Thursday, December 14, 2017

Is Venezuela a Model for Cuba?

One mantra for years with Venezuela is that the Cubans control everything and so the country was moving in a Castro-esque direction. Reality, however, has shown the seemingly hapless Chavistas to be far more subtle and flexible than Fidel's model. Instead, what we may actually eventually see is Cuba learning from Venezuela.

Fidel learned from Guatemala and Chile that co-existence with the empire was impossible, that socialism couldn't be achieved through electoral democracy. But of course that was the Cold War. Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro never lived that experience in Venezuela. Instead, they had lived elections in Venezuela.

In Cuba, elections are funny things that I would joke about in class: Fidel figured that if you only claimed 98% or so of the vote, then that 2% was your veneer of democracy. You think we're so evil but we let 2% oppose us! There was no way the Castros were going to allow a real opposition to wander the country, talk freely, and the like.

Once Hugo Chávez died, oil prices dropped, and the weight of mismanagement and corruption all combined to destroy the economy and undermine confidence in the government, Maduro needed a new strategy for staying in power, but he couldn't use the Cuban model. In this era of (relative) democracy in the region, he needed a bigger fig leaf that Castroism could provide. So they kept having elections, but just carefully controlled who could participate. If the opposition elects a majority in the legislature, just ignore it and cite laws to do so. Then create your own "popular" body to replace it. Maybe you even learned a little gerrymandering from the United States. Now a large chunk of the opposition can no longer even participate in the 2018 presidential election because of their perfectly democratic decision not to participate in Sunday's local elections. Perfect!

All the while, you dialogue. You talk a lot about dialogue, and peace, and the wonders of working together for a unified, prosperous Venezuela. Foreigners hoping for some diplomatic glory sponsor and mediate this dialogue. It can drag on forever. This is a tremendous fig leaf that covers your enormous cojones.

The icing on the cake is the Trump administration, which does squeeze you economically on the one hand but gives you lots of political cover on the other. At least for now, Russia will help you cover the economic part and keep a sufficient number of people paid to keep moving forward. China is a little dicier but is still in the picture. But it's nice to have someone to rail against again because Obama knew much more what he was doing and he was hard to vilify. And now Trump apparently deems Venezuela an equal priority as North Korea and Iran. On this, at least, you can learn from Fidel, who played the U.S. like a fiddle.

Back to my original point, as Raúl Castro fades out, younger Cuban leaders will have to sort out how to move ahead. Over time, it wouldn't surprise me to see some sort of faux democracy that is primarily authoritarian. Venezuela, even more so than Russia, which is so much more heavy-handed, is developing a model to follow. You can have some measure of free speech, some kinds of free elections, and a vocal opposition, yet you can control all the levers and leave the world at a loss.

That model is working like a charm. For now at least. Worse models, like Zimbabwe's, lasted a hell of a long time. It's buying Chavistas time, though, and that's the best they can hope for at the moment. Cuba is watching too, and when there's political change there maybe watch for Venezuelans advising them. 


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