Smilde Presentation at Foro Urgente—Venezuela in Question

Yesterday I had the pleasure of participating in “Foro Urgente: Venezuela in Question” at the University of Texas, Austin along with my colleagues Javier Corrales, Miriam Kornblith, Margarita López Maya, Cristóbal Valencia, and Mark Weisbrot. The event was moderated by Univisión’s Pedro Rojas. The organizers Charles Hale, Javier Auyero and Paloma Diaz sent us a set of three questions to answer. Below is the presentation I gave (for the sake of time I skipped the comments on the economy in my verbal presentation).

What are the root explanations for the stark deterioration of social life—violence, economic distress, intractable political conflict—in Venezuela today?

I am going to focus on the issue of violence and comment briefly on the economy.

The biggest cause of crime and violence in Venezuela is not poverty nor politics, but the failure of policing and easy access to arms. I will mainly discuss  the first.  On the one hand, Venezuela has had a long term tendency to rely on militarized policing that is entirely ineffective in a complex, modern society. On the other hand, the last twenty-five years has seen a deterioration and destructuration of the country’s police forces.

The destructuration of the police forces already started in the neoliberal 1990s. Crime and violence surged when public sector budgets were paired away and many police forces decentralized or disassembled. But it was greatly exacerbated in the first 8 years of Chavismo as the government completely ignored the policing crisis and thought that the crime situation would solve itself if poverty and inequality were reduced—a theory some refer to as “left functionalism.”

However, it didn’t quite work out that way. By 2008 the government had actually made considerable progress in reducing poverty and inequality, yet crime soared. And in fact this is entirely consistent with contemporary criminological theory in which crime is about opportunity–opportunities that increase in contexts of economic growth and reduced poverty.

By 2008 the government started to push forward with a model civilian police reform, led by human rights activists. This reform created the Bolivarian National Police, a new network of police academies with a new curriculum, a governing body and citizen monitoring committees. But this reform never received the full support of the government and was always competing with militarized initiatives.

For example the Dispositivo Bicentenario de Seguridad led by the National Guard and their “madrugonazo al hampa” in which they would go into poor neighborhoods and drag people out of their homes, without warrants and cart them off for questioning, coincided with the implementation of police reform in 2009 and ran parallel to it for several years.

The police reform did not survive Maduro’s first year in office as he emphasized military operations from his first month in office with the Plan Patria Segura in June of 2013.

In January 2014 he removed the main architects of this police reform and put retired and active military officers in control of citizen security from top to bottom. The result has been a cycle of more military in the street, more human rights violations, and unabated crime.

The most recent iteration is the Operacion Liberacion del Pueblo which sends troops into neighborhoods to supposedly combat organized crime and paramilitaries. A recent AP report showed more than 50 people had been killed in supposed confrontations with no police casualties.

The tragedy of these policies, of course, is that average Venezuelans tend to support them. For most, it seems like common sense that sending the troops into barrios to “clean them out” will be effective in deterring crime. And indeed the police always proudly release numbers on how many were killed and the number of arrests as evidence. But of course those killed never received a trial and we are shown no actual evidence that they were criminals at all.

Of the hundreds detained in the first OLP operation in Caracas only a handful were charged with minor crimes. None were found to be paramilitaries, after it was initially announced that almost 20 were. Of course any real crime bosses in the Caracas barrios know when and where such operations are going to take place because of their contacts with police and make themselves scarce well in advance.

The “success” of the OLP has provided a platform for the current border operation in which the border has been closed and state of exception declared in 11 border municipalities. 1000 Colombians have been deported and another 7k at least have fled. The theory this operation is based on is that paramilitaries are in control of the contraband crossing the border and are also responsible for the unabated violence across the country.

It’s ironic that for years, government opponents tried to portray street violence as political violence with breezy arguments that the thousands murdered ever year somehow were the victims of political violence. Now it is the Maduro government that tries to portray street violence as political violence using a supposed conspiracy of paramilitaries to explain both crime and contraband in one neat package.

None of this resists even superficial examination. Venezuela’s violence is mainly perpetrated by socially excluded young men against other socially excluded young men. As such, the OLP is a cruel hoax. It’s classist, its regressive, it’s a violation of human rights, and it is completely ineffective against crime.

The current border closing and deportation of Colombians adds xenophobia into the mix. It too, overwhelmingly affects the poor and vulnerable, and merits unequivocal condemnation.

I’ll briefly mention that Venezuela’s crime and violence are also the result of the availability of guns. The Chavez government pushed forward an attempt to control arms. However, much of the important of arms and the manufacture of ammunition is controlled by the military. In the end they were able to pare away the most significant clauses of the gun control law passed in 2013.

Venezuela’s economic difficulties are the result of an unfathomably distorted monetary policy. In 2013 and 2014 the government expanded the monetary supply 60% each year at the same time economic growth stagnated or contracted. It is impossible for this to to lead to anything other than inflation.

If you add to this price controls on basic goods, it is impossible for this to not lead to scarcities. If you then throw in  a fixed exchange rate which is now more than 100 times the lowest official rate, the incentives for contraband and capital flight are irresistible.

Put differently, Venezuela’s economic crisis is not the result of an economic war. It is the inevitable result of its monetary policies. It is not a result of the precipitous decline in oil—they were already in serious trouble two years ago when oil was above $100. It is not even the result of spending on social policy. If they didn’t give away most of their dollars, they could likely continue this spending. Rather, it is the result of self-inflicted wounds.

