Russia Throws Cuba a Lifeline

Russia has just reinvigorated its relationship with Cuba, and I suspect that this renewed friendship of convenience will help Cuba’s Communist regime stick around longer than it would have without it.

A few things happened, all apparently part of an elaborate quid pro quo. First, while visiting Cuba last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that his country was forgiving nearly all of Cuba’s lingering Soviet-era debt to Russia, or more than $30 billion. Then, a few days later, reports emerged that Cuba had agreed to allow Russia to re-open a large Soviet-era intelligence-gathering facility used to surveil the United States during the Cold War. While in Havana, Putin also spoke of reviving broader military and technological cooperation with Cuba, although he did not say exactly what that would entail. Last but not least, Russia and Cuba reportedly also signed some significant economic contracts, including ones that would allow Russian oil companies to explore Cuban waters.

Putin’s government seems to be responding in kind to what it perceives as a deepening  U.S. threat on its own borders, and this is important in its own right. As a specialist on the survival and transformation of authoritarian regimes, though, I am also interested in how this reinvigorated relationship affects prospects for political change in Cuba.

Consolidated single-party regimes, like Cuba’s, are the most durable kind of autocracies, but when they do break down, it’s usually an economic or fiscal crisis that sets the process in motion. Slumping state revenues shrink the dole that encourages various factions within the party to stay loyal to the ruling elite, while wider economic problems also give ordinary citizens stronger motivations to demand reform. When frustrated citizens and disgruntled insiders find each other, the effect can be especially potent. Economic crisis doesn’t guarantee the collapse of single-party regimes, but it does significantly increase the probability of its occurrence.

The Soviet Union bankrolled Havana for many years, and the Cuban economy has been limping along since that funding stream disappeared along with the country that provided it. In 2o11, the Communist Party of Cuba finally responded to that malaise as formal theory leads us to expect that it would: by experimenting with some limited forms of economic liberalization. These reforms are significant, but as far as I can tell, they have not yet led to the kind of economic renewal that would give the ruling party a serious boost.

One of the reasons the Cuban regime managed to delay those reforms for long was the largesse it received from its close friends in Venezuela. As I discussed in a post here last year, Hugo Chavez’s government used its oil boom to help finance the Cuban regime at a time when Havana would otherwise have been hard pressed to search for new sources of revenue.

With Hugo Chavez dead and Venezuela’s economy in crisis, however, this support has become unreliable. I had expected this uncertainty to increase pressure on the Communist Party of Cuba to expand its liberalization in search of new revenues, and for that expanded liberalization, in turn, to improve prospects for popular mobilization and elite defections that could lead to broader political reforms.

The renewed embrace from Russia now has me revisiting that expectation. The forgiveness of more than $30 billion in debt should provide an immediate boost to Cuba’s finances, but I’m also intrigued by the talk of new oil concessions. For years, the Cuban government has seemed to be hoping that hydrocarbons under its waters would provide it with a new fiscal lifeline. That hasn’t happened yet, but it sounds like Russia and Havana increasingly see prospects for mutual gains in this sphere. Of course, it will also be important to see what other forms of economic and military support are on offer from Moscow and how quickly they might arrive.

None of these developments magically resolves the fundamental flaws in Cuba’s political economy, and so far the government shows no signs of rolling back the process of limited liberalization it has already begun. What’s more, Russia also has economic problems of its own, so it’s not clear how much help it can offer and how long it will be able to sustain that support. Even so, these developments probably do shrink the probability that the Cuban economy will tip soon into a deeper crisis, and with it the near-term prospects for a broader political transformation.

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.

Demography, Democracy, and Complexity

Five years ago, demographer Richard Cincotta claimed in a piece for Foreign Policy that a country’s age structure is a powerful predictor of its prospects for attempting and sustaining liberal democracy. “A country’s chances for meaningful democracy increase,” he wrote, “as its population ages.” Applying that superficially simple hypothesis to the data at hand, he ventured a forecast:

The first (and perhaps most surprising) region that promises a shift to liberal democracy is a cluster along Africa’s Mediterranean coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, none of which has experienced democracy in the recent past. The other area is in South America: Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, each of which attained liberal democracy demographically “early” but was unable to sustain it. Interpreting these forecasts conservatively, we can expect there will be one, maybe two, in each group that will become stable democracies by 2020.

