Me on BuzzFeed on Venezuela

Journalist Rosie Gray has a story up at BuzzFeed on the wave of protests occurring now in Venezuela and the backdrop of economic crisis and political polarization against which it’s occurring. I found the piece interesting and informative, but I think it also illustrates how hard it is for journalists—and, for that matter, social scientists—to avoid openly sympathizing with one “side” or another in their reporting on conflicts like Venezuela’s and thereby leading readers to do the same.

Analytically, Gray’s piece attempts to explain why this wave of protests is occurring now and why anti-government activists have largely failed so far, in spite of the country’s severe economic problems, to draw large numbers of government supporters to their cause. Most of the sources quoted in Gray’s story are opposition activists, and they are generally described sympathetically. The first opposition activist we encounter, Carlos Vargas, tells us that he and other student protesters are “making an effort to reach out to the poor.” The next, a community organizer, admits that the opposition hasn’t made serious efforts to organize in his neighborhood, but we are then reminded that censorship and pro-government paramilitaries make it very hard for them to do so.

Gray also includes portions of an interview with two Chavistas, members of a colectivo in the 23 de Enero neighborhood. This interview and one with a pro-government economist ostensibly provide the “balance” in the piece, but their remarks and other descriptions of activity sympathetic to the government are framed in a way that evokes a sense of false consciousness. Hugo Chavez is dead, but he remains popular because of a “personality cult” that “still holds a grip on many Venezeulans, especially the poor.” Gray reports the government’s line that anti-government protesters “are a group of revanchist elites out of touch with regular Venezuelans” and writes that this line has “some grain of truth.” She immediately follows that sentence, however, with a description of protesters’ efforts to recruit poorer Venezuelans who, we are told by two of Gray’s sources, would participate more if they weren’t being menaced by pro-government militias. Gray tells us that the Chavistas she interviewed in 23 de Enero have a picture of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on their wall, and that they blame their country’s unrest on “right-wing elements” in the U.S. and some of its allies. As for where ideas like that one come from, we are told that

Across town, the Chavista intelligentsia is hard at work coming up with theories for the foot soldiers to buy into.

To me, all of those phrases and details convey a belief that Chavistas aren’t joining the protesters because they are being duped. As a social scientist, I find that hypothesis unconvincing. The model of political behavior it implies echoes some instrumentalist theories of ethnic conflict, which posit that ethnic groups fight each other because self-interested leaders goad them into doing so. Those leaders’ efforts are certainly relevant to the story, but simple versions of the theory beg the question of why anyone listens. To try to understand that, we need more sympathetic accounts of the beliefs and choices made by those ostensible followers. Gray’s piece suggests one answer to that question when she recounts protesters’ claims that Chavista militias are intimidating them into obedience, but that also seems like a partial explanation at best. After all, some people are protesting in spite of that intimidation, so why not others?

This slant matters because it affects our judgments about what is possible and what is right, and those judgments affect the actions we and our governments take. Objectivity is an impossible ideal, not just for reporters but for anyone. Still, I think political reporters should aspire to afford the same sympathy to all of their sources and the causes they espouse, and then trust their readers to draw their own conclusions. Measured against that standard, I think Gray’s Venezuela piece—and, frankly, much of the reporting we get on factional disputes and popular protest in all parts of the world—fell a bit short.

Hugo Chavez’s Death and Prospects for Political Liberalization in Cuba

You’ve heard of the butterfly effect, right? Well, what about the Chávez effect?

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez died early this week, and his absence will probably have ripple effects on the stability of political regimes in several other countries with which Chávez’s was closely tied. Chávez’s international influence had waned in recent years with the exit from the global political stage of his foil, George W. Bush; the re-emergence of Brazil as a regional economic heavyweight; profound stresses on Venezuela’s own economy, wrought in part by evident flaws in Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”; and, of course, the decline in Chávez’s health as he struggled with the cancer that eventually killed him.

Even in poor health and diminished political stature, though, Chávez loomed large in the politics of several other countries, and none more so than Cuba. At least in part, that interdependence stemmed from the close personal relationship between Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. As Victoria Burnett wrote about yesterday for the New York Times, however, there was also a very practical aspect to the close relationship between Cuba and Venezuela under Chavez as well.

