The throwback

(A gift under the tree for our readers: this is an exclusive guest post by Alejandro Tarre, a talented, Caracas-based writer and blogger. Do check out his blog, if you haven’t already. Thanks Alejandro!)

It’s hard to look at Latinobarómetro’s yearly regional polls without noticing the Venezuelan paradox. In the latest poll Venezuelans once again ranked very high in their support for democracy. With 84 percent of the country saying they prefer democracy over any other political system, Venezuela exhibits levels of support for democracy that dwarf the likes of Uruguay and Costa Rica, which have historically led the region in this indicator.

Uruguay and Costa Rica are established democracies; their history partly explains their high level of support for democracy.

But Venezuela’s case is counterintuitive. In a country that values democracy so highly, how can authoritarian leader Hugo Chávez still have an approval rating hovering between 40 and 50 percent?

In “El asedio inútil“, a book of interviews with Germán Carrera Damas, Venezuela’s leading historian (pictured) sheds some light on this complex question:

“It takes a long time to eradicate the atavism of authoritarianism and subordination. In just 60 years a society cannot abandon a relationship to power that has lasted for many centuries. Many Venezuelans still relate to power, even if it is democratic power, as subjects (relate to a Monarch).”

Some Venezuelans might say they prefer democracy over any other political system. They might look at their participation in elections and access to a critical press as evidence of their democratic convictions and rights.

But this says little about the way they relate to power. Elections and vocal support for democracy can coexist with the underlying “atavism of authoritarianism” Carrera Damas refers to.

How can we define this atavism? Thinking it’s normal to have a leader with few real limits to his power, once he is elected to office; seeing power not as something that has to be exercised with moderation and responsibility, always within the bounds of the rule of law, but rather as something one uses “para de verdad mandar,” the way kings, generals, or hacendados do; accepting the authority of the president as a child accepts the authority of his father, without questioning it, assuming the role of subject as one’s natural station in life.

This behavior, says Carrera Damas, is handed down seamlessly from generation to generation:

“An important sector of Venezuelan society still relates to power as subjects. This is what we see when respectable persons who protest because they haven’t been paid say things like: “The president should know.” Who is the president? The monarch. How can we describe this attitude? As that of a subject begging to the monarch. Is he demanding his rights as a citizen? No. If he was demanding his rights, he would not appeal directly to the president. At bottom, they have not been able to dissociate the government, the state, and the president.”

As Juan has noted on this blog, Chávez’s Twitter account is another example of this behavior. Every day Venezuelans appeal directly to the president/monarch for a job or a health treatment or even trash collection.

I recently came across a tweet that said: “@chavezcandanga my request for help on my car is sincere please help me fredy garcia.”

Perhaps most illustrative is the way many Chávez supporters applaud the president when he publicly announces an illegal expropriation or gives a direct order to the Supreme Court. That reaction (“¡así, así, así es que se gobierna!”) reveals an implicit approval of Chávez’s authoritarian style and a disregard of the rule of law and separation of powers as basic tenets of democracy.

These cheering chavistas might not approve an expropriation of their own property. They probably would feel abused if that were to happen. But one should not confuse disappointment in a particular action ordered by Chávez with the general opinion of his style of leadership.

Unfortunately, Latinobarómetro polls don’t capture these nuances.

37 thoughts on “The throwback

  1. “In a country that values democracy so highly, how can authoritarian leader Hugo Chávez still have an approval rating hovering between 40 and 50 percent?”

    Because Chavez’s behavior appeals to the worst aspects of the average Venezuelan. They feel empathy for him. They identify with him. They can put their trust in him.

    In the end, this transform the role of government into a religious cult, where unconditional support is somehow rewarded and any dissent is punished.


  2. I don’t find the issue puzzling. I find it rather frustrating.

    The key idea is DENIAL.

    It is the same as with wealth: most Venezuelans, whether they are pro-military regime or against it, believe the country is a very rich country, it is just not properly managed. They have thought it already when Humboldt visited Venezuela in 1799-1800. They probably believe it since the XVI century El Dorado. Congo is the same.
    I’m doing a little poll for Venezuelans and non-Venezuelans and the results are as expected.