Why does the government continue these policies? It is not likely to be ignorance, since there are plenty of people in the government who understand basic economics. It also does not seem like it has to do with public opinion. Maduro is already being hurt badly by the economic crisis, economic reform doesn’t seem like it could hurt him more.

The only other possibility is “state capture,” in other words that stake-holders within the government are preventing structural adjustment because their economic and political power depends on the opportunities for corruption provided by the foreign exchange chaos. I don’t have any inside information suggesting this is the case. But from the outside it seems like the only viable explanation.

How should we understand the US role in this social suffering, and how might the US best contribute to its alleviation?

The role of the US has been somewhat dizzying over the past year, but in the past five months we have seen one of the most gratifying changes in US policy in a long time. Indeed, I find myself in the somewhat awkward position of praising US Venezuela policy.

Of course President Obama signed into law Marco Rubio’s sanctions bill in December and announced a first round of sanctions in March with an obnoxious Executive Order declaring Venezuela a threat to US National Security and Foreign policy interests. The EO receive such a vigorous condemnation throughout the region that it seems to have put additional sanctions on hold—the original plan was to make successive announcements, expanding the list throughout 2015.

Less than a month later, in early April, facing an America’s Summit in which confrontation with Venezuela threatened to overshadow normalization with Cuba, the Obama administration responded to overtures by Nicolas Maduro by sending top diplomat Thomas Shannon to meet with Venezuelan officials. There have been several meetings since then and regular communication.

This is exactly the type of diplomacy that the US should be engaging in. Rather than dividing the world into friends and foes, real diplomacy is based on open communication regarding areas of mutual interest, without an aspiration that there will be extensive agreement on political ideology or policies.

This engagement is attractive to Maduro because engagement from the US sends signs to radical opposition and people within Chavismo who might want to make a non-electoral push for power. It makes them think twice about whether they will receive support from the US.

Of course, this new diplomatic engagement is not a miracle cure. It has effectively taken the US out of the equation in terms of Maduro’s conspiracy theories. (this is one reason for the new focus on a paramilitary conspiracy since Obama no longer fits the bill.)

We can say that since this diplomatic engagement started we have seen a few successes: an election date was announced and the government seems committed to hold them, a couple of political prisoners were released. Of course it is hard to know if this engagement had anything to do with it. These things might have happened anyway.

And it is not clear how long it will last nor where it will lead but it is clearly an improvement over the counter-productive sanctions bill. But it is important that this rapprochement be consolidated over the next year since it seems inevitable that whoever is sworn in on January 20, 2017, will have greater animosity towards Chavismo than the Obama Whitehouse has.

Even amid chronic polarization, are there constructive principles on which most Venezuelans might agree as a basis for exploring resolutions to this multifaceted crisis?

Absolutely. The polarization of politics and public opinion in Venezuela is a poor guide for understanding the political proclivities of average Venezuelans. Average Venezuelans agree on some  important things. They think they should be able to choose their leaders through the vote. They think these leaders should listen to them and talk to them. They also think these leaders should make it their job to distribute Venezuela’s oil wealth in an equitable fashion and in favor of the needs of the people.

The democratic model governing from 1958 o 1998 had many virtues. But it produced radical inequality between those who had access to the state and its oil wealth, and those who did not. It also produced an endogamous political class that had little vocation for speaking to people, learning from them, and addressing their concerns, preferring instead to negotiate among themselves behind closed doors.

This is the context in which Chavez burst upon the scene sixteen years ago: an economic crisis and a political class that was incapable of addressing new realities. Chavez pushed forward with a process of economic and political democratization that re-captured the modern dreams of average Venezuelans. Indeed, there is no need to recur to stereotypes of irrational Chavistas following a messianic leader. Chavez’s popularity was based on very real improvements in people’s lives.

In my view, from 2006 on Chavez and Chavistas have engaged in a sort of bait and switch using the popularity of Chavismo to push forward a project of socialism that is ill-understood by the majority, and foreign to their lived experience. This socialism has unleashed centripetal forces that have made this government ever more impenetrable to average citizens, and ever more out of touch with their needs and desires.

The opposition, on the other hand, continues to lack content, outreach and connection to the people. They have made impressive gains in unity, but this has come at the cost of a persistently abstract message, when they have one at all.

An opposition project that breaks out of its class bubble and prioritizes Venezuela’s incredible inequality and persisting poverty, while making people feel listened too and spoken too, could make quick work of Chavismo.

A Chavismo that dropped fantasies of radical democracy interesting only to intellectuals, and which accepted a dose of economic realism could recover its popularity and again push forward with its participatory initiatives and missions—these policies are not the cause of the current crisis.

Frankly, at this point I think it is more likely we will see a reconstructed opposition than a reconstructed Chavismo, but I do think the rejection of Chavismo is relatively superficial. People don’t like the way things are going, but they have a memory of the past.

The point is that there are no intractable differences between Venezuelans. Put differently, the differences between Venezuelans are no greater than the differences between citizens in any complex modern society.

Venezuela has two political factions vying for power, neither of which have a clear sense of democratic vocation. If and when a truly democratic alternative emerges in Venezuela, I have no doubt that a new consensus will emerge.