Cuba receives more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, purchased on favorable terms as part of an exchange that has tens of thousands of Cubans working in Venezuelan clinics, schools and ministries. The subsidized oil accounts for about two-thirds of Cuba’s consumption and is credited by many Cubans with keeping the lights on and the air-conditioners running during the brutal summer heat.

It’s possible that Chávez’s successors will indefinitely sustain this generosity, but I doubt it. Venezuela was already struggling to get its own economic house in order. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s oil production has declined in recent years and its domestic consumption has steadily risen, leaving less of the surplus that bankrolled Chavez’s largesse. Even if Chávez’s successors come from the Bolivarian movement he built, it’s hard to see how they will be able to keep subsidizing other regimes when their own has fallen on hard times. And, of course, absent Chávez, Venezuela’s opposition parties stand a much better chance of clawing its way back into government—if not in next month’s special election, then certainly in the ones to follow.


As Venezuelan largesse dries up, the pressure on the Communist regime in Cuba to search out new sources of revenue will sharply increase. It’s possible that Castro & co. will find another great foreign patron, just as they did when Venezuela stepped into the shoes the Soviet Union had filled for so long before its collapse left Cuba in the lurch. Possible, but, I think, unlikely. Following a similar “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, the Islamic Republic of Iran also has an affinity with Cuba, but Iran’s got serious financial troubles of its own. China seems a more capable future patron, but it’s hard to imagine the Chinese government doing something as provocative to the U.S. as flat-out bankrolling the Cuban regime with so little to gain from it. What China is already doing is helping to finance the hunt for oil in Cuban waters. A major oil strike would throw the Cuban government a new lifeline, but as John Sullivan noted in a September 2012 piece for the New York Times Magazine, “So far, though, the wells have come up dry or disappointing.”

If the Cuban regime can’t find a new foreign patron or strike oil, it will be increasingly tempted to try political liberalization as an alternative strategy. I laid out the logic behind this choice in a conference paper I wrote in 2007 and summarized it again in a recent article on North Korea for Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab. Quoting at length from the latter:

To understand why a seemingly stable dictatorship would ever give its political opponents an opening, it helps to consider the political economy of authoritarianism. Dictators repress their citizens because it helps them stay in power. Political rivals can’t beat you if they can’t get organized, and they’ll find it very hard to organize if they can’t meet, talk, or reach out for support. Following this logic, we usually think of political liberalization as something that dictators resort to only when forced by restive mobs threatening to end their rule, if not their lives.

What that conventional view misses, though, are the financial and economic trade-offs that harsh repression entails. First, the machinery of monitoring and repression can be expensive, and the information it produces isn’t always reliable, so shrewd autocrats will always be looking to cut costs and improve outputs in these areas. Second, and less obviously, repression indirectly imposes drag on an economy by inhibiting productive exchanges among citizens. These market frictions can create a gap between an economy’s actual growth rate and the growth it might achieve with a freer citizenry.

When a dictator’s revenues depend on the performance of his country’s economy, these trade-offs give him some incentive to loosen restrictions on civil liberties. The question is when that incentive becomes strong enough to outweigh the political risks of reform.

The conventional view of political liberalization tells us this shift only occurs when dictators face an imminent threat of revolution. If the end already seems nigh, rulers might try to prolong their tenure by meeting their opponents halfway and hoping that compromise satisfies the mobs at the gates. This process is sometimes described as liberalization “from below,” because it’s driven by popular unrest.

Careful consideration of the political and economic trade-offs involved, however, suggests another possibility: Dictators might also pursue “liberalization from above,” gambling on reform when the economy is stagnating and political opposition is especially weak. Under these circumstances, expanded freedoms of speech and movement can open new avenues for economic growth without immediately producing a serious political challenge. There might be plenty of pent-up demand for political change, but revolutions require organization, and organization takes time, so shrewd rulers might attempt to shoot those rapids in search of calmer waters on the other side.

