The Scope of State Incapacity

I just finished reading, Blogging the Revolution: Caracas Chronicles and the Hugo Chávez Era, a compilation of blog posts written by Francisco Toro and Juan Cristóbal Nagel. I’m very inclined to agree with David Frum that this marks an indispensable read for anyone with even a passing interest in the Chávez era. Though just a compilation of their posts organized thematically, the book reads very coherently, and thanks to Toro’s deep knowledge of political theory provides a much deeper look into the basis for chavismo as a movement and as a product of the peculiar Venezuelan petrostate. It also provides a litany of anecdotes about the micro-level inefficiencies and annoyances that make up so much of the failure of chavismo (notwithstanding the importance of its macro-level blunders), and, in many ways, this is what I found to be the most interesting part of the book.

The post “No Hay Material” to me sums up much of the problem, not just with chavismo, but with virtually every state-centric model that has been attempted in Latin America; the state lacks the capacity to perform even many of the barebones roles of the state (like having a reliable system for providing driver’s licenses), yet forces itself into ever more complex and highly technical spheres (like running massive, industrial companies). Latin American countries have rarely ever had capable governments (i.e. governments capable of competently fulfilling the roles assigned to it), yet since the advent of the import-substitution industrialization (ISI) era, have often had very big governments (i.e. ones that attempted to do many things).

The effect of this, in a very broad sense, was the onset of the debt crises of the 1980s and the neoliberal reforms adopted throughout the 1990s. Neoliberalism (or the “Washington Consensus” as it was dubbed following John Williamson’s influential description of development policies) essentially sought to pare back the state to only its most basic functions (national security, protecting property rights, enforcing contracts and providing education and basic healthcare) and let markets take care of the rest. This worked to a degree, but often states were, ironically, too weak to effectively become smaller. Botched privatizations, failures to reform labor codes or refocus public expenditures (i.e. cutting public health and education rather than face down entrenched public sector interests) left the impression on many that neoliberal policies were worse than what had proceeded them. Francis Fukuyama makes this point clearly “The Imperative of State-Building”—the relative size of the state is much less important than how strong it is. So rather than having a small but effective state, Latin America switched out a big, ineffective state of a smaller, ineffective state.

Unfortunately, in many parts of Latin America, people didn’t see this failure as an impetus to focus on improving state capacity. Rather the problem as many saw it, was not the quality of the state, rather that it wasn’t doing enough. Venezuela is the quintessential example of this. Even though, as Toro and Nagel illustrate so eloquently, the problem in Venezuela was that the state had become a massive patronage network where competence professionalism mattered little compared to pleasing the right people, the Chávez solution was simply to extend that same state deeper into every aspect of national life. The effect is a state that does a little bit of everything terribly instead of a few things really well.

To my mind, the best example of a country that did improve state capacity is Chile. This is not to say that the massive downsizing of the non-security segment of the Chilean state was not a painful transition, it certainly was (not even counting the serious abuses committed by the Pinochet regime). The point is that now Chile has the least corrupt and most professional bureaucracy in Latin America. This has allowed Chile to very effectively manage its economy and implement social programs that have left it with the lowest poverty rate in the region and a two-decade streak of growth that no other country in the region can even come close to matching.

Pope Francis and the Dirty War: The Failure of National Reconciliation

The ascension of Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy as Pope Francis has, predictably, drawn a good amount of attention to his positions on social and economic issues as well as his relationships with political actors in his native Argentina. On social issues, Francis seems to be largely in line with his predecessors—I first learned about him during his strident, borderline hysterical opposition to Cristina Kichner’s successful attempt to legalize gay marriage. This is disappointing, but not surprising at all. More surprising, however, are the questions that have arisen regarding his relationship with the 1976-1983 military junta which waged a brutal dirty war first against urban guerrilla groups, then later against a broader and more nebulous array of “subversivos.” Andrew Sullivan has done a great job of aggregating pieces of the story, and I am not going to comment on his culpability, though any sort of complicity with a regime that was responsible for as many as 30,000 deaths (often by “disappearing” them) would be an incredible black mark on a man who is supposed to be the moral leader of the world’s largest religious domination.

