In Venezuela, We Could NOT Stop Chávez. Don’t Make the Same Mistakes We Did

  • How to let a populist beat you, over and over again.

Andrés Miguel Rondón | The Washington Post

Andrés Miguel Rondón is an economist living in Madrid. He is a Venezuelan citizen who was born and raised there.

Donald Trump is an avowed capitalist; Hugo Chávez was a socialist with communist dreams. One builds skyscrapers, the other expropriated them. But politics is only one-half policy:

The other, darker half is rhetoric. Sometimes the rhetoric takes over. Such has been our lot in Venezuela for the past two decades — and such is yours now, Americans. Because in one regard, Trump and Chávez are identical. They are both masters of populism.         

The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: The minorities, the politicians, the businessmen, the immigrants, the Muslims. Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior. Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance that allows their participation.

That is how it becomes a movement. There is something soothing in all that anger. Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question. The problem is now made simple.

The problem is YOU.  

How do I know? Because I grew up as the “YOU” Trump has turned you into. In Venezuela, the urban middle class I come from was cast as the enemy in the political struggle that followed Chávez’s arrival in 1998. For years, I watched in frustration as the opposition failed to do anything about the catastrophe overtaking our nation. Only later did I realize that this failure was self-inflicted. So now, to my American friends, here is some advice on how to avoid Venezuela’s mistakes.

Do not forget who the enemy is.

Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you are that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely.

What makes you the enemy? It is very simple to a populist: If you’re not a victim, you’re a culprit.

During the 2007 student-led protests against the government’s closure of RCTV, then the second-biggest TV channel in Venezuela, Chávez continually went on air to frame us students as “pups of the American Empire”; “supporters of the enemy of the country” — spoiled, unpatriotic babies who only wanted to watch soap operas. Using our socioeconomic background as his main accusation, he sought to frame us as the direct inheritors of the mostly imagined “oligarchs” of our fathers’ generation. The students who supported Chavismo were “children of the homeland”; “sons of the people”; “the future of the country”. Not for one moment did the government’s analysis go beyond such cartoons.

Trump is stress-testing how we think about American democracy

The problem is not the message but the messenger, and if you don’t realize this, you will be wasting your time.

Shaming has never been an effective method of persuasion. That includes rebukes such as the one the “Hamilton” cast gave Vice President-elect Mike Pence shortly after the election. While sincere, it only antagonized Trump; it surely did not convince a single Trump supporter to change their mind.

The Venezuelan opposition struggled for years to get this. We would not stop pontificating about how stupid Chavismo was, not only to international friends but also to Chávez’s electoral base. “Really, this guy? Are you nuts? You must be nuts,” we’d say.

The subtext was clear: Look, idiots — he will destroy the country. He is blatantly siding with the bad guys: Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin, the white supremacists or the guerrillas. He is not that smart. He is threatening to destroy the economy. He has no respect for democracy or for the experts who work hard and know how to do business.

How fascist is Trump? There is actually a formula for that.

I heard so many variations on these comments growing up that my political awakening was set off by the tectonic realization that Chávez, however evil, was NOT actually stupid.

Neither is Trump: Getting to the highest office in the world requires not only sheer force of will but also great, calculated rhetorical precision. The kind only a few political geniuses are born with and one he flamboyantly brandishes.

 “We are in a rigged system, and a big part of the rigging are these dishonest people in the media,” Trump said late in the campaign, when he was sounding the most like Chávez. “Isn’t it amazing? They don’t even want to look at you folks.” The natural conclusion is all too clear: Turn off the TV, just listen to me. The constant boos at his rallies only confirmed as much.

By looking down on Trump’s supporters, you’ve lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it and Trump is the beneficiary. 

The worst you can do is bundle moderates and extremists together and think that America is divided between racists and liberals. That is the textbook definition of polarization. We thought our country was split between treacherous oligarchs and Chávez’s uneducated, gullible base. The only one who benefited was Chávez.

Don’t try to force him out.

Our opposition tried every single trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ruinous oil strike? Check. Boycotting elections in hopes that international observers would intervene? You guessed it.