    Take what Oppenheimer wrote about education:

    And those numbers are nothing. Venezuelans are happier with their education system than many others in Latin America, even though Venezuela’s average pupil is the worst of the worst in Latin America – according to the latest tests allowed by the government, in 1998-.

    Venezuelans are a bit like this:


    • Word. We believe our own hype. And we’re paying the price because of this.

      Great song there, Kepler. Freddy Mercury was one of a kind.

      Merry Christmas. Fröhliche Weihnachten. Feliz Navidad.


    • Kepler,

      You cannot compare 1800 “venezuelans” with Venezuelans today. In any single aspect of their life and believes, it is a completly different society, as well as you can’t establish a continuity in no societies in the world for the last two centuries.

      Even our low performance education system, and its results, are very much closer to German or Corean education system today than it was 50 years ago. This convergence is worldwide and very strong tendency, regardeless of political short-term effects.

      If you stop to consider average Venezuelans as hopeless idiots, you can start to make the assumption that the results of Latinobarometro poll reflects somewhere the reality.

      The key point is that this survey shows, during several years, some results:

      1- Good evaluation of Venezuelan democracy
      2- Very bad evaluation of Cuba as democracy
      3- Evaluation of Western countries (USA, Spain, for instance) as good democracies
      4- …but in a similar level to Venezuela.
      5- Bad evaluation for Venezuela democracy for the late 90’s

      As for any “measurement system”, points 1 & 3 set the bounderies conditions, and for these questions, this “instrument” has the expected behaviour for classical definition of democracy. It is not a prove, but there is, in the survey, some more consistency signs.

      Even if the “average venezuelan” is an idiotic uneducated person, very conformist and with very low expectancies, you have to explain why democracy’s perception changed so much in 10 years.


    • I am huge fan of Freddy Mercury too, and I had never heard him do that song before. Thanks for the link. I know that he was destined to be a shooting star, but I sometimes wonder at what he might have become as a mature artist. What a loss.


    • Cause,

      You are confusing intelligence with knowledge.
      I don’t consider average Venezuelans idiots. They are not a tiny bit less intelligent than average Swedes or Canadians. They are ignorant AND in self-denial (which are not completely the same as we could see in Germany some decades ago).
      My grandmother was not idiot one bit. She was illiterate. I was presenting several parameters, even if they reinforce each other. One of them was education (in a very broad sense). In that Venezuela managed to progress a lot since the forties…no doubt about it. Still, it is at the bottom of South America, that is just reality and it can be measured to a big extent.
      The reasons go a long way back in time. We got universities several CENTURIES after Mexico or Peru, for instance (and universities are just a detail).

      When I talked concretely about 200 years ago, I talked above all about wealth perception. It is the same now. There is absolutely no wealth but on what people can realize with their ideas and their hands, specially when combined.


    • Actually, one thing with education (and again: I don’t mean degrees, pieces of paper, but functional education) is that it went the same way as a lot of our resources: it was not kept on a sustainable way.
      What started as a huge great wonderful effort specially after Gómez kicked the bucket became less and less and less efficient, while moneys went to politics in schools and universities started to get a bigger proportion of the cake than elsewhere. And at the moment public schools started to go to pot, parents started to send their children to private schools if they could afford that. And all the people who made it to the big cities forgot the demographic explosion that did not get the same education. And then oil prices went down and Hugo came in and oil prices came up and here we are.

      One of the solutions is transparency. If I thought the situation were pointless, I would not be bugging Venezuelans with and a couple of other things.


    • Kepler,

      200 years ago, wealth perception was probably founded (for this time standards): good weather, autosustaintable agriculture, low population, no wars. That economy was not extractive (no gold, no silver).

      In comparison with almost all european countries (remember pre-revolution famines in France, almost all-time wars, severe winters) this country was probably rich. Probably lives conditions were better for Venezuelan’s slaves than for average European peasan. There is not possible comparison with XX century Venezuela, with the non-endogen oil economy and the unfounded wealth perception.