What I find interesting is how illustrative this is of the incomplete and inconsistent way Argentina has dealt with the legacy of the military dictatorship. Initially, Raul Alfonsin—Argentina’s first post-dictatorship president—pursued justice against the military with some zeal, leading to convictions of leading members of the junta, including Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera in 1985. However, soon thereafter, a law was passed that dramatically limited the ability of the government to bring military members to trial. In 1990, Carlos Menem pardoned Videla and Massera, as well as some guerrilla leaders in an attempt to foster reconciliation. This remained the status quo until the Kirchners reopened cases against the military in 2005 leading to the reconviction of Videla among others. While the people who led the dictatorship unquestionably deserve the punishments they have received, the reopening of the trials was controversial because of its focus exclusively on the military, leaving out the role played by leftist groups (which was smaller but still significant) in the violence that typified the era after Peron’s death in 1973.

The upshot of this helter skelter approach to attempts at justice has been that, beyond the top officials in the military and a few specific leaders of the Montoneros and other guerrilla groups, there is very inconsistent information who else was responsible for abuses committed by both sides. This manifests itself in several ways. One is in the form of dark rumors that follow around people like Pope Francis. Because no systematic attempt has been sustained to find the truth, it’s difficult to judge how culpable he or others with similar accusations against them really are. Another way it shows up is in the cognitive dissonance around the 1982 war against Great Britain over the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands. Despite the fact that the invasion was a poorly-calculated attempt to rejuvenate the foundering dictatorship’s popularity and that many of the people running and fighting the war were the same people who had, until then, been the people kidnapping and torturing their fellow citizens, politicians on both sides (including the Kirchners) lionize both the goals of the war (a topic for another post) and the soldiers who fought it.

None of this is unique to Argentina. Chile, Sri Lanka and dozens of other countries have struggled to find the best way to deal with the legacies of civil wars and dictatorships. Finding that balance is difficult, and, at least until now, Argentina has done a poor job of devising a system that at least makes clear what happened, even if those responsible are shielded from punishment for their actions.

What did he really want?

For anyone who is interested in Latin America, Hugo Chávez’s death inevitably creates a sort of void in their intellectual life. For the past decade and a half, it has been impossible to study the region and not talk about him, even if your interests lay outside of the oil economy or Venezuela. By sheer force of will and with the help of a trillion dollars in oil sales, Chávez was able to turn Venezuela into a regional power with influence far beyond the Western Hemisphere. He was also one of the most polarizing figures in world politics. For anyone who has read this blog before, it’s no secret that I am not a fan of his politics or his style of governing. I’ve written before about how I was never able to see how his model was even as good as, let alone better than more moderate forms of left-leaning governance. That said, I’ve devoted a lot of time to studying and thinking about chavista Venezuela over the last half dozen years and the question that always lingered in the background for me was: what type of person was Hugo Chávez deep down? Was he merely a flawed man trying to do right by his country or was he a cynical megalomaniac who simply tapped into lower class anger and marginalization to further his own desire for power?

I think one thing that is undebatable at this point is that Chávez was an extreme narcissist. He illustrated that time and again throughout his presidency through his need to personally control every possible apparatus of the state and took it to another level by running for a third term this past year even as he undoubtedly knew he was not healthy enough to complete even a fraction of his term. Whatever his intentions, Chávez clearly did not believe anyone was as qualified as he was to lead.

I also think that it is clear that Hugo Chávez was not a democrat, at least by any deeper definition than “he won elections.” Chávez was a master politician, and was extremely popular for much of his time in power but he did not govern or campaign for reelection in a democratic manner. Governing by decree, routinely demonizing your opposition and limiting the opposition to 3 minutes of airtime per day while spending hours each day campaigning during cadenas (official addresses that all television stations are required to air) among other things make elections little more than a veneer of legitimacy in the eyes of those too ignorant or naïve to the reality. Real democracy means working for consensus and respecting minority opinions during the times that fall between elections and Chávez didn’t do that.

