The Bully’s gambit.

It has been an open secret in US foreign policy circles that Donald Trump wants to go to war with Venezuela. He has said as much on a number of occasions, not always disguised by the “all options are on the table” rhetoric his advisors urge him to use. In his recent book former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe mentions that Trump asked his national security team “why can’t we go to war with Venezuela,” claiming that it should be easy to do so. He may soon get his wish.

Let’s be clear on why Trump wants to wage war on a southern neighbour. It stems from the fact that he is an ignorant bully who believes in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine (or as much as he is told of it, especially the part about being the Western Hemisphere’s police force) and pines for the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders and gunboat diplomacy. He covets Venezuelan oil even though its decrepit pumping and refining infrastructure, US oil surpluses and relatively low oil prices make his notions of “controlling” it a bit more complicated than his simple mind can grasp. But as a deep-seated xenophobic racist he hates Latinos in any event, and the corruption and incompetence of the olive-skinned Venezuelan leadership led by Nicole Maduro feeds into all of is prejudices about them. Add to that the fact that, even though he himself is a draft-dodging silver-spooned coward who has no real comprehension of the sacrifices and costs of going to war, he revels in it and the bloodlust it incites amongst the MAGA morons who follow him.

What he is not interested in is the plight of the Venezuelan people or the nature of Maduro’s rule. After all, he heaps praise on Kim Jong-un, Mohammed bin-Salman, Rodrigo Dutarte and Vladimir Putin, so respect for human rights, providing for the common good and freely-chosen open government are not high on his list of priorities. Instead, the Venezuelan crisis, which essentially is an economic crisis brought about by government mis-management, corruption and incompetence that evolved into a national humanitarian crisis and now a political crisis–or what Gramsci called an organic crisis of the State–provides Trump with a window of opportunity for him to act out his fantasy of being a war-time president.

The machinery for going to war appears to have been switched on. Since I have been involved in such things in a past life, let me explain how it works.

The move to war starts with the White House via the National Security Council (NSC) asking the Department of Defense (DoD) to draw contingency plans for an armed confrontation with Venezuela. The request is conveyed to the regional units responsible for Latin America, in this case the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for the Interamerican region (OSD-ISA-IA). The request is also sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and its directorates responsible for war-planning in Latin America (especially J2 (Intelligence) and J3 (Operations)), as well as the Undersecretary of Policy and Plans (OSD-US-PP). These agencies often combine resources into a Joint Task Force (JTF) that games out a number of scenarios.

Military intelligence agencies such as the DIA are tasked to gather actionable intelligence on key targets, and the regional military command responsible for Latin America, the Southern Command based in Miami, is assigned the role of drawing up battle plans. The US Special Operations Command in Tampa will also be involved, and between these commands and the JCS the specific mix of airforce, naval and ground forces will be calibrated, then activated (the US favours an air-sea-land approach to conventional warfare, especially if special operators are involved). This will include units with regional focus such as the US Atlantic Fleet and 12th Air Force, as well smaller detachments like Special Boat Units and Air Force special operations wings.

Strategic planners in DoD will narrow down feasible options using multi-level cost/benefit analyses. Interagency working groups will be formed in order to coordinate information flows and policy feedback across affected bureaucracies (for example, the State Department, Homeland Security, Treasury and Customs, since all are involved in the pre-and post conflict response). US military attaches will be ordered to liaise with their Latin American counterparts in order to gauge reaction to any hostile US move (and explore the possibility of cooperation in operations in the case of Brazil and Colombia) and diplomats will be dispatched throughout the region to shore up support for the US and explore the possibility of material assistance from individual countries.

The CIA, NSA and DIA will assign regional and country specialists to the planning and covert assets and signals specialists will increase their reporting on the Venezuelan regime’s internal dynamics and its military’s behaviour, movements and communications. In a case like Venezuela’s where the regime is under siege and the US backs the opposition, the CIA will facilitate backdoor talks between exiles, opposition figures, disgruntled military personnel and US officials so as to ensure that all are playing off of the same page in the lead up to war. If needed, a cover plan–say, the need to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to desperate people as requested by the US friendly opposition–is drawn up in order to pre-position assets and material in preparation for hostilities.