      But in that way, you have to see the whole picture of educational evolution (I agree with you, intelligence is not the point here). Venezuelan educational progress are very high, in a 100 years scale of time, coming from nothing to something (even if the level is low), and that evolution fit, roughly, the evolution of other latin american countries (excepting perhaps Argentina or Uruguay).

      So population’s educational level does not explain differences of democracy perception in Venezuela, and in Colombia, Brasil or Peru.

      In a rational way, you have to assume that polls in Venezuela are as good (or as bad), as “Democracy measurement instrument” than these polls in Colombia, Brasil or Mexico.

      For me, the key point is, considering that this “instruments” is as good as the others, why Venezulans have so high consideration about their democracy, in comparison with other countries.


    • Well, wealth is incredibly hard to compare, I have to admit.

      I agree the difference was not as huge, but I would not say life was better for a slave, definitely not (unless you compare him with a serf in Russia or Romania). Life for native Americans in, say, Margarita and Paria, when Spaniards arrived, probably merited Columbus to talk about the Land of Grace (plus his PR, of course) and even life for many indians with the “right” missionary.

      Life for a penniless settler with comparative advantage through knowledge (planning, cultivation techniques) was probably way higher than that of a peasant in Europe.

      And yet as a nation Venezuela was already becoming very dependent.
      Admittedly, it would have collapsed had it been isolated for some incredible reason.

      Humboldt wrote about Guacara as a prosperous Indian town. On the other side, his descriptions of how slaves and others were living would not lead one to believe they were very prosperous.

      Curiously, Humboldt wrote full of hope but with fears about the revolutions that took place after he had returned to Europe. He even mentioned the dangers looming from the many prisoners who had escaped justice (and injustice?) to do their life in the Llanos and who for so long terrorrized the region (he said it was not safe to travel in the Llanos, as opposed to other areas), he predicted they could become a threat for the governments of the Gran Colombia.

      Interesting reading about wealth in Venezuela by good, old Alexander:


    • Venezuelans are happier with their education system than many others in Latin America, even though Venezuela’s average pupil is the worst of the worst in Latin America – according to the latest tests allowed by the government, in 1998-.

      De repente es por eso que los estudiantes están más felices, pueden raspar cuantas veces quieran un mismo examen, porque por ley, el profesor tiene que repetirselo… (ya sé, ya sé, bajos ciertos estatutos)


  3. A few years back, I wrote a guest post where I posited that Venezuelans have a subconscious desire to be dominated by, and submit to, the alpha of the pack. I recall to have gotten some serious disagreement. But the events of the past year have done nothing to change my mind on the issue.

    We, as a gentilicio, worship power, and if unable to secure it for ourselves, we’re all too ready to roll over and expose our belly to the leader of the pack, even when there is no apparent benefit in doing so. Chavez, consciously or not, has known this far longer than the average Venezuelan, and will use our own instincts to keep subjugating us for as long as we allow him to.


    • I have a similar theory, that most Venezuelans have the “beaten up, cheated wife that stands beside her man no matter what”

      It goes more or less like this:

      – Man: punches wife
      – Wife: gets bruised
      – Cocerned neighbour: calls police because in the apartment above his, it sounds like if myke tyson was beating up my grandma
      – Police: shows up to the apartment
      – Wife: opens the door
      – Police: any problem? (noticing the bruised eye on the woman)
      – Wife: no… not at all
      – Police: I was told that someone was being hit

      Until we dont get past above that, we will remain the same…


  4. You ogliarchs are dodging the question did fredy garcia’s car problem get fixed? If not why not. What kind of car is it? Build by slave labor in some capitalist creep-hole or a Lada-of-Love? I gotta know, it’s Christmas.


  5. I think the Latinobarometro problem is with definitions. In Venezuela, people who oppose Chavez say “I oppose Chavez! I want democracy!” while people who support him say “I like Chavez! I’m so glad we’ve restored democracy!” so you have everyone supporting “democracy” as a word, even though there is little common ground as to its definition.