Beyond that, I find Chávez’s intentions difficult to pin down. While lamentable, the fact that Chávez governed in an authoritarian manner didn’t preclude him from genuinely wanting to make things better for his country’s most vulnerable. He also could have never particularly cared about any of that but saw lower class empowerment as a means to gain power himself. Perhaps most realistically, he could have started out with genuinely good intentions (if bad ideas) and become cynical after he had already secured the nearly unconditional support of the poor.

He certainly seemed to care about the poor, at least as far as his discourses were concerned. If you believe Bart Jones’ telling of it in his biography ¡Hugo! (which seemed apologetic when it was published in 2007and like a naïve hagiography by 2010 and beyond), Chávez was deeply affected by both his family’s poverty during his youth and the dramatic effects on the poor from the IMF emergency package that led to the Caracazo in 1989. At first, this certainly seemed to be true in his governing. The misiones programs at first seemed a novel way to improve public health, increase literacy and give people the tools they needed to help develop a productive population.

Over time, however, his policies, while many were nominally directed at the poor, tended to do little to improve their lot and much to make it worse. All this while enriching a clique of core supporters at the top of the chain through an array of rent seeking initiatives (Cadivi being a prime example). While much ballyhooed, the misiones programs were, at best, terribly mismanaged, opaque and inefficient. At worst they were mismanaged, opaque, inefficient giveaways that did nothing more than fuel a pre-election consumer boom at tremendous cost (despite the aforementioned trillion dollars in oil revenues over the last decade, Venezuela’s debt burden has still managed to grow dramatically). Moreover, violent crime in Venezuela is among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, well ahead of Mexico and Colombia, despite the much reported drug violence that plagues both countries. These crimes disproportionately affect poorer Venezuelans and the state has done little of substance to deal with the issue.

Homides 2011

My personal belief (or perhaps hope) is that he really was an idealist at the beginning and that he really was driven by a desire to make Venezuela a more equitable place but that the trappings of power and his own narcissistic and megalomaniacal tendencies eventually won out. This explains why the misiones began as programs with similar goals to successful antipoverty programs such as Oportunidades in Mexico or Bolsa Família in Brazil (conditional cash transfer programs that aim to ensure children receive necessary shots and attend school) but devolved into cheap loans on consumer products. Reducing poverty shifted from the goal to a means to an end and in the process became a superficial, but costly process that empowered Chávez and his cronies but will, in the long run, leave Venezuelans poorer.

Lo que él dejó

Hugo Chávez died yesterday afternoon at 4:25pm local time after a two-year battle with a still undisclosed cancer. I find myself desiring to write even though I have no real connection to what happened. I am not Venezuelan, and while I have a number of friends who are, nothing that he did ever affected my life in any direct way. I find that Chávez’s death makes me feel far more melancholy than I ever would have imagined. I guess this is because I am a humanist, and I can’t rejoice in another’s death, even someone who I believe has caused millions of people to live worse off (or, considering Venezuela’s astronomical homicide rates, not at all). More than that though, I think it is because I don’t really believe this will make Venezuela better off in the near term and maybe not for years to come. Chávez dying does not change the fact that, unless the opposition is able to overcome the odds and win the presidency in the upcoming election, Venezuela’s democratic future looks bleak as the less charismatic Maduro/Cabello duo will almost certainly have to substitute repression where Chávez got by with charisma. It also doesn’t change the fact that Venezuela’s economy is moribund and may be a few dollar drop in oil prices away from a major crisis; a crisis which depending who is in power could delegitimize the opposition for years or unleash a wave of repression or worse. The simple truth is that Hugo Chávez left his country to bear the consequences of his rule for years to come. He leaves an economy on the brink, violent crime as bad as any country in the hemisphere and a system of governance that is incapable of functioning independently and likely lacks the capacity to cope with the problems that await. Certainly, all of this would still be true if he were on his way to a full recovery, but by dying, the one person most responsible for the current state of affairs is one who will never have to live through the aftermath.