All of this has already been or is being done by the US with regards to Venezuela. Reports have it that numerous flights operated by a CIA-front air charter service from a civilian airbase adjacent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina (home to US Army special forces) have departed for Colombia carrying humanitarian aide. The US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, and the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Interamerican Affairs traveled to the Colombian-Venezuelan borders last weekend to meet the Opposition leader Juan Guaido and oversee the unloading of provisions destined for Caracas (a move that was blocked by Venezuelan National Guardsmen). Cuban authorities have reported that US special forces have deployed to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands in a pre-positioning move (the Cubans have their own reasons to make such claims but their intelligence is very often accurate).

If plans are in an advanced stage, contact with opposition resistance groups in the Venezuelan capital and other population centers will have been made and perhaps weapons supplied. A plan to neutralise the regime leadership and its intelligence networks will be readied. A provocation ploy (say, murder of a US-backed Opposition figure) or excuse for action plan (e.g. threats to US citizens) may be drawn up should it be required as a justification for war.

These things take time, so it is safe to say that if by this point the battle plan is well developed, Trump gave the war order very early in his presidency. DoD and JCS cannot refuse the president’s request even if they oppose it; their duty is to comply with what the Commander-in-Chief has requested. This may not preclude them from approaching Congress about concerns regarding the proposed operation. After all, this is would not be a war of necessity but rather one of opportunity (if not vanity), and the costs involved may not justify what is achieved even in a best-case scenario. But with people like Senator Marco Rubio baying for regime change in Venezuela, the congressional mood to resist the president at this stage is mixed at best, so military concerns about it may not find a receptive audience on the Hill.

In any event, the CIA and US Air Force planes ferrying supplies to Colombia land and take off from the town of Cucuta, located on the Venezuelan border and the site of a violent confrontation last weekend on the transnational bridge linking the two countries. Abrams flew in a USAF aircraft to that town’s airport, which is home to an Army mobile infantry brigade and conventional infantry brigade (largely made up of counter-insurgency companies). This reminds the Venezuelans that Colombia is the US’s closest Latin American military ally, having fought decades together against drug traffickers, the FARC and other guerrilla groups. Colombia is signalling that it will, at a minimum, allow the US to stage and pre-position forces on its territory, even if just on military bases. The Colombians have despised the Bolivarian regime since Chavez’s times, and now their ideological enmity has been practically reinforced because the crisis has seen a mass refugee migration from Venezuela into Colombia at the same time that increased smuggling flows head in the other direction. Social cohesion in border regions has been negatively affected and the public purse is being stretched by the need to provide for the refugees as well as maintain public order and border security. The Colombians have had enough.

Usually the Brazilian military would be reluctant to allow the US to stage and deploy military forces from Brazilian territory. But the election of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, who explicitly modelled himself on Donald Trump during the 2018 campaign, means that things have changed. Bolsonaro is keen to cultivate the White House’s good graces, and offering forward positioning rights along the Venezuelan border is one way of doing so. Brazilian and US commandos will welcome the opportunity to hone their skills together in a real operational environment. Here too ideological enmity dovetails with practical necessity, as Venezuelan refugees have fled into Brazil in increasing numbers over the past few months. It is therefore likely that Brazil has agreed to a US military presence on its border with Venezuela.

As the crisis accentuates and the impasse continues, US military planners will pour over maps and powerpoints, then hammer down the details of the means, methods and tactics to be used, as well as Plan B and C scenarios. Assets will be discretely transferred to staging areas and liaison with host militaries and resistance groups will be established. Strategic targets such as oil derricks and refineries will be given special attention.

Trump has a short term reason to activate the war plan: the 2020 elections. His political rationale in the upcoming election year is to influence the outcome via manipulation of nationalistic sentiment at home. This comes naturally to him given his vulgar political mind, and he sees Venezuela as an easy nut to crack. Aided by his allied media outlets, the drumbeat for war has been banging loudly for the last few months and is getting louder. Given the potential results of the Mueller investigation as well as those of several Democrat-controlled House Committees (such as the Michael Cohen hearings now underway), to say nothing of his failed summits with Kim Jong-un about denuclearising the DPRK (as if that was a realistic prospect), Trump might not be able to wait to pull an “October Surprise” even this year (they usually happen in the month before the election, not a year before). So we can expect that the pace of war preparations will increase over the next weeks to months.

For the Maduro regime, the issue is simple: raise the costs to the US (and possibly others) of any armed intervention