    • Setty’s explanation here is the correct one. In fact, it’s the explanation that the head of Latinobarometro gave several years ago when trying to explain the issue. Essentially, both the pro- and anti-Chavez sides in Venezuela see themselves as the correct representation of “democracy” against the other side’s “authoritarianism.”


    • Setty,

      That could explain the support to the abstract idea of democracy (p. 26 & 28).

      That not explains why Venezuelans have so high estimation about their democracy (p. 116). Venezuelans estimates theire democracy level (7.1) lower than Canada’s democracy (7,3) but higher than Spain (7) or USA (6,9). Cuba is evaluated very low (3,1).

      Please read the complet report:


  6. Siempre he pensado que tengo dos madres, la que me dio a luz, y al señora que me cuido en la casa desde que nací y aún sigue con nosotros. Mi working mom es antichavista 100%, mi stay at home mom es chavista 100%, obvio que no se llevan para nada bien. Algo que he notado en mi Stay at Home Mom, es su amor infinito por Chavez, el señor es su marido, no puede hacer nada mal, es todopoderoso, es en definitiva el macho vernáculo que todas las mujeres deberían querer (notese que ella es extremadamente machista). A veces pienso que le va a dar un soponcio/orgasmo cuando Chavez grita expropiese por la tele. El otro día, cuando la asamblea nacional estaba por entregarle la ley habilitante a Mr. Chavez, yo le comentaba a mi esposo sobre el tema (bastante indignada cabe resaltar), ella salio corriendo del cuarto en euforia diciendome que a Chavez le habían dado la habilitante, su sonrisa era de oreja a oreja. Para mi Stay at Home Mom, es en verdad una lucha de clases, donde el enemigo es gente como mi Working Mom, donde quien se le opone a Chavez es malo. Cada vez que Chavez abusa, ella lo celebra. ¿Quien sabe que hará cuando las campanas doblen por mí y por sus nietos, ¿Chavez seguirá siendo un heroe?. Ella para mi es el vivo ejemplo de porque Chavez sigue gobernando en el país.


  7. As Tarre explains very well in his essay, the paradox lies in the definition of the word “democracy”. The concept that the Chavista carries around in his head and that he/she associates with this word “democracy” is fundamentally different than the one that I carry around in my head. Serious communication about any subject can only begin once we have confirmed that we are speaking the same language. In this case, the Chavistas are indeed speaking a foreign language. We fail to recognize it, because the words are familiar to us, but in the end, true communication eludes us.


    • yeap. What I would like to know is what Chavista honchos, think about pluralism. I would love Escarrá to be interviewed live, with cameras on him and no possibility of disappearing, and see how he answers to this question:
      “what do you think about pluralism?”


  8. Please people! Chavez is about revolution… not democracy!

    A revolution is about making a change, and if your rights, or for that matter, if the law get’s in the way, it tough luck.

    The main paradox here, unfortunately, is that the revolution and the revolutionaries are incompetent. So all the damage they are making in their rush for change is useless! It’s pathetic!!!!


  9. What else is pathetic is that Chavez was part of a failed cough attempt in 1992! That should been enough to know that he had no respect for democracy. And yet, he was allowed to run for the presidency! That was not very smart. I know people who voted him simply because he promised to create a universal pension for retirees. And then, the election boycott clinched his absolute power.

    Another paradox? Cuba is encouraging “limited” entrepreneurial enterprise in Cuba while Chavez is abolishing it. Explain that to me!


  10. “Who is the president? The monarch. How can we describe this attitude? As that of a subject begging to the monarch. Is he demanding his rights as a citizen? No. If he was demanding his rights, he would not appeal directly to the president.”

    That I figured as a tiny kid, when I saw Venezuelans not unlike those I see now, on TV, saying something like “Luis Herrera arregla esto!”, appealing then and since to the Prez to fix-it. I wondered why would they bother the President for things they could actually do themselves, or why did they not bother somebody lower down…

    Then, I suppose the interior of our ex-Republic has not changed that much from the times of Carlos Andres’s first period. If election results, and some relatives I have are an indication, they went from “sella las dos blancas” (vote a straight Accion Democratica ticket) to “las llaves de Chavez” or some equivalent.

