Violence, Not Power: Maduro’s Ailing Regime

EspañolVenezuela’s democracy is in crisis: perhaps the deepest in its history. All areas of life have been affected by total political and economic failure. But those who believe the Venezuelan government wields absolute power are mistaken. Mounting repression and violence instead show that the regime of Nicolás Maduro is getting weaker.

Maduro's institutionalization of violence proves that power no longer resides with the Chavistas.
Maduro’s institutionalization of violence proves that power no longer resides with the Chavistas. (Wikimedia)

There’s no need for exhaustive research to find out who is to blame. Everyone who isn’t a supporter of Chavismo knows that the fault rests with the government. Many claim the Maduro administration betrayed Chávez’s legacy; the truth is that the late president’s diktats have never been more faithfully enforced.

Maduro was just unlucky enough that the destructive policies instituted by the czar of the Chavista economy Jorge Giordani — who now shamelessly condemns them — were finally exposed during his term in office by plummeting oil prices and rampant inflation.

Chavismo is facing its darkest hour since 2002. Sustaining a tanking populist economy is no easy task when one runs out of money, and Maduro has the misfortune of facing the years of scarcity that have followed Chávez’s years of plenty.

This produced a substantial loss of popularity: a meager 22 percent according to Datanálisis, but I dare say it’s actually much lower.

So if Venezuela’s unpopular regime is facing the worst crisis in decades, and only aggravating it through its stubborn commitment to a failed model, what’s keeping it afloat?

To say that Maduro has power because he leads an all-controlling regime, where the government branches are all subservient to the executive’s megalomania is true to an extent. However, it doesn’t follow that the regime in itself is powerful. On the contrary, it’s weak, moribund, and fragile: in short, anything but strong.

Violence and Power Repel Each Other

The National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) has declared itself Chavista; it’s willing to defend Hugo Chávez’s legacy no matter what, even if it means killing adolescents. We witnessed their brutality during last year’s student protests. Repression, intimidation, and corruption are normal tactics within the Venezuelan military: unrestrained violence is state policy.

Nevertheless, despite what many believe, the regime is weak. Understanding Hanna Arendt’s philosophy is crucial to see why. In her memorable book On Violence she explains that power and violence are not only different but mutually exclusive.

Arendt goes over the different definitions of power through history before giving her own, which probably best captures its essence: “Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert” which “never belongs to an individual but rather to a group.” What really matters is the strength of public opinion: “It is the support of the people that lends power to the institutions of a country.”

On the other hand, Arendt notes that force and violence are often “effective methods of social control and persuasion,” even if violence is the last resort to stay in power. Violence can be justified but it lacks legitimacy, unlike power, whose legitimacy is necessary and indispensable.

Violence can never create power. On the contrary, it destroys power by degrading it: “Violence appears where power is in jeopardy.” To rule through violence alone will only end up destroying the ruler’s power, making him weak. She concludes that “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent … Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.”

Maduro has resorted to violence in order to maintain the illusion of power, however, that violence has destroyed the regime’s legitimacy; it has torn the government apart. The violence we witnessed on the streets of Venezuela in recent months demonstrate the regime’s weakness. Power now rests in civil society as it takes to the streets in protest.

The only thing keeping the Chavista regime afloat is sheer violence. In a struggle between power and violence, one might think that the latter will always emerge victorious. In fact, power will always defeat violence, and the price of trying to make violence pass for power will be felt by the violent as well.

However, power is not immediate. In fact, it means nothing if it’s not exercised. When the majority refuses to employ legitimately acquired power to defeat the violent minority, tyranny ensues. The passive majority end up becoming foolish allies to a violent elite.

Today, we are the ones holding power: we just don’t know it yet. Taking up the task of exercising that power is all it takes; mustering the willpower to rise and speak up, because we, the people, already have legitimacy.

To paraphrase Montesquieu, tyranny is the most violent, but least powerful, form of government.

Translated by Daniel Duarte.

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