I read that article when it was published, and I recall being irritated by it. At the time, I had been studying democratization for more than 15 years and was building statistical models to forecast transitions to and from democracy as part of my paying job. Seen through those goggles, Cincotta’s construct struck me as simplistic to the point of naiveté. Democratization is a hard theoretical problem. States have arrived at and departed from democracy by many different pathways, so how could what amounts to a one-variable model possibly have anything useful to say about it?

Revisiting Cincotta’s work in 2014, I like it a lot more for a couple of reasons. First, I like the work better now because I have come to see it as an elegant representation of a larger idea. As Cincotta argues in that Foreign Policy article and another piece he published around the same time, demographic structure is one component of a much broader and more complex syndrome in which demography is both effect and cause. Changes in fertility rates, and through them age structure, are strongly shaped by other social changes like education and urbanization, which are correlated with, but hardly determined by, increases in national wealth.

Of course, that syndrome is what we conventionally call “development,” and the pattern Cincotta observes has a strong affinity with modernization theory. Cincotta’s innovation was to move the focus away from wealth, which has turned out to be unreliable as a driver and thus as a proxy for development in a larger sense, to demographic structure, which is arguably a more sensitive indicator of it. As I see it now, what we now call development is part of a “state shift” occurring in human society at the global level that drives and is reinforced by long-term trends in democratization and violent conflict. As in any complex system, though, the visible consequences of that state shift aren’t evenly distributed.

In this sense, Cincotta’s argument is similar to one I often find myself making about the value of using infant mortality rates instead of GDP per capita as a powerful summary measure in models of a country’s susceptibility to insurgency and civil war. The idea isn’t that dead children motivate people to attack their governments, although that may be one part of the story. Instead, the idea is that infant mortality usefully summarizes a number of other things that are all related to conflict risk. Among those things are the national wealth we can observe directly (if imperfectly) with GDP, but also the distribution of that wealth and the state’s will and ability to deliver basic social services to its citizens. Seen through this lens, higher-than-average infant mortality helps us identify states suffering from a broader syndrome that renders them especially susceptible to violent conflict.

Second, I have also come to appreciate more what Cincotta was and is doing because I respect his willingness to apply his model to generate and publish probabilistic forecasts in real time. In professional and practical terms, that’s not always easy for scholars to do, but doing it long enough to generate a real track record can yield valuable scientific dividends.

In this case, it doesn’t hurt that the predictions Cincotta made six years ago are looking pretty good right now, especially in contrast to the conventional wisdom of the late 2000s on the prospects for democratization in North Africa. None of the five states he lists there yet qualifies as a liberal democracy on his terms, a “free” designation from Freedom House). Still, it’s only 2014, one of them (Tunisia) has moved considerably in that direction, and two others (Egypt and Libya) have seen seemingly frozen political regimes crumble and substantial attempts at democratization ensue. Meanwhile, the long-dominant paradigm in comparative democratization would have left us watching for splits among ruling elites that really only happened in those places as their regimes collapsed, and many area experts were telling us in 2008 to expect more of the same in North Africa as far as the mind could see. Not bad for a “one-variable model.”

Can Venezuela’s Maduro Survive Hyperinflation?

Venezuela is probably sliding into a period of hyperinflation, says the Cato Institute’s Steve Hanke. A picture in a recent blog post of his pretty much tells the story:

venezuela_chart_22

The economic crisis of which this inflationary spiral is just one part has lots of people wondering how long Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, can hang on to power. Historical evidence on what happens to political leaders during periods of hyperinflation could give us a good starting point for hazarding a prediction on that matter. Best I can tell, though, this isn’t something that’s been studied before, so I decided to scrounge up some some data and take a look.

I started with a table Hanke and Nicolas Krus published in 2012 that identifies all episodes of hyperinflation around the world since the late eighteenth century (here). By their definition, a hyperinflationary episode starts when there is a month in which prices increase by at least 50%, and it ends when the inflation rate drops below that threshold and then stays under it for at least a year. Their table identifies when each episode began and ended and the peak and average daily inflation rates involved. The good news is that this data set exists. The bad news is that it is only posted in PDF form, so I had to type it into a spreadsheet to start working with it.

