A Tale of Two Realities

Does Venezuela depict America's future?

There are around 200 countries in the world, plus or minus a few.  Of these, most Americans vaguely care about a dozen or so, if that.  For the rest, they pop up in the news only when something bad or unusual occurs there, allowing us to briefly feel well-informed until the parade moves on.

This week, it's Venezuela's turn for 15 minutes of negative attention.  One of Latin America's richest countries in living memory - indeed, the world's fourth richest country per-capita in 1950 - it's now a collapsing basket case where desperate starving citizens are encouraged by their government to eat their pets.  Starving citizens have also been smacking their chops at zoo animals.

What happened?  The short answer is "socialism" - Venezuela has a command economy where prices and production are set by government fiat, private enterprises are confiscated from the politically disfavored, and the natural wealth of the country is stolen by those in charge.

Of course, there are many countries that work this way, though not many have fallen so ostentatiously or so far.  Venezuela is special because it has both extensive oil reserves and an educated population who would be able to take advantage of their resources if they were allowed to do so.

China has a communist government, but its leaders were wise enough to realize that allowing private enterprise would make the whole country richer and more powerful including themselves.  The late dictator Hugo Chavez and his chosen successor Nicolas Maduro either never figured that out or thought that being able to acquire personal wealth and power made it worthwhile to beggar everyone else.

There are tremendous economic lessons in Venezuela for those who are willing to learn them, ideally starting with the leftist politicians and celebrities who applauded Chavez' depredations.  These obvious lessons are being well covered elsewhere.

Instead, let's consider the political lessons.  Hugo Chavez legitimately became president in a free and fair election.  Venezuela was one of the longer-democratic countries in the region.  It had a largely free, somewhat honest, mostly functional politics and political culture... until it didn't.

Two Worldviews, One Basket Case

Like some better-known dictators of history, Hugo Chavez came to power by claiming that the nation's wealth had been stolen by elites and foreigners, and won votes by promising to return it to "the people."  At first he actually did this, more or less, by confiscating successful businesses and spending the money on his supporters, many of whom were poor.  Eventually, though, as Margaret Thatcher observed, "The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money."

By the time that happened, Mr. Chavez was dead and replaced by Mr. Maduro who is every bit as authoritarian but not nearly as charismatic.  Unlike Mr. Chavez, who could actually win elections based on his personal charm, Mr. Maduro's latest term came about via fairly spectacular fraud.

Not, however, the kind of fraud you usually think of - ballot-stuffing, thugs at the polls, and so on.  Instead:

The majority of popular leaders of the [opposition] MUD and other members of the opposition could not apply for the elections because of administrative and legal procedures and were disqualified from participating in the presidential elections by the government.

Similar shenanigans led to most of the rest of the opposition parties themselves being "disqualified."  The candidates who made it onto the ballot were plagued by violent attacks from Maduro supporters, undefended by the government as police looked the other way.  The disqualified opposition parties called for a boycott of the fraudulent elections, as they were anything but "free and fair."

Nevertheless, despite all the chicanery, the opposition holds control of Venezuela's legislature, the National Assembly.  Mr. Chavez' constitutional changes give massive power to an imperial presidency, but there are a few quirks, and in many cases Mr. Maduro ignored the provisions of even Mr. Chavez' government-friendly rules.

For example, Venezuela now has two Supreme Courts - one in exile, and one in-country but illegally appointed by Chavez supporters.  The exiled one ruled that the 2018 election was invalid; the government one, naturally, did not.

The Venezuelan constitution states that if the president is "absent," the Head of the Venezuelan Assembly can act as provisional president.  Since Mr. Maduro's term expired a few weeks ago and the "legitimate" Supreme Court ruled his re-election invalid, Juan Guaido says he's now the legitimate president as he was legitimately elected Head of the Venezuelan Assembly.  The United States and, soon, most of Europe agree with him.

Mr. Maduro still occupies the Presidential Palace and apparently commands the army, though; and he's supported by such democratic luminaries as Russia, China, and Iran.

Which led Venezuela to where it is now: it's hard to imagine how this ends in any way other than civil war.  It's not like the two Presidents can take their cases to court; they can't even agree on who the Court is.  The socialist Chavista side and their more democratic, free-market opposition dwell in the same country, but occupy two completely disconnected political and legal realities.

There is nobody both sides trust, no honest broker, not even any common ground.  What transpires in Venezuela will be controlled by happenstance and raw power, nothing more.  The time for politics is long past; their issues can now only be resolved by force.

On The Road To Perdition

What has this to do with America?  More than we wish it did.

Politics, by definition, is how we handle disagreements and disputes without resorting to violence.  If we're willing to physically fight over everything, we don't need politics or politicians, just guns.  If we all agreed on everything, we wouldn't need politicians or guns - we'd be living in Heaven, or at least Utopia.

But since we do disagree on all sorts of things and most of us would prefer not having to kill our opponents or be killed ourselves, we've agreed to hash things out the democratic and republican way.  We vote for elected representatives who in turn vote on laws, which are enforced by an elected executive, and which are defined by unelected independent courts.  We all know how the system is supposed to work, and for centuries the one thing all Americans agreed on is that it worked pretty well.