Viewing Chavez’s departure through the lens of this theory, I think the prospects for significant political liberalization in Cuba in the next few years just improved markedly. In fact, there were many signs that the Cuban regime was already leaning in this direction, including moves since 2010 to allow more private enterprise, loosen restrictions on property rights, and, most recently, the decision to end the exit visa requirement for travel abroad. I think those modest reforms reflect the very pressures noted above, and the departure of the Cuban regime’s greatest patron and ally will only turn the screws tighter. Late last month, Raul Castro announced that he would retire when his second term as president ends in 2018. In light of this week’s news from Venezuela, I would be surprised to see Castro’s tenure last that long, and I suspect that transition will go much deeper than a simple change of leadership.

A Quick Comparative Assessment of Georgia and Venezuela

Two countries with competitive authoritarian regimes held elections this past week, with very different results. In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since it took power in the Rose Revolution nearly a decade ago. In Venezuela, however, President Hugo Chávez won a fourth term by his slimmest margin yet, defeating challenger Henrique Capriles by “only” a 9-percent margin.

As a forecaster, I went 1 for 2 in predicting the outcome of these elections. Because they are—or, in the case of Georgia, were—electoral authoritarian regimes, I expected the ruling parties to win in both cases. There seemed to be a lot of uncertainty about the outcome in both, but as I said on Twitter, the illusion of uncertainty is a design feature of this type of regime. Regarding Venezuela, I gave Chavez 4:1 odds of beating Capriles. I recognized that the election machinery introduced some uncertainty into the process, but I believed Chavez had tilted the playing field steeply enough in his own favor to return himself to office, regardless of Capriles’ appeal. I didn’t make a specific prediction about Georgia, but if I had, it would’ve been about the same, and for the same reasons. The challenging Georgian Dream coalition clearly had some momentum heading into the election, but I thought Georgia’s machine politics and byzantine electoral system would allow Saakashvili’s UNM to retain a parliamentary majority anyway.

So, how did two apparently similar cases produce two different outcomes? On the fly, I can think of three explanations, all of which could be true at the same time.

First, it’s quite possible that I read the two cases wrong in advance of the election. Maybe Georgia really was less authoritarian than I thought. Electoral authoritarian regimes are inherently ambiguous, and this ambiguity makes it especially hard to observe small changes, or to be confident that the small changes we do see will be meaningful ones. For cases in this boundary area, however, small differences can have a big impact on the results.

Second, Georgia had a national scandal erupt over prison abuse in the campaign’s final weeks, and it’s possible that this “October surprise” was severe enough to knock the system off its old equilibrium. Video clips showing male prisoners being tortured and sexually assaulted by guards sparked mass demonstrations in cities across the country, and many Georgians seemed to see the abuse as metaphor for deeper systemic problems that the Rose Revolution had failed to correct.

Third, I think the two countries’ different positions in the international system played a role. Hugo Chavez has explicitly positioned his country as a counterweight to “Western hegemony,” and that adversarial posture has encouraged him to thumb his nose at critics and election observers from countries and organizations he sees as hostile to his “Bolivarian revolution.” Mikheil Saakashvili, by contrast, has hugged the United States and Europe, aggressively—almost desperately—pursuing entree into NATO and the European Union as a way to catalyze Georgia’s “modernization” and to protect it from the angry Russian bear next door.

This Westernization strategy led Saakashvili to subject his electoral process to much closer scrutiny and made him far more sensitive to criticisms from Europe and the U.S. than Chavez could ever be. Criticisms from previous elections about bias in state-owned media and partisan abuse of state resources led to specific reforms that certainly were not revolutionary but probably helped regrade the electoral landscape into more level terrain.

In retrospect, then, I think I can see why Georgia was riper for change than Venezuela was, and how the ambiguity inherent in electoral authoritarian regimes made that contrast hard to spot in advance. Whatever the specific causes, though, I think I need to tweak my mental model of electoral authoritarianism to allow for more uncertainty about the outcome of their elections. My old model emphasized the authoritarian part and saw the elections as pure theater. My new version will be less confident in its judgment of the character of these ambiguous cases, and it will leave more room for those theatrics to have real consequences.

Venezuela’s “Colectivos” and the Broken U.S. Narrative of Chavez as the Wizard of Oz

Reuters has a great piece up this morning on colectivos in Venezuela and their potential impact on that country’s upcoming presidential election and its aftermath. As journalist Daniel Wallis explains, colectivos are

radical organizations that call themselves the guardians of Hugo Chavez’s socialist project and defenders of their local communities. In the eyes of critics, the groups are bandana-clad killers and vigilantes, the shock troops of the president’s self-styled revolution. They have become more high-profile in the last four years, and some have been blamed for attacks on people they are said to perceive as enemies of Chavez.