According to Hanke and Krus’ table, there have been more than 50 spells of hyperinflation around the world in the past couple of centuries. As the plot below shows, virtually all of those occurred the past 100 years in three clusters: one in the 1920s, another in the 1940s, and the last and by far the largest in the 1990s following the disintegration of the USSR and Yugoslavia.

Hyperinflation Episodes around the World, 1790-2012

Hyperinflation Episodes around the World, 1790-2012

The duration of those episodes has varied widely, from a few months or less (many cases) to more than five years (Nicaragua from 1986 until 1991). As you can see in the histogram below, the distribution of durations seems to be bimodal. Most episodes end quickly, but the ones that don’t usually go on to last at least two or three years.

Duration of Hyperinflation Episodes, in Months

Duration of Hyperinflation Episodes, in Months

The average daily rate of inflation in those episodes has varied much less. As the next histogram shows, nearly all of the episodes have involved average daily rates in the low single digits. Cases like Zimbabwe in 2007-2008, when the daily inflation rate averaged nearly 100% (!), are quite rare.

Average Daily Inflation Rates during Episodes of Hyperinflation

Average Daily Inflation Rates during Episodes of Hyperinflation

To analyze the fate of political leaders during these episodes, I used the Archigos data set to create a variable indicating whether or not a country’s chief executive was replaced during or soon after the episode of hyperinflation. Suspecting that those fates would depend, in part, on the nature of a country’s national political regime, I also used a data set I created in a past professional life to add a variable marking whether or not a country’s political regime was democratic when the episode started.

A quick look at a contingency table confirmed my hunches that political leaders often lose their jobs during periods of hyperinflation, but also that the pattern differs across democracies and autocracies. Of the 49 episodes that occurred in cases for which I also had data on leaders’ fates and regime type, leadership changes occurred during or soon after 18 of them (37 percent). Eleven of those changes occurred in the 23 cases that were democracies at the time (48 percent). The other seven leader changes came from the 26 episodes that occurred under authoritarian regimes (27 percent). Based on those data alone, it looks like chief executives in democracies are about as likely to lose their jobs during a hyperinflationary episode as they are to hang on to them, while autocrats face more favorable odds of political survival of roughly 3:1.

Of course, the episodes of hyperinflation aren’t identical. As we saw above, some last a lot longer than others, and some involve much steeper inflation rates. To get a sense of how those things affect the fate of the leaders who preside over these dismal spells, I used the ‘glm‘ command in R to estimate a logistic regression model with my binary leadership-change indicator as the outcome and democracy, episode duration, and average daily inflation rate as the covariates. Guessing that the effects of the latter two covariates might be mediated by regime type, I also included interaction terms representing the products of my democracy indicator and those other two variables.

The model is admittedly crude,* but I think the results are still interesting. According to my estimates, the severity of the episode isn’t systematically associated with variation in the fate of national leaders in either type of political regime. For both democracies and autocracies, the substantive effects of the average daily rate over the course of the hyperinflationary episode were roughly zero.

By contrast, the duration of the episode does seem to matter, but only in autocracies. Democratically elected leaders are relatively vulnerable no matter how long the episode lasts. For their part, autocrats aren’t very likely to get knocked out of office during short episodes, but in episodes that persist for a few years, they are about as likely to get tossed as their democratic counterparts. The plot below shows just how bad it gets for autocrats in long-lasting hyperinflationary episodes, assuming average severity. Part of that’s just the additional exposure—the longer the episode, the more likely we are to see a leader exit office for any reason—but the estimated probabilities we see here are much higher than the base rate of leadership change in authoritarian regimes, so it looks like the extended spell of hyperinflation is probably doing some of the work.

Hyperinflation Episode Duration and the Probability of Leadership Change

Hyperinflation Episode Duration and the Probability of Leadership Change

So what does all this tell us about Maduro’s prospects for political survival, assuming that Venezuela is sliding into a period of hyperinflation? I consider Venezuela’s political regime to be authoritarian, so f I only had these statistics to go by, I would say that Maduro will probably survive the episode, but the chances that he’ll get run out of office will increase the longer the hyperinflation lasts. I’m not an economist, so my best guess at how long Venezuela might suffer under hyperinflation is the average duration from Hanke’s list. That’s a little shy of two years, which would give Maduro odds of about 4:1 to of weathering that storm.