Look: Opponents were desperate. We were right to be. But a hissy fit is NOT a strategy.

The people on the other side — and crucially, independents — will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. You will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: An enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re giving the populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come.

Donald Trump is America’s Silvio Berlusconi

To a big chunk of the population, the Venezuelan opposition is still that spoiled, unpatriotic schemer. It sapped the opposition’s effectiveness for the years when we would need it most.

Clearly, the United States has much stronger institutions and a fairer balance of powers than Venezuela. Even out of power, Democrats have no apparent desire to try anything like a coup. WHICH IS GOOD.

Attempting to force Trump out, rather than digging in to fight his agenda, would just distract the public from whatever failed policies the administration is making.

In Venezuela, the opposition focused on trying to reject the dictator by any means possible — when we should have just kept pointing out how badly Chávez’s rule was hurting the very people he claimed to be serving.

Find a counter-argument. (No, not the one you think.)

Don’t waste your time trying to prove that this grand idea is better than that one. Ditch all the big words. The problem, remember, is not the message but the messenger. It is NOT that Trump supporters are too stupid to see right from wrong; it is that you are more valuable to them as an enemy than as a compatriot. Your challenge is to prove that you belong in the same tribe as them — that you are American in exactly the same way they are.

In Venezuela, we fell into this trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about separation of powers, civil liberties, the role of the military in politics, corruption and economic policy. But it took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa — to show they were Venezuelans, too, that they weren’t just dour scolds and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show that they were real. This is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It is deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.

Because if the music keeps going, yes — you will see neighbors deported and friends of different creeds and sexual orientations living in fear and anxiety, your country’s economic inequality deepening along the way. But something worse could happen. In Venezuela, whole generations were split in two. A sense of shared culture was wiped out. Rhetoric took over our history books, our future, our own sense of self. We lost the freedom to be anything larger than cartoons.

This does not have to be your fate. You can be different. Recognize that you’re the enemy Trump requires. Show concern, NOT contempt, for the wounds of those who brought him to power.

By all means, be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.

It’s a tall order. But the alternative is worse. Trust me.

A version of this article originally appeared on Caracas Chronicles.

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 20, 2019 at 10:57 pm

    What Does Trump Have in Common with Hugo Chávez? A Media Strategy.

    Joel Simon | Columbia Journalism Review

    PRESIDENT TRUMP IS AN AVOWED ADMIRER of Vladimir Putin, and his administration is still under investigation for its ties to Russia. But Trump’s governing style has more in common with the Latin American populists who have risen to power in the last several decades.

    In particular, Trump’s unrelenting attacks on the media and attempts to undermine its credibility and paint it as an opposition force are straight out of the Latin American populists’ playbook. His press conferences, in which he agitates against “very fake news”, is a case in point.

    While Trump is on the right and most of populist movements of Latin America are leftist-oriented, there are remarkable similarities between the two in the rhetoric they employ to mobilize supporters.

    Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner — along with the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — all rose to power in campaigns that targeted the media. In office, they continued their attacks.

    “The No. 1 enemies of Evo Morales are the majority of the media,” the Bolivian president said in September 2006, a day after his government published a list of the country’s most hostile media outlets.

    Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has described critics in the press as “ignorant”, “trash-talking”, “liars”, “unethical”, “mediocre”, “ink-stained hit men”, and “political actors who are trying to oppose the revolutionary government”.

    Daniel Ortega calls journalists “children of Goebbels” and enemies of the Nicaraguan people.

    Hugo Chávez frequently called the media opposition coup plotters and fascists.

    More mildly, Argentine President Néstor Kirchner and Uruguayan President Tabaré Ramón Vázquez Rosas refer to the press as the “unelected political opposition”. Sound familiar?

    For these leaders, the shared insight is that a mobilized and committed base is more important than broad popular support in advancing their political agenda.

    This realization turns standard political practice on its head:

    CREATING A MORE POLARIZED SOCIETY – RATHER THAN A MORE UNIFIED ONE – BECOMES AN EXPLICIT POLITICAL GOAL.

