Saturday, November 1, 2014
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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.”

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  1. CommentedDan Adams

    '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.'

    You really could be talking about the US here as well.

  2. CommentedJulio Huato

    http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/Latin-America-Monitor/2012/0821/Caracas-The-most-dangerous-city-in-Latin-America-or-is-it

  3. CommentedRicardo Mondolfi

    I am appalled at how the situation in Venezuela is observed by people abroad. Sparking up debates of the left versus the right, the CIA, Venezuela's independence from intervention... How easy it is to defend this "revolution" from an armchair in the US or Europe.
    Chavez's "Plan de la Patria" is a great plan. The values that he promoted were just and necessary to Venezuelan society. But his actions? They have NOTHING to do with that. He constantly insulted his opposition, calling them fascists, oligarchs, members of the bourgeoisie... People apparently bought the story that the only ones who opposed Chavez were the enterprise owners and the high class. Well, then how, in a country with over 80% of the population in poverty, did an opposition candidate get 49% of the national vote, only a year ago? Chavez's economic model collapsed on the hands of Maduro. People are struggling. People are not happy. Regardless of previous political tendencies, people are in the street demanding the living conditions that this country used to have. The government lacks the support it had a year ago. They are no longer the majority. But what do they do? Disperse protests in ILLEGAL ways (tear gas and rubber bullets) with over 18 people dead since the government started the violent response against the peaceful protests. People, don't buy the story that Fox News tells, but DO NOT buy the government's story either.
    The government was democratically elected a year ago. Now, there is no free media (TV and radio are controlled by the government, and there is no paper for print media), no food or basic products available, an inflation of +54%, a devalued currency at +Bs.70 per dollar, outrageous corruption, and peaceful protests are being violently dispersed.
    The people are demanding change, dialogue, solutions, not a coup! The government accepts the dialogue, but then imprisons opposition leaders, gasses protesters and incites violence and terror through the colectivos. People are on the streets demanding change, and the government refuses to change. Is that democracy?

    It doesn't matter if you are right or left. In Venezuela we are fighting right against wrong. The government is criminal, corrupt and cannot be called democratic. Understand that the opposition has support among all of the social classes, as does the government. The difference is that the oppositions wants a government for all Venezuelans and the current government insults half of the country.

    I know people around here are very smart and have a lot of knowledge on the topic, but don't use Venezuela as a tool to demonstrate how your political views are right. Our fight is not about politics. It is about justice and fulfilling the needs of a country that should be thriving.

  4. CommentedJoan Miro

    Let's see.... violence has declined over the millenia, recent centuries and during past decades. Well, let's take the last century--the worst anthropogenic disaster in history, ww ii with something on the order of 60 mil killed; ww i, number six on the list with something like 30 mil killed excluding deaths from Spanish flu; the Imperial conquests by Japan, the Russian civil war, and the second Congo War totaling something like 50 million killed. Even at his ideologically most absurd someone like Hausmann won't be able to chock all this up to the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela or its Marxist antecedents. Oh, and it should be mentioned that all those deaths are at the hands of Leviathan or those who want to be the great sea monster.

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