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November 16, 2007


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I gotta say, this new generation of Fidelistas just doesn't have the old man's style or political instincts. Pudgy's lucky he's sitting on so much ancient plant life.

Oh, I don't know about that. Those old plants need tending, doncha know.

I like Chávez. He reminds me how strong the American system actually is.

Six to eight years of strong executive power seems to be enough to turn almost anyone's head.

The American system is an interesting exception here; the last year or two of a double-term presidency tends to be not much fun for the President, for structural reasons. I don't think this was deliberate, but it's IMO more good than bad.

I expect we'll have Chavez around for a long time to come. If oil prices stay high -- as seems likely -- he'll be fine for the rest of this decade. At least.

Doug M.

No, Hugo isn't going anywhere.

My problem with Hugo is that I expected better. His gutting of PDVSA was unfortunate but necessary, given the 2002 general strike. When the general management of a state-owned company tries to oust the elected president, there aren't a whole lot of other options.

His infrastructure programs didn't get a lot of play in the States, which seemed to prefer fake (and I mean fake in the worst possible sense of fake) stories about retail shortages.

The contract changes with the oil companies were also entirely reasonable, and entirely in line with what happens between private leaseholders and an oil companies in the United States when the oil price quadruples.

The substantial non-oil tax hikes were very Good Things, save to idiot libertarian types.

Finally, while I found his grandiose international ambitions grandiose (and a bit silly), I also found them entirely understandable. After all, were I the duly-elected leftist president of a mid-sized oil-rich country, I can totally imagine deciding that the creation of a South American federation is a hella nice windmill to tilt at.

Plus, that chunk of Guyana, the British stole it. (And, er, that other chunk of land, you know.)

There were populist touches --- the literacy drive failed yet the government denied it, much other (but not most) spending was ridiculous, the contract renegotiations with the oil companies were unnecessarily contentious and that had real costs --- but to expect otherwise was to believe in Nirvana.

This vision of Chávez was consistent with the facts until 2004. And it wasn't clearly contradicted until this year.

What happened in 2004 was the recall referendum. I should post Ed Miguel's paper, which used survey data to demonstrate fairly well that the government used its tax authority to pressure people to vote in certain ways. Now, that's not unheard of in well-functioning democracies, but it was the first concrete sign that Hugo might actually be what his frothing opponents said he was.

Stopped clocks, twice daily, and all that.

Since then, the evidence has been piling up that he has no clue what he's doing. To be fair, it says something about what he _thinks_ he's doing that he tries very hard to stay within the letter of the law. And although I certainly expect to get slammed for this, I understand the attraction of trying to transplant certain aspects of Cuban _culture_ to a uber-individualistic society like Venezuela.

But ... I am disappointed, and more so every day. I talked with Francisco Rodríguez for a while about the idea of writing a book about Venezuela, "The Economic Consequences of Mr. Chávez," but other projects are pressing.

There will be a case, though, and lots of travel across the Bolivarian Republic. Eventually. I have little idea what it will be like by 2009, though; the man is proving that unpredictable.


What's unpredictable? Most of this was foreseeable fairly early on IMO.

Chavez is a loud, energetic guy with a few big ideas and a huge ego. None of these things are necessarily bad... they got Teddy Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore, for instance. But Chavez is operating in an environment where checks on executive power are weak, and where a determined leader can weaken them still further. (Also, having a few big ideas means having big blind spots too.)

I see a vicious circle setting in -- Hugo will accrue more power to himself, which will make behave less and less rationally. The slope of the downhill curve may be shallow or steep, but downhill it will be.

The gutting of PDVSA, I agree; what's been done with it since, much less so.

Guyana: it's been 110 years, and the people who live there don't want to be part of Venezuela. End of story, really.

As you say, alas. But not surprising.

Doug M.

Doug, your second sentence is simply wrong. The risk was predictable. The fact was not.

Evo Morales has partially travelled down the Bolivarian path. He has not gone all the way, and shows little sign of doing so, despite even weaker institutional constraints.

Argentina's Kirchner is riding a tidal wave of a commodity boom, almost equal in scale to Venezuela's, and both his ego and his ideas are quite expansive. Yet while some of Kirchner's policy moves have been counterproductive (to say the least), there has also been nothing like Venezuela.

Had that stupid coup attempt not been made in 2002, it is quite likely that Venezuelan political history would have taken a different path. The coup and the strike opened up a space for Chávez, and he's taken it. Venezuela, like most Latin American countries, has fragile democratic institutions. But there's nothing predictable here ... unless you predicted disaster at the election of rather similar populists that Americans read less about in the news.

That was what was unpredictable, Doug.

Moving on ... you wrote that you don't agree with me about what's happened to PDVSA in the last few years. I said nothing about what Chávez has recently done to the company and I do not like having positions imputed to me ... especially when it's fairly clear that I don't hold them. After all, I did write, "Since then, the evidence has been piling up that he has no clue what he's doing." That would include turning PDVSA into an organization devoted to social policy and the knock-on effects from the overly contentious renegotiation of the foreign joint ventures.

Finally, I was joking about Guyana, as you must have realized. If my jocular tone is too subtle, I'll crank it up.

Dude, did you stub your toe before posting?

Obviously if a "risk" is predictable... oh, well.

Chavez wouldn't have gone there without the coup attempt? But here's a thing: the coup attempt, or something broadly like it, was also predictable. Which here stands not for "I knew that was going to happen", but for "I was so very not surprised when that happened".

Morales I don't know enough about to discuss very well, although I also think he's going down a risky path -- not because I think what he's doing is wrong, but because it could blow up in his face whether it's wrong or not. (Viz., separatist assholes trying to break up the country, basically out of spite -- from what I can tell, not likely but not impossible either.)

Kirchner, very very different environment; do we really have to go into detail on that one?

"you wrote that you don't agree with me about what's happened to PDVSA in the last few years. I said nothing about what Chávez has recently done to the company and I do not like having positions imputed"

Ai yi yi. Well, I was unclear -- rereading, I see that. My bad. "Much less so" was not "I agree with you much less" but rather "it was much less justifiable/necessary". More clear and less offensive, I hope.

Taking this up a level of abstraction: I'm tempted to conclude that a good system is one where it doesn't /much/ matter if the chief executive is stupid, badly misguided, or just a dick. cf. Germany, where Schroeder was a huge dick -- much more than is widely appreciated outside central Europe -- but the country just rolled along.

Doug M.

Clue me in on Schroeder's dickishness, I seem to have missed a lot of it, and I live here. Ok, the business with the pipeline and the means of leaving office, got both of those. But he and all of red-green were so enormously much better than late-model Kohl. Just off the top of my head, he and Joschka brought the Greens into the real world in foreign policy; Germany updated its immigration laws, which were still running on principles from the Kaiser's era in 19 f-ing 97; his first victory showed that Germans were in fact capable of changing their government at the ballot box (it had never been done before in the Bundesrepublik), something about which there were nagging doubts even after nearly fifty years of democracy. These are three Really Big Things, and they are all a direct result of Schroeder and his government. His performance on election night in 2005 was bluff and theatricality for the ages. Furthermore, calling early elections has spared Germany, for at least one term of parliament and probably two, the insufferable Roland Koch as Chancellor. If you've got to have a conservative Chancellor, Angela Merkel is the way to go; Koch, gagh.

So anyway, what's the deal with Schroeder?

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