    None of the above could work with citizens. Only with serfs. Sorry, Venezuela.

    Maybe Venezuelans are for democracy, democratic authoritarianism and being serfs. What they are not for is having a republic, freedom, responsibility and being citizens.

    It’s not a matter of education. Rather it’s a matter of attitude towards life, and towards the individual’s and society’s tasks and rights.

    There are plenty U.S. knuckleheads and oddballs. But they commit their own mistakes independently and proudly; and insist on being responsible for their own lives and properties. Maybe some Europeans cannot are math and economics-challenged in some matters regarding the State. But they are quite vocal about the system they want and they want a system too; and know that however you redistribute wealth, you have to create it first.


    • How do you think you get that attitude? Do you think it is in the genes?
      Have you actually spent plenty of time in those areas listening to those guys and trying to understand what brought their state of thinking?

      Again I say it: Venezuela is a Middle Age country in many respects. Even if we are basically from the same pot, some are acting as Conquistadores or New Settlers bringing enlightment even if they bring little and the others are acting as the eternal victims while being in part also rapists.

      How come we got that? You said it is not education. What’s it?
      And where did you go to school? And what kind of background your parents had? (I do think that is relevant)

      Last but not least: how much time have people like the leaders (I mean not the top-top leader, but the top 10 guys) from UNT and PJ spent talking to people in the areas where 70% of the population of the republic lives?


    • Like I said, there are plenty U.S. Americans and Europeans with attitudes you (or I, or someone else) would find uneducated, or unsophisticated. And the further you go into past history, the greater proportion of them will be, like, actually uneducated. BUT. Their behavior regarding power, left or right, was not and is not that of serfs. Whether it’s Europeans unionizing or U.S. Americans resisting government.

      Take the most outrageous examples: U.S. Americans who want to educate their own children, even if that means teaching them ONLY science, or no science, or “creation science”. Europeans who do not want retirement ages to rise a day, or do not want to tax and regulate less-than-the-living-lights-outs of businesses, especially regarding hiring and labor. However wrong they might be in your or my eyes, they are not submissive. They believe they have rights for real, and missions/tasks to do in the world that have nothing to do with submitting blindly or goodness help us, begging.

      Call it “practical education”, then. A combination of government organization, economics and how society is made up, that brought up those attitudes with time.

      I speak from my own paltry experience living in Venezuela, being Venezuelan with Venezuelan, European and U.S. relatives and friends. A lot of it, and them from outside Eastern Caracas. A lot of them not agreeing with what I think. A lot of them being far left and far right in their politics. Both parents Venezuelans; one of my parents was born in Europe, the other Venezuelan by birth, both of working-class background, educated, somewhat well-off. Went to a private, priest-run school with no elitist pretense. Have never been rich. Did get further education on scholarships, some to study abroad.

      Sure I am opinionated and biased when I say that oil, which could become a vehicle for technical development, sank us deeper than we imagined into caudillismo. I do not think any amount of talk will help. Experience, bad and good, and leadership by example, are much better than talk. I want to see a Venezuelan President downsize their powers and telling the people to go complain to the local mayor or governor, if need be, special credit will be provided. Or a Constituyente refusing to mess with a whole area of Venezuelan activity except to forbid future legislation. A government buying land at market prices and not interfering with economic activity. Little things that will never be, to dream about. Until experience teaches Venezuelans a very harsh lesson.


  11. Oh, and did I forget Carlos Andres’s second electoral campaign? That was driven by pure populism, and a feeling that the guy who waved his hands and walked a lot would bring past prosperity (his first period) back. He did “crown” himself, was full of messianic charisma and claimed to be a third-world leader. No, Hugo was by no means original in the former, or in traveling a lot, or in trying on Bolivar’s supposedly messianic set of shoes.

