benefits are more concentrated than ever. When oil prices decline again, as they always do, Venezuela will be back where it was in 1998, only this time, with even less to show for it.
When that termination does occur, Caracas Chronicles the blogspot will be the essential guide; Caracas Chronicles, the book, the essential history of what went wrong.