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Venezuela’s Bad Angels

CARACAS – Fish do not know they are in water. They take it for granted. They would need to get out of water to understand how different things could be. Similarly, one way for people to see the uniqueness of what they consider normal is to contrast it with the past – or with an outlier, an example that bucks the current trend.

A case in point is the dramatically low levels of violence that characterize the present, a fact uncovered by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. The facts are imposing and incontrovertible. As Pinker convincingly shows, violence of all kinds has declined over the millennia, in recent centuries, and during the past decades. Humans, according to Pinker, have both good and bad angels (or passions), and the good ones have become more dominant. Why?

For starters, Leviathan – that is, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force – has reduced conflict and increased personal security. Second, the state’s administration of justice adopted and encouraged non-violent ways of resolving grievances, thus allowing cooperation and the expansion of commerce. This trend accelerated with the spread of Enlightenment humanist ideals based on fundamental human equality and the application of rationality to human affairs.

In this respect, Venezuela is the proverbial fish out of water. During the 15 years of the “Bolivarian Revolution” initiated by the late Hugo Chávez, the country’s homicide rate has quadrupled, from a high base of 19 per 100,000 in 1998 to 79 in 2013, roughly 17 times the average in the United States, 26 times that in Chile, and more than 30 times the combined average of OECD countries.

In a sample of 145 countries assembled by the World Bank, Venezuela’s homicide numbers since 1995 have been exceeded only by Honduras and El Salvador, countries with less than one-third of Venezuela’s per capita income. And Venezuela’s murder boom came despite an 8-fold increase in oil prices in the intervening period, which massively increased the country’s exports and fiscal revenues.

Adopting Pinker’s perspective, one key element underpinning the rise in violence in Venezuela is the voluntary weakening of Leviathan. While there are no armed opposition groups, the government has sponsored the creation of armed paramilitary groups, known locally as colectivos, charged with defending the “revolution.” Thus, they bear a striking similarity to the Nazi brown shirts, the Fascist black shirts, and the various “people’s militias” that were established under communist regimes.

Just recently, the colectivos made international headlines when, on February 18, acting on the orders of a state governor, they attacked a peaceful demonstration, killing Genesis Carmona, a beauty queen. They openly control parts of Caracas and other cities. On February 24, President Nicolás Maduro invited them to ride their motorcycles to the presidential palace.

One reason why a ruling party or political movement might create armed support groups is to deter the regular armed forces from attempting a coup. In Venezuela, for example, the situation would become very messy, because the colectivos would wreak havoc. Such groups may also reflect an effort to impose social order through fear. But there is something else underlying their establishment: an anti-Enlightenment ideology of violence.

While chavismo arrived in power via the ballot box, its leaders wished it had done so with bullets, like their hero Che Guevara. That is why the colectivos erected a bust of Tirofijo, the deceased leader of Colombia’s FARC guerrilla group, and why they photograph their children with assault rifles, covered faces, and military garb.

The ideology of violence is underpinned by the Marxian idea that the road to progress is class struggle. The way forward involves inculcating hatred among “the people” of their class enemies. Under this paradigm, a government that talks to the enemy is either weak or a traitor to its class.

In this framework, there is no collective sense of a communal “we” that has agreed to live together under rules that apply equally to all. Institutions designed for liberal democracies – such as an independent judiciary, a comptroller-general, and a free press – become assets to be seized and used in the class struggle. As a consequence, the law is used only against political opponents, the budgetary division between party and state disappears, and those delivering bad news are treated harshly, as many local media have long known, and as global news outlets like CNN have recently discovered.

For many years, Venezuela’s dismal dynamics generated little open revolt. But, since February 12, things have changed radically. Previously, skyrocketing insecurity, massive shortages, high inflation, and police brutality were simply facts of life with which Venezuelans had to cope on their own. Now, however, they have fueled a collective sense of outrage that demands civil disobedience as the only possible moral stance. The fish know they are out of water.

Venezuela will not be able to join the global trend of declining violence unless its government reestablishes Leviathan, which implies disarming the colectivos. The country will be unable to avoid tyranny unless it is willing to respect the minimal democratic guarantees provided by the constitution, such as a supreme court, an attorney general, a comptroller, and an electoral council appointed with two-thirds of the National Assembly’s support. All of these institutions require political forces to negotiate with, rather than persecute, their opponents.

Most important, Venezuela will also have to abandon the ideology of class warfare. Pinker aptly quotes Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”