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.