Venezuela’s Bad Angels
Mareeg.com-CARACAS – Fish do not know they are in water. They take it for granted. They would
need to get out of water to understand how different things could be. Similarly, one
way for people to see the uniqueness of what they consider normal is to contrast it
with the past – or with an outlier, an example that bucks the current trend.
A case in point is the dramatically low levels of violence that characterize the
present, a fact uncovered by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our
Nature. The facts are imposing and incontrovertible. As Pinker convincingly shows,
violence of all kinds has declined over the millennia, in recent centuries, and
during the past decades. Humans, according to Pinker, have both good and bad angels
(or passions), and the good ones have become more dominant. Why?
For starters, Leviathan – that is, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of
force – has reduced conflict and increased personal security. Second, the state’s
administration of justice adopted and encouraged non-violent ways of resolving
grievances, thus allowing cooperation and the expansion of commerce. This trend
accelerated with the spread of Enlightenment humanist ideals based on fundamental
human equality and the application of rationality to human affairs.
In this respect, Venezuela is the proverbial fish out of water. During the 15 years
of the “Bolivarian Revolution” initiated by the late Hugo Chávez, the country’s
homicide rate has quadrupled, from a high base of 19 per 100,000 in 1998 to 79 in
2013, roughly 17 times the average in the United States, 26 times that in Chile, and
more than 30 times the combined average of OECD countries.
In a sample of 145 countries assembled by the World Bank, Venezuela’s homicide
numbers since 1995 have been exceeded only by Honduras and El Salvador, countries
with less than one-third of Venezuela’s per capita income. And Venezuela’s murder
boom came despite an 8-fold increase in oil prices in the intervening period, which
massively increased the country’s exports and fiscal revenues.
Adopting Pinker’s perspective, one key element underpinning the rise in violence in
Venezuela is the voluntary weakening of Leviathan. While there are no armed
opposition groups, the government has sponsored the creation of armed paramilitary
groups, known locally as colectivos, charged with defending the “revolution.” Thus,
they bear a striking similarity to the Nazi brown shirts, the Fascist black shirts,
and the various “people’s militias” that were established under communist regimes.
Just recently, the colectivos made international headlines when, on February 18,
acting on the orders of a state governor, they attacked a peaceful demonstration,
killing Genesis Carmona, a beauty queen. They openly control parts of Caracas and
other cities. On February 24, President Nicolás Maduro invited them to ride their
motorcycles to the presidential palace.
One reason why a ruling party or political movement might create armed support
groups is to deter the regular armed forces from attempting a coup. In Venezuela,
for example, the situation would become very messy, because the colectivos would
wreak havoc. Such groups may also reflect an effort to impose social order through
fear. But there is something else underlying their establishment: an
anti-Enlightenment ideology of violence.
While chavismo arrived in power via the ballot box, its leaders wished it had done
so with bullets, like their hero Che Guevara. That is why the colectivos erected a
bust of Tirofijo, the deceased leader of Colombia’s FARC guerrilla group, and why
they photograph their children with assault rifles, covered faces, and military
The ideology of violence is underpinned by the Marxian idea that the road to
progress is class struggle. The way forward involves inculcating hatred among “the
people” of their class enemies. Under this paradigm, a government that talks to the
enemy is either weak or a traitor to its class.
In this framework, there is no collective sense of a communal “we” that has agreed
to live together under rules that apply equally to all. Institutions designed for
liberal democracies – such as an independent judiciary, a comptroller-general, and a
free press – become assets to be seized and used in the class struggle. As a
consequence, the law is used only against political opponents, the budgetary
division between party and state disappears, and those delivering bad news are
treated harshly, as many local media have long known, and as global news outlets
like CNN have recently discovered.
For many years, Venezuela’s dismal dynamics generated little open revolt. But, since
February 12, things have changed radically. Previously, skyrocketing insecurity,
massive shortages, high inflation, and police brutality were simply facts of life
with which Venezuelans had to cope on their own. Now, however, they have fueled a
collective sense of outrage that demands civil disobedience as the only possible
moral stance. The fish know they are out of water.
Venezuela will not be able to join the global trend of declining violence unless its
government reestablishes Leviathan, which implies disarming the colectivos. The
country will be unable to avoid tyranny unless it is willing to respect the minimal
democratic guarantees provided by the constitution, such as a supreme court, an
attorney general, a comptroller, and an electoral council appointed with two-thirds
of the National Assembly’s support. All of these institutions require political
forces to negotiate with, rather than persecute, their opponents.
Most important, Venezuela will also have to abandon the ideology of class warfare.
Pinker aptly quotes Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make
you commit atrocities.”
Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela and former Chief
Economist of the Inter-American Development Bank, is a professor of economics at
Harvard University, where he is also Director of the Center for International