The colectivos are international news right now because some of Chavez’s opponents fear these groups will either help tip the election in the president’s favor by intimidating opposition supporters or will lash out against the president’s foes if Chavez loses. Colectivo leaders deny that they are a threat—”We’re the ones least interested in violence or instability, because our triumph (Chavez’s re-election) is assured,” the co-founder of one colectivo told Wallis without apparent irony—but some observers are not convinced. In an August 2011 report called Violence and Politics in Venezuela, the International Crisis Group noted that

The government has displayed a particular ambiguity toward non-state armed groups that sympathise with its political project. Urban “colectivos” combining political and criminal activities, including armed actions against opposition targets, operate largely unchallenged and with broad impunity…In this highly charged environment, political violence has so far remained more a latent threat than a reality. However, as the country heads into what promises to be a fiercely contested presidential election, with very high stakes for both sides, this fragile equilibrium may not hold.

What really caught my eye in the Reuters story, though, were the deeper political currents to which it alluded—currents that you’ll miss if you get your information about Venezuela from popular news media in the U.S. and the officials they quote. Around here, Chavez is usually portrayed as a kind of authoritarian Wizard of Oz, a “captivating, messianic leader” who sways his people into obedience through intimidation and illusion while driving his country into an economic ditch.

There is no question that Chavez exercises and sustains his political power by way of an authoritarian machine, but that machine does not survive on muscle and trickery alone. Thanks primarily to its oil wealth, Venezuela has long been one of Latin America’s wealthier countries, but that rising tide hasn’t always lifted all boats, and Chavez’s rise to power and his enduring popularity owe much to the longstanding frustrations of its poorer citizens and the substantial reductions in poverty that have occurred under his government (see here and here). The development gains of the past 15 years probably owe more to trends in global oil prices than any of Chávez’s “Bolivarian” reforms, but that doesn’t mean the beneficiaries don’t give him any of the credit. In the Reuters story, we hear these politics most clearly in the remarks of Glen Martinez, a “well-known figure locally” in Caracas’ 23 de enero slums:

They say we’re armed, that we’re ‘the Guardians of Chavez,’ we’re ultra-violent, we’re killers…No. We’re the people who were excluded (by previous governments), who are now included, dignified and organized. We’re showing that we’re capable of doing valuable, high-quality things in the barrio. We’d be an immense resource for the right, for the multinationals, for capitalism. But we do things from a more social point of view, more Bolivarian, more egalitarian, more humanist. That makes them scared, bro.

No amount of heartfelt support excuses Chávez’s distortions of democratic procedures and destruction of checks on his authority in the name of his Bolivarian revolution, of which the long-term effects remain unclear. If he really believed in popular sovereignty, Chávez would have the courage to face his political rivals in a fairer fight.

At the moment, though, my concern is with the consequences of naïve expectations about the politics of a post-Chávez Venezuela. Many U.S. officials seem to believe that Venezuela’s problems begin and end with Chávez the man, so fair elections are all that’s required to knock the country back onto the proper path toward economic “modernization” and political stability. Whatever theory of political change we apply to Venezuela, it’s going to lead us badly astray if it doesn’t account for the deeper structural problems we hear in Martinez’s remarks and see reflected in the persistence of Caracas’ colectivos.

Electoral Authoritarianism in Latin America: Important, but Not “New”

Today’s Washington Post includes a long piece by journalist Juan Forero on what he calls Latin America’s “new authoritarians”:

More than two decades after Latin America’s last right-wing dictatorships dissolved, a new kind of authoritarian leader is rising in several countries: democratically elected presidents who are ruling in increasingly undemocratic ways.

Unlike the iron-fisted juntas of a generation ago, these leaders do not assassinate opposition figures or declare martial law.

But in a handful of countries, charismatic populists are posing the most serious challenge to democratic institutions in Latin America since the 1980s, when rebel wars and dictators were the norm. In Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries, leaders have amassed vast powers that they use to control courts while marginalizing their opponents and the media, human rights groups and analysts say.