Of course, those statistics aren’t all the information we’ve got. Other things being equal, authoritarian regimes with leaders in their first five years in office—like Venezuela right now—are about three times as likely to transition to democracy as ones with guys who’ve been around for longer, and democratic transitions almost always entail a change at the top. We also know that Maduro so far has been a “boring and muddled” politician, and that there are some doubts about the loyalty he can expect from the military and from other Chavista elites. Putting all of those things together, I’d say that Maduro’s presidency probably won’t last the six years he won in the April 2013 election. Who or what might come next is a whole other question, but as a new leader presiding over an inflationary spiral with weak skills and a shaky coalition, Maduro would seem to have the deck stacked against him.

Data and code for the plots and modeling can be found here and here, respectively.

* To really do this right, I would want to plot survival curves that treat the time from the onset of the hyperinflationary episode to the leader’s exit as the outcome of interest, with right censoring at the episode’s end and regime type as an initial condition. As they say in academese, though, the data preparation that more careful analysis would require was beyond the scope of this blog post. I mean, I’m not Brett Keller.

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.

chavez460

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.

Development Revisited from Afar

For many social scientists, the word “development” conjures images a specific bundle of socioeconomic and political transformations: rural to urban, farms to factories, illiterate to literate, poor to middle class, lawless to lawful, despotic to democratic, insecure to secure, even sad to happy. Many of us see these changes as not just interrelated but interdependent, a beneficent syndrome of social improvement. Equally important, we often think of states as the engines of them.

A few things I’ve read in the past few weeks have vividly reminded me how much this idea of ordered, collinear, policy-driven development misses the mark. The urbanization part remains quite real, and economic growth is shrinking the share of the world’s population that lives in absolute poverty. Importantly, though, the social orders that produce these changes often lie outside the state. These orders fall within the territorial boundaries we plot on our political maps, and they are affected by the actions of domestic and foreign governments, but policy choices and the beneficence of external actors seem to have very little to do with the massive transformations afoot in many of these places.

Take Kibera, a shantytown with hundreds of thousands of residents in Nairobi, Kenya. As described in a recent issue of The Economist, mornings in Kibera sound a lot like mornings in most urban neighborhoods:

Men in patched overalls and women in freshly washed blouses walk down a narrow lane just after six in the morning. They are packed in tightly like spectators leaving a sports stadium, but this is their life, their every morning. Backs are straight; trousers and sleeves rolled up, exposing mottled yet able limbs. They crush discarded wrappers of quick-fry breakfasts under foot, corn and oil dripping from mouths. Banana skins are ground to dust by thousands of feet. Everyone is moving in one direction, jostling and shoving, out of a maze of low-strung shacks, past shops selling shoes and phones that have already been open an hour, out into the high-rise centre of Nairobi, where factories and offices pay salaries.

What’s fascinating, though, is that this orderly scene emerges without any real help from state authorities. “Government,” we’re told, “is absent: it offers the residents (regarded as squatters) no services, opens no schools, operates no hospitals, paves no roads, connects no power lines and pumps no water into homes.” A internationally recognized government does not induce and sustain this cooperation. Instead,

Kibera is an African version of a Chinese boomtown, an advertisement for solid human ambition. Like Guangzhou and Xiamen, it acts as a magnet for talent from rural areas, attracting the most determined among young farmers. To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them. Two out of three Nairobians live in one, half of them in Kibera. Officials occasionally try to evict squatter-residents but many fight back, with the help of Muungano wa Wanavijiji, their own lobby group…Slums are far from hopeless places; many are not where economic losers end up, but rather reservoirs of tomorrow’s winners.

The same themes appear in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s award-winning book on life in Annawadi, a shantytown next to Mumbai’s international airport. The families that Boo follows routinely suffer things that I can’t imagine tolerating for a day—roach swarms in their kitchens, rat bites while they sleep, lice, putrid water, foot fungus so large it’s described in three dimensions, and, of course, omnipresent hunger—but most of them just keep getting up and trying again. The state does seem to reach into Annawadi more than in Kibera, but that reach is often exploitative rather than supportive. Police officers solicit bribes to ignore the extra-legal activities on which many residents’ livelihoods depend, bureaucrats set up sham schools in the slums to extract payments from international charities and state governments, and local officials extract blocs of votes in exchange for small favors.

