Reactions to Silva Tape Reveal Dilemmas of Chavismo

David Smilde

If Monday’s release of a recording of pro-government talk show host Mario Silva detailing corruption and conspiracies in the government simply made public what was long an open secret, the response in the following days has provided a window into the balance of power within and dilemmas confronting Chavismo.

What at the moment looked like it could be a power play from the left of the coalition, in which Maduro, Silva and their Cuban advisors might be moving to marginalize National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, quickly turned into a scramble for cover. Immediately after the release, Silva tweeted that a Zionist conspiracy was in the works. Later he read a statement on his program saying the recording was a montage created by international foes of the revolution but that he was going to take a break from his television show to seek medical treatment in Cuba. The next day Silva posted a reflection which included more denials and a folksy story about his long, warm relationship with Cabello.

Maduro restricted his responses to ad hominem attacks on those who released the video, suggesting it was an attempt to divide the revolution. The next day almost everyone alluded to in the recording went to Orchila Island with the manifest purpose of watching military maneuvers but clearly with the goal of addressing the fallout from the recording.

In all of this the main object of accusations in the recording, Diosdado Cabello, remained eerily cool and unphased. Cabello refused discussion of the recording in the AN and calmly suggested hat he had weathered many storms over the years.

Perhaps most revealing was how slow the Chavista bases were to publicly challenge the rather fantastic theory of a montage or criticize Cabello. One might have thought that at least some among the Chavista base would have seen this as a long awaited opportunity to denounce the “endogenous right” as responsible for the corruption within the government. Instead, the following day, most mentions of the tape denounced it as a fabrication, provided words of solidarity for Silva, and didn’t even mention Cabello. This gave the impression of Cabello as a sort of untouchable that few Chavistas will even risk mentioning. 

Only three full days later did some critical voices emerge from within Chavismo. Commentator and activist Nicmer Evans wrote that it was key to the morale of the movement to investigate whether the recording was authentic or not and the accusations made in it. Roland Denis suggested that the idea of a montage was “perfectly stupid” and wondered  about the lack of criticism. “Evidently we have here a fear of losing everything, which silences voices to the point of swallowing the truth and the revolutionary impulse to breakdown lies and oppression." 

But there is likely another reason that criticism from within Chavismo has been slow in coming. At the beginning of the recording Silva repeatedly talks about Cabello’s ”fuentes de financiamiento“ which should be translate as "sources of funding.” Indeed, high level corruption networks of the type Silva is describing are not primarily designed for personal enrichment (although they undoubtedly serve that purpose as well). Rather they function as a sort of parallel government that can do things with a speed and dexterity that the state cannot, and maintain power through clientelism and patronage. Indeed it has been an open secret for years that Cabello’s network funds everything from public works, to the Socialist Party (PSUV), to grassroots collectives.

Thus the battles within Chavismo are not properly thought of as the organized Chavista base versus corrupt government elites. Rather, many people at every level of the government and the movement either benefit from Cabello’s network or understand its power and are afraid to challenge it. In the recording Silva says “Nicolas is trapped.” The same could be said of the rest of Chavismo.

For the time being it seems like the Silva tape has only reinforced Cabello’s position and power. However, there is discontent in Chavismo among those who realize that their support is rapidly descending to their bedrock of 30-35 percent. Indeed it is hard to imagine Chavismo as currently configured garnering 55-60% support as it did under Chavez. They know that Cabello is an electoral liability and this discontent could lead to movement, but probably not in the short term.

And perhaps not in the medium or long term. Textbook sociology of organizations would suggest that political movements have no built in equilibrium function that makes them choose the most adaptive and functional strategies. In 1998 Venezuela’s social democratic party Acción Democratica chose Luis Alfaro Ucero as their presidential candidate not because he was popular but because he had an iron grip on the party. It was a collectively irrational choice made by rational individuals protecting their own interests that put an end to AD’s viability as a broad-based party and movement. The same could happen to Chavismo.