    For example, soon after taking office in 1999, Chávez rallied his supporters behind a Constitutional Referendum. It passed with 88-PERCENT of the vote — but a 60-PERCENT rate of ABSTENTION.

    The necessary first step of a strategy of fomenting greater political polarization is to marginalize the media, and more broadly to undermine its ability to provide a shared, unifying narrative.

    In Latin America, this process was aided by the fact that the traditional media has been allied with oligarchic interests. When Correa or Morales denounce the media it resonates with their supporters. Trump’s larger goal seems to be similar; certainly, his tactics are.

    Lashing out at the media at public events; denouncing and vilifying individual journalists, expelling reporters, blocking access, and threatening lawsuits:

    Trump and Chávez have these things in common.

    Like Trump, Chávez insisted on his own version of reality, now known as “alternative facts”, and his perspective was amplified by the segment of the media that supported his political project.

    Chávez, later in his administration, built a government-funded media network that, not surprisingly, agreed with everything he said.

    Like Trump, Chávez effectively used Twitter to do an end run around media he didn’t trust and to communicate directly with his supporters.

    Argentina’s Kirchner also used Twitter to attack and undermine her critics, becoming so obsessed with social media that she refused to relinquish control of the official presidential account after being voted out of office.

    These systematic attacks on the media accomplish two things:

    First, they fire up the base, which believe that traditional media do not represent their interests or concerns.

    Second, they provoke the media itself, which feeling threatened, adopts a more oppositional posture. This in turn further fuels the polarization on which the leaders depend and paves the way for the government to introduce legal restrictions.

    The most dramatic example was in Venezuela, where elements in the media embarked on a campaign of open warfare, engaging in overtly partisan coverage intended to undermine Chávez’s rule.

    Some media owners were alleged to have conspired in a 2002 coup that briefly ousted the president.

    Once Chavez returned to power, he rallied his supporters behind a new law imposing broad restrictions on what the media could and could not cover under the guise of “ensuring the right to truthful information.”

    Across the hemisphere, other restrictive legal measures were adopted, including Ecuador’s notorious 2013 Communications Law, which criminalizes the failure to cover events of public interest, as defined by the government.

    In the first year, approximately 100 lawsuits were filed under the law, stifling critical reporting.

    The situation is obviously very different in the US, where we have a robust, independent and financially viable media; a highly protective legal framework; and a journalistic culture that values “objective” reporting. But Trump’s intent is clear.

    Through his relentless attacks, he seeks to create an environment in which critical media is marginalized and the truth is unknowable.

    The experience in Latin America — which, unlike Russia, has a democratic tradition, a robust civil society, and a history of independent media — shows that the strategy can work.

    But only if the US media takes the bait, and starts acting more like the opposition.

    The high-impact reporting in recent days on the links between Trump aides and Russia shows that the media retains sufficient credibility in the US to change the political dynamic. It is also a vivid reminder of what’s at stake.

    • kamtanblog  On October 21, 2019 at 4:08 am

      Clyde MSM aka Mass Stream Media
      has past its sell by date….not fit for
      purpose…defunct….obsolete…past
      it’s sell by date.
      Almost everyone uses their iPhones
      to choose what they wish to watch
      txting to keep in touch with others.
      MSM will not influence the changes
      USA so desperately needs.
      At least not in the immediate future.
      November 2020 is but a formality that
      Humpty Dumpty will be given a second
      chance.(underservedly..,politicks !

      Thanks for both articles on GOL
      which I finally finished reading.
      Very interesting indeed.

      Am more focussed on the shenanigans
      of Bojo and the 650 jackasses leading UK
      over the Brexit issues.

      Kamtan

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 22, 2019 at 12:36 am

    • kamtanblog  On October 22, 2019 at 4:03 am

      Will Humpty Dumpty fall off the wall
      and all the kings horses and all the kings
      men put Humpty togeather again.
      Doubt it ! November 2020 HD will not
      only have his wall he will be sitting on it.
      The pantomime of politricks !

      Amusing

      Kamtan

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