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Chávez and The Algorithm of Authoritarianism

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The following is an excerpt from a new article I contributed to the U.K. magazine Prospect.  Since the time of writing, several important events have taken place in Venezuela.  Chávez has used his decree powers to pass new internet regulations, allowing the government of a degree of control and censorship online similar to China or Thailand (which is a disappointment for the Cubans, who are being connected to Venezuela via fiber optic cable), while Human Rights Watch has come out strong to condemn the government’s instrumentalization of the judicial system to persecute its opponents.

Ever the astute populist, Chavez knows his own citizens are becoming increasingly dissatisfied: concerned about spiralling murder rates (at least 14,000 in 2009, four times the death toll for the same year in Iraq), chronic power shortages (a 12 per cent generation deficit that leaves the grid dependent on rolling blackouts), a frozen construction sector (the expropriation of some 200 building companies has exacerbated the housing crisis), and waning levels of oil production (despite high global prices, production was down 3 per cent last year). It is getting harder for him to ignore these realities by simply yelling about Yankee imperialism–which is why he is taking Mugabe-style steps to prepare for yet another presidential term in 2012. After his ruling party lost a large number of seats in September’s election, he started rushing through an aggressive legislative agenda and appointing a series of new, loyal Supreme Court justices and lower judges. As he knows, control over the legal system is key to his hold on power, and the next few months could be critical in this campaign. Before losing his super majority in the National Assembly, for example, he granted himself five months of decree powers. (…)

Chavez has based his political survival on fostering an image of being under siege: the more he is personally attacked, the greater his ability to rally the country behind him and sow divisions in the international community. An integral part of the Venezuelan model (and indeed the Russian one) is what I call the “algorithm of authoritarianism”–where the unbelievable speed at which change is thrust on the institutions of government leaves opponents bewildered, unfocused and incoherent in their response. Based on my experience of these situations, I would argue that Europe’s policy toward Venezuela must be conducted on a specific, case-by-case basis, targeting not the Venezuelan people as a whole but the individuals responsible for distorting the rule of law. Revoke their visas. Freeze their assets. Impose sanctions on their businesses while offering preferential relations in return for specific measures to improve the rule of law.

There is, admittedly, not much time or space to implement a general policy to combat Chavez, but at the very least the EU, including Britain, can abandon its approach of appeasement and tolerance. This year, as the new parliamentarians take their places, politics in Venezuela will become even more unpredictable–with worrying consequences for the region at large. It is Venezuelans who have the most to lose. But there are urgent reasons why the rest of us should care about what Chavez does, too.