While the cat’s away…
27 June 2011
Recently in Definitive Ambiguity in Yemen I remarked regarding the departure of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment:
It is one of the paradoxes of authoritarian rule that such rule fosters weak institutions and a civil society organized around the charismatic presence of a particular leader… The authoritarian ruler is nearly absolute when in power, and stronger than a constitutional ruler, but when out of power the authoritarian ruler is even weaker than a constitutional ruler. Thus in gutting impersonal institutions and creating institutions dependent upon the personal presence of the ruler, the authoritarian ruler creates the conditions of his own fall from power.
The first suggestion of similar concerns in Venezuela emerged today. In a longish article in the Miami Herald, Hugo Chavez’s brother talks of armed struggle, the brother of Hugo Chávez was quoted as having said the following, identified as a quote from posthumously charismatic revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara:
“It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle.”
Why would the brother of Hugo Chávez be talking about armed struggle when his brother is the legitimately elected head of state of Venezuela? Because a political dynamic is playing out in Venezuela that is similar — though, obviously, not identical — to that in Yemen. The President of the country is receiving medical treatment in another nation-state, and the country in question has had its political institutions eviscerated in favor of the charismatic rule of one man. The absence of that one man thus suggests the possibility of instability.
Hugo Chávez has only been out of Venezuela for about two weeks now, reportedly having undergone emergency surgery in Cuba. Despite Cuban immiserization and impoverishment at the hands of the Castro regime, the island nation-state is known for its medical schools, and may well have better facilities and better doctors than Venezuela. In any case, Chávez is chosing to recuperate in Cuba, and although he (or a subordinate) continues to communicate with the Venezuelan people via Twitter, he has not been forthcoming about the medical details of his condition.
It is a clear sign of the institutional weakness of charismatic autocracy that there are already murmurings about “armed struggle” after only two weeks of the president’s absence of public life, and this going on with Chávez holding as many cards as he does — political legitimacy from an election, oil money flowing in, recuperation in a friendly nation-state, the growing influence of nominal “leftists” in South America (including the recent election of Ollanta Humala in Peru — suggests that the president’s allies (and his family) know that he is weak in his absence.
Like any thorough authoritarian strongman, Chávez has made provisions for an armed struggle in the event of his political weakness or being turned out of office before he is ready to go quietly. In Arming the People I mentioned how the Chávez administration has been recruiting, organizing, and arming a militia called the Chavista Circulos Bolivarianos. If it does come to armed struggle, then, the president and his allies are at least partially prepared, and what that means is that the struggle could could be long, bitter, and violent. With the prize of Venezuela’s oil money at stake, and the weakness of governmental institutions fostered by Chávez for his own aggrandizement and the furtherance of his Bolivarian Revolution, none of the principals in the struggle could be reasonably expected to give up easily.
Although the personal absence of Chávez over an extended period on time could possibly result in a peaceful transfer of power, that is not the only possibility. A violent struggle for power could also, if it escalates, be the greatest challenge to stability in the western hemisphere that has been seen since the civil wars in the Central America during the 1980s.
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