For our system to function, though, it is absolutely essential that most everyone trust that most everyone follows the rules fairly.  Yes, Democrats have always cheated on election day, but generally only at the margins or in party strongholds limited in size and national influence.  Traditionally, Republicans had access to more money and better lawyers, though that's changed in recent years.

Until very recently, though, all Americans admitted that the elected President did more or less reflect the choice of most voters, and likewise for most other major offices most of the time.  Republicans abhorred Jimmy Carter and Democrats likewise loathed Ronald Reagan, but nobody seriously suggested that either of them was illegitimate.

That's gone with the old millennium.  Starting with George W. Bush's technical victory in "Indecision 2000," every president since has faced a sizable and vocal minority who flatly accuse him of taking office through fraud and chicanery of one form or another.  Mr. Bush won according to the Constitution, but he lost the popular vote.  Mr. Obama won a free and fair election, but largely because the media refused to report the truth about his extremist past and present.  Mr. Trump, well, we hardly need to repeat the details: he's been accused of taking office illegitimately by every force short of mind-controlling alien lizard-men.

If you don't consider the government legitimate, you'll be considerably less inclined to obey it except when an official is pointing a gun at your head.  There aren't enough government agents to point guns at everybody on the other side, and if there were, we wouldn't be America anymore anyway.

So far, the opposition has done little more than grouse and march - so far.  How much further do we have before we start seeing armed resistance and organized governments-in-exile?

Mr. Trump's mooted emergency Wall declaration is a very scary precedent that could lead to just such a collapse.  For its part, the Left sponsors many efforts to destroy the system by gaming it, such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact which would, theoretically, cause the Presidency to be decided by the popular vote instead of by the historical Electoral College without requiring a Constitutional amendment.

It's easy to imagine a situation where the NPVIC is passed by sufficient states to be a majority of the popular and electoral vote while being opposed by a numerical majority of smaller states.  Imagine an election where the Democrat wins the NPVIC vote while the Republican would win according to the traditional rules laid down by the Constitution.  The question would doubtless go to court: does anyone believe the Democrats would stand down when a Trump-majority Supreme Court rules against them?  Or the other way 'round?

At bottom, any nation, civilization, family, or other organization runs on confidence and faith.  If people stop believing, it quickly stops being able to function and shortly thereafter ceases to exist as an orderly entity.

That's what has happened to Venezuela: it is a geographic construct containing remnants of a culture, but it is not an operational body politic.  In the absence of organized, predictable government, humanity quickly devolves to the "war of all against all."  People find themselves eating rats and when they're gone, they eat each other.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Good meditation. It's always good to think about how events might actually lead our country to fascism, or civil war, or whatever. I would like to see additional meditations on the essence of fascism, and what story line might make a lot of Americans feel it is the way to go. Do I need to define fascism? A lot of people seem very confused as to what it is.

I used to think Trump might be the first step toward fascism, however after watching him as President since 2016 I don't see any signs of it.

February 6, 2019 6:22 PM

We've given a lot of thought about fascism over the years, and have mostly come to the conclusion that it isn't really a useful term because nobody agrees on what it means overall other than "your enemies."

*Economic* fascism is a whole lot easier to define - it is private ownership, but government control, of the means of production. The trouble with this definition is that, thanks to environmental and other regulation, large chunks of the American economy have been operationally fascistic for a long time. But obviously, if you say that, people think concentration camps and midnight knocks, which we're still a very long way away from, and instantly dismiss the substance of the argument without even considering it.

In short, the word "fascist" impedes communication and clarity instead of helping it. So it's not much use anymore, I'm afraid.

February 6, 2019 6:27 PM

Incredibly insightful. I’ve often wondered if the Dems call to smack the rich is anagalous to Hitlers attack of the Jewish folks. Pretty much the same issue....these folks worked hard deferred rewards to help their kids and grand kids . And got “rich” after 45 years of hard work. The other folks went day to day...” Let’s get them because they have the money “The battle lines have to be on the constitution. It was designed to stop mob rule. If the mob wins, it’s over.

February 6, 2019 6:54 PM

Petrarch... good to hear the direction of your analysis. Mussolini's Italy was clearly fascism, and I never heard of them having camps. Nor midnight knocks on the door. They DID have thugs who would kill, not to paint them as too mild.

Just that "fascist" does not mean German Nazi. I submit it would be some variety of strongman rule, who overrides voters and at least major portions of popular will. To do this would pretty much require *supporting* other portions of popular will but in a non-voting, strongman manner.

If Antifa were to start bombing, and the population regards this as a disaster, I could imagine the circumstances more or less gathering to support anti-democratic rule. In this imagination Antifa would of course actually function as a secret ally to this type of tyrant. As long as the threat persists, all sorts of emergency measures would be tolerated.

Probably just a fever dream -- M. Johnson

February 6, 2019 8:01 PM
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