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.

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  1. Felix

     /  August 15, 2012

    Thanks for these interesting thoughts on the US-perception of Chavez.

    I think in Europe it is pretty much the same, although fewer people care about Venezuela anyway.

    My opinion on this is a little bit biased since I have many personal relations to people from there, but in the end I think Chavez is a ruthless dictator, but his redistributive welfare politics were successful.

    Here is an interesting (although a few years old) paper on this topic:

    Click to access venezuela_research_2008_03.pdf

    I am not an economist, so I do not know whether these data sources are trustworthy, but I buy the general argument of the author that Chavez policies on social spending, health care and income inequality were successful.


    • Grant

       /  August 16, 2012

      The problem is that his policies have devastated a great amount of the Venezuelan economy. Oil production, cement production and food staples production* have fallen sharply at the same time as a rise in crime (one that has been going on for the past ten years he’s been in power). If it weren’t for Venezuela’s oil the nation would have been forced into major loans from other nations and organizations, probably China because of their lack of demands for how the money is to be spent, only to waste it all on poor planning and being forced to go back for loans again. So yes, to some extent Chavez might benefit some of the poorer groups in Venezuela. He just has done it at the cost of the Venezuelan economy and Venezuelan government institutions.

      Now would Capriles (Chavez’s opponent) be able to fix the Venezuelan economy and help the poor at the same time? That really depends on the competency of the people he brings in with him, how much he can demand from the oligarchs backing him and how much actual control he would have over the government. To be honest I doubt he could fix the mess and if he somehow can I’ll call him the greatest Venezuelan politician to ever live. However I really don’t expect him to win. Even ignoring the built-in, legal advantages there’s also all the illegal ones as well as the military to consider.

      *And what else you expect when you institute price controls I really don’t know. You can’t even argue that it’s because of people seeking to push up market prices because some of the items that can’t be found like coffee and dairy are state-controlled.

      • I should have made clearer in the post that I think that the “Bolivarian revolution” has been pretty disastrous for Venezeula’s economy, and that there will be long-term negative consequences from these policies for everyone, including Venezuela’s poorer citizens. Really, I was trying to argue that Chavez’s popularity persists in spite of these problems because of deeper structural issues that Chavez’s exit and a return to more orthodox policies will not quickly correct. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see the counterfactual history where Chavez invests oil money in social development but legal and electoral checks remain intact and prevent him from going off the deep end as he did. In retrospect, the failed coup of 2002 seems to have backfired horribly.

      • Grant

         /  August 16, 2012

        I won’t argue about that. Venezuela is like many South American nations where a return to the old way of doing things also isn’t good for the country. What’s needed is a sober admission that the nation as a whole needs to be developed and an emphasis on results over ideology or loyalty to a patron, something that I’m not sure either side can bring. It’s a bit interesting to see Chavez’s power, it goes against the common assumption that unless the revolutionary takes power from a revolution they won’t be able to force their agenda through a conservative nation. Do you think it was the coup that gave him the chance he needed?

      • Re the putsch, I’m saying it didn’t help. From my admittedly cursory knowledge of Venezuelan politics, I get the sense that it exacerbated pre-existing political polarization and made Chavez a more sympathetic figure in the eyes of citizens who weren’t already locked in to loathing him.

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