EspañolDeeply divided societies are increasingly prone to civil war in the post-Cold War era. The cases are legion, from Rwanda to Bosnia, with Ukraine most recently descending into such a quagmire. Samuel P. Huntington referred to such countries in his classic Clash of Civilizations as “torn countries,” beset with irreconcilable differences, and likely at some point to implode.
Ethnic divides are the widest, of course, although ideological divides, especially those tinged with economic inequality, are often as bad. Venezuela, a country long-known for its civility and its admiration for capitalism, the United States, and the West, has seldom been identified as a “torn country.” However, it is now caught up in such a crisis, a vicious combination of long-term economic malaise and a newly implanted ideological framework. Unfortunately, Chavismo has sought to create a political following among the poorest sectors of society by accentuating the economic divide and casting blame, without meaningfully addressing the economy.
As frustration and dissent rise and the death and detainment counts mount, is there a way out for Venezuela? Is civil war inevitable? Has Venezuela become yet another “torn country”? The answer is wrapped up in the legacy of deceased President Hugo Chávez.
Political scientists often note that desperately poor people do not tend to engage in political violence, revolutions, or civil wars. Rather, groups that have been raised, even marginally, above the floor, especially those who have tasted a modicum of economic improvement in the recent past, and are then deprived of it, are the most volatile. Relative deprivation, it is called, and it can have disastrous effects during times of declining economies.
The healthy alternative is national development, which typically involves promotion of a rising economic “tide,” and all boats are affected. National resources go to infrastructure and on universally beneficial projects. Whatever losers there may be are not the victims of ideological targeting.
In the case of Chavismo’s supporters — now apparently the supporters of his “Bolivarian Revolutionary” successor, Nicolás Maduro — many represent the very poorest Venezuelans. They were selected recipients under Chávez and were apparently bought off as a support base for the “Bolivarian Revolution.”
However, as economic conditions deteriorate even further, and the regime abandons the poor’s economic well-being — be it on account of negligence or economic illiteracy — the consequences could be disastrous. A return to an extreme sense of relative deprivation and absolute poverty, complete with scapegoats, could be a recipe for widespread, escalated violence.
Depending on how Venezuelans channel their defiance, then, this could be the likely scenario for civil war.
The “Bolivarian Revolution,” though, goes well beyond Venezuela’s poor and Chavista cronies. By linking Venezuela to populist regimes in Bolivia, Ecuador, and especially to an interventionist regime in Cuba, Chávez introduced the possibility of quelling a domestic revolt in Venezuela with foreign intervention, and thereby transforming it into an even bloodier civil war.
The Cubans, in particular, have a lengthy record of participation in foreign wars and civil revolts. For example, in Grenada in 1983, Cuba sent 700 soldiers in support of the bloody coup that killed Maurice Bishop and brought another, even more hard-line Marxist, Bernard Coard, to power. They then fought against the US troops sent to stop the coup. Cubans fought in support of the MPLA government in the civil war in Angola, and on the side of Ethiopia in the Ogaden War with Somalia. Che Guevara also trained soldiers in the Congo, and attempted (very ineffectually, and disastrously for him) to foment revolution in the Bolivian countryside. Few observers can doubt the possibility of further Cuban troops being sent in support of the Bolivarians in Venezuela, and the likely result of such action.
Facing a vicious regime and its daunting defenders is no easy task. Further, as many commentators have affirmed, any attempt at a civil war would end in bloodshed and a crushed opposition, since they lack the arms to compete. By resorting to violence, they would also relinquish the moral high ground.
There is, however, another approach. That is to build a consensus, a united opposition so broad that it permeates the military, the police, and the poor suffering badly from poverty and crime in the slums of Venezuela. At that point, efforts to quell a peaceful opposition engaged in civil disobedience would be futile. As Enrique Standish has written, “Hugo Chávez knew and Maduro now knows that if the slums of Caracas take to the streets, the regime will fall.”
The desperately poor of Venezuela, those most in need of an embrace, may have been granted favors — a portion of the confiscated loot — with a brief and slight reprieve under the Bolivarian Revolution. But that has come at an immense cost, and they have been politicized and mobilized on behalf of a divisive cause.
On the other hand, Venezuelan middle classes, such as still exist, are deeply aggrieved and yet still scapegoated by the regime. In their perception, irreplaceable resources, petrodollars, have been squandered on political projects, political base-building, and social division. Further, punitive policies have driven out foreign investment, the only other realistic source of development resources.
These perceptions speak loudly, and the regime’s rhetoric continues to pit the desperately poor against middle-class Venezuelans. As the domestic economic situation deteriorates further, however, as it surely will, the poor will not stand idly by in an apathetic existence. They will experience, as have the Venezuelan middle classes, a powerful and politicizing dose of relative deprivation.
This army of the hungry has received a tiny taste of development from a rapidly decreasing resource base. The trick now is somehow to bring them into the fold by conveying the many opportunities that will come with a roll back of authoritarian protectionism and interventionism, while renewing resource commitments to infrastructure and national development.
It is either that, or stand back and witness a bloody civil war in what is increasingly one of the most violent countries in Latin America.
Daniel Zirker, who contributed to this article, is a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. He completed his PhD at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and he specializes in democratization, economic development, and civil-military relations.