Contrary to the prevailing narrative on corruption as the antimatter of economic growth, though, the slumdwellers Boo describes seem to take a more ambivalent view of the problem. In a chapter on Asha Waghekar, a middle-aged woman who aspires to become the unofficial slumlord of Annawadi, we get this subtler take:

“The big people think that because we are poor we don’t understand much,” she said to her children. Asha understood plenty. She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s oldest problems—poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor—were being aggressively addressed. Meanwhile the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.

In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.

These off-the-regression-line amalgamations of statelessness and order, of poverty and hustle, of corruption and opportunity also show up in Caracas, Venezuela, in a recent New Yorker piece by Jon Lee Anderson. Anderson gives us a first-person account of life in scores of buildings in the Venezuelan capital that have been occupied in the past 10 years by squatters known as invasores. One of those buildings is the Tower of David, an unfinished residential skyscraper that was one of the first structures the squatters claimed, and Anderson toured the Tower with its current boss, an ex-criminal named Alexander Daza.

As we went along, Daza explained how the building worked. He had a rhythmic, emphatic way of speaking, like a preacher. “There’s no prison regime imposed here,” he said. “What there is here is order. And there are no cells here, but homes. Nobody is forced to collaborate here. No one here is a tenant but an inhabitant.” Each inhabitant had to pay a monthly fee of a hundred fifty bolivares (about eight dollars at the black-market exchange rate) to help cover basic maintenance costs, such as the salaries of the cleanup brigade and the work crew. People who couldn’t afford to build their dwellings were given financial assistance. The residents were all registered, and every floor had its own representative delegate to attend to problems. If problems couldn’t be solved at the floor level, they were taken to a Tower council meeting, which Daza led twice a week. A common problem, he said sourly, was residents’ not paying their monthly quota, and it was hard to dissuade tenants from flinging their trash into the courtyard. Transgressors, he said, “are given a warning to appeal to their conscience.” There was a disciplinary board, and serial offenders could be kicked out of the building, but there were always those who took liberties.

Like Kibera and Annawati, the occupied towers and warehouses Anderson describes are, in a manner of speaking, being governed, but their bosses are neither elected nor appointed by anyone in the chain of command recognized by the international system. “It appeared that the government did not officially approve of the Tower of David invasion,” we’re told, “but it had made no attempt to close it down.” It’s also clear that violence plays a more important role in producing the political order Daza described than his rosy narrative of a self-sustaining democracy let on.

Daza’s version of the Tower’s law-enforcement system starkly contrasted with stories I had heard of prison-style executions, of people being mutilated and their body parts thrown off the upper floors. This was the usual punishment for thieves and squealers in Venezuela’s prisons, and the custom had crept into Caracas’ gangster-run barrios. When I asked about these stories, Daza made the non-committal pursed-lip movement common to Venezeulans. “What we want is to be left to live here,” he said. “We live well here. We don’t hear gunfights all the time here. Here there’s no thugs with pistols in their hands. What there is here is hard work. What there is here is good people, hardworking people.” When I asked Daza how he had become the Tower’s jefe, or leader, he pursed his lips again, and finally said, “In the beginning, everyone wanted to be the boss. But God got rid of those he wanted to get rid of left those he wanted to leave.”

I don’t mean to romanticize the violence and poverty and fear suffered in these places, or to suggest that states and policy and aid are irrelevant to political and economic change. These slums certainly aren’t libertarian utopias, and most of the residents we encounter in these reporters’ stories regularly imagine their escapes to richer neighborhoods under government writ.

What I do see in these stories, though, is the idea that, in many places, governance and growth are happening as much in spite of the state as because of it. Urbanization continues apace, but in real life that leap from village to city isn’t hitched to public schooling and policing and property rights protected by impartial judges the way I suspect it still is in many of our imaginations. This is all old hat, I’m sure, to people who live in or routinely travel to cities where these transformations are occurring. For those of us who don’t get out that much, though, these second-hand accounts offer an important antidote to the prevailing narrative of state policy as the force that hauls lagging corners of the world into “modernity.”

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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