I’m glad to see the Post devote a bunch of column-inches to a comparative analysis of democratization in a region to which the U.S. really ought to be paying more attention. Most of what we in the U.S. hear about Latin America deals with immigration or drugs, so any thoughtful attempt to grapple with the domestic politics of our nearest neighbors is welcome. I also think the article accurately identifies important patterns in governance in several of the countries it describes.

That said, I have two major beefs with this piece.

First of all, this is not a “new kind of authoritarian leader.” The cases the story emphasizes fit into a broader category of regimes that has become more prevalent in many parts of the world in the past two decades, not just recently and not just in Latin America.

Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call this phenomenon “competitive authoritarianism,” and Andreas Schedler calls it “electoral authoritarianism,” but whatever label we use, the basic form is the same. In these regimes, multiparty elections occur regularly, and ballots are counted correctly, but ruling officials harass political rivals, constrain civil liberties, and bend state resources to ensure that they win anyway. Other important examples can be found in most of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Russia, Armenia, and Georgia), in Asia (e.g., Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore), and in Africa (e.g., Cameroon, Gabon, the Gambia, and Republic of Congo).

This pattern is not even new to Latin America, and in that region, there’s a lot of variation across cases and over time in the extent to which these self-aggrandizing strategies have been employed. Among the cases the article discusses, Venezuela arguably slid from democracy into electoral authoritarianism as far back as 2000, and almost certainly not later than 2005. Ecuador probably fell below the line in 2007, when president Rafael Correa steamrolled the legislature and supreme court to produce a constitution more to his liking, but general elections held in 2009 were substantially fairer. In Bolivia, Evo Morales has tried to push in a similar direction, but those attempts have been partially rebuffed, and the regime has remained basically democratic. Probably the newest cases of electoral authoritarianism in Latin America can be found in Nicaragua and Honduras, the latter since its 2009 coup and the former since Daniel Ortega resolved the constitutional crisis of 2009 in favor of his own ruling party.

Second, charisma and populism do not explain how or why these regimes arise. Neither of these qualities is necessary or sufficient for the emergence of electoral authoritarianism. In Honduras, for example, the post-coup president is not particularly charismatic, and the regime’s policies are more oligarchical or laissez faire than populist. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is beloved by his supporters but reviled by many of his detractors, and those detractors are numerous.

Personally, I think we get a lot farther if we think of these regimes as the end state toward which most attempts at democracy will slide because incumbent officials usually have strong incentives to consolidate their hold on power. As I have discussed again and again on this blog and elsewhere, most attempts at democracy end in a return to authoritarian rule, sometimes by military coup but now more often when elected officials rig the system in their own favor. Those officials don’t need to be particularly charismatic to pull this off, and in many cases, they don’t pursue populist agendas after they do. Above all else, what facilitates this process is the incumbent’s institutional advantage. It’s easy to pull the levers of power when you already have your hands on them, and it’s often quite hard to mobilize resistance against these moves when you’re stuck outside the halls of government. Instead of trying to explain this phenomenon with reference to the personalities and tactics in the many cases where backslides happen, we would probably do better to focus on the idiosyncrasies of the rarer cases where democracy manages to persist.

In fact, I think the over-reliance on charisma and populism as explanations for the emergence of these regimes speaks to a common error in the way many U.S. observers think about the nature of the problem. I get the sense that many U.S. analysts and officials still view Latin America through a Cold War lens that conflates leftist and anti-American policies with authoritarianism. This bias causes them to err on the side of including leftist governments on this list of “bad guys” while excluding more conservative ones. Thus, Bolivia and Ecuador keep landing on the roster of “new authoritarians” in spite of their ambiguities while cases like Honduras are more often overlooked or explained away. In 2003, when Brazil elected a staunchly leftist president for the first time since democracy was restored in the mid-1980s, there was a lot of grumbling in Washington about the threat of an authoritarian turn without a shred of real evidence to support it.

Until we do a better job distinguishing between these various dimensions of politics, we’re going to have a hard time understanding what’s happening—not just in Latin America, but also in the Arab world, Africa, Asia, and even in Europe nowadays. More generally, while I’m always happy to see journalists engaging in this kind of comparative analysis, I would be even happier if they would talk to fewer politicians and activists and more analysts when they do.


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