    Too bad that CAP reneged on his populist persona too soon and chose to heed reality, too soon after promising Venezuelans the moon. Thus the Caracazo riots and a couple of coups. The monarch-to-be could have informed the electorate of the real situation and his real intentions. Oops, I had forgotten that the candidate that tried to do that lost the very same election against CAP. Seems Venezuelans have a problem handling the truth about our situation.


    • Sure, there were people calling for riots, breaking stuff, and sacking and whatnot. Sure, politically oriented and extreme left. Maybe they did show how.

      But they found quite willing ears… to sack el abasto de Joao, burn la buseta de Gerson and go away with most of the linea blanca del chino without much qualms.

      The same ears attached to hands and eyes that voted CAP in a frenzy of democratic joy.


    • We all have a problem with handling reality, or almost all. Few candidates won elections by means of a campaig based on “realistic” assessments of reality; few presidents won reelection if they mentioned their countries’ “malaisse”, as per Jimmy Carter. Madison Avenues is as powerful as Wall Street. It takes a war, or a national calamity, widespread desperation or hunger for people to lower their expectations to the level of reality, and run into the arms of an ugly, old and fat padre. Because life without dreaming is not worth it. Dreams live on after we are dead, they live even as we die and many confessors hear them , see them, in the last words of a dying person, the words of dreams that won’t die. The girl who rejected him, the son she did not have, the airplane he won’t fly again.


  12. “It takes a long time to eradicate the atavism of authoritarianism and subordination. In just 60 years a society cannot abandon a relationship to power that has lasted for many centuries.”

    Evidently, people in Singapore, Malaysia, etc., didn’t get Carrera Damas’ memo.


    • Alek, I’m not at all sure that Singapore and Malaysia have yet “eradicated the atavism of authoritharianism and subordination.” I don’t know much about Malaysia. On ther other hand, although Singapore is prosperous, I think it’s too early to say that it got rid of its strain of paternalistic authoritarianism.

      Perhaps a better example is Spain. Despite decades of Franco, it’s hard to imagine Spain going back to authoritarianism (not impossible, but hard.)


    • It might take a VERY short time as when the Germans woke up from their Nazi venture and saw the disaster befallen on their nation and the world, not just in the physical realm but in the psyche of the post Holocaust. The widows rose up at dawn to carry heavy wheelbarrows full of rubble, while chancellor Adenauer compelled them to also cleanse the German soul from messiah- dictators, and the USA wisely gave them Marshall funds. A miracle? A dream? Or rather the somber lucidity of chancellor Adenauer, the man who lost a wife in a concentration camp, the man who stood up to the Nazis, the man who knew that when the Middle Class is gone in comes the Totalitarian terror, the man who made Germany seek reconciliation with its arch-enemy France. A good leader can jump the hurdles of the past, be them authoritarianism et al.


  13. Well Kolya, take your pick, indeed from any of the Asian tigers as it were, to India, to South Africa, and how about Chile? The list is long…

    As a nation, we are where we are simply because the collective output of individuals is not good enough. It has got nothing to do with ‘atavism of authoritarianism and subordination’ y otras pendejadas por el estilo. Rather, IMO it has to do with the fact that as a people, we have failed miserably at nation building, at creating an identity.


    • Venezuelan identity is part Bravo Pueblo volatility, part pataenelsuelo llanero or andino or negro caribeño or guayanés, part deliriously Bolivarian. It is less defined by its clear contours than by its teluric vitality.


  14. Why do Chavistas support Chavez when he is clearly an anti-democrat?

    It is their concept of democracy. The long-excluded groups in Venezuela see democracy as their power to put their man (Chavez) in office to redistribute wealth from “oligarchs” to “the people”.

    Since it was done by voting, i.e. democratic forms, that’s all the democracy they want.

    The idea of democratic government as an on-going process, limited by Constitutional forms, division of powers, and the rule of law, is irrelevant to them.

    They voted, their man won, they now get goodies from the state, which previously went to others (or so they see it). Democracy is great!


  15. @causetoujours: merci, your approach is original, your perspective deeply historical widely international, and I like your exchange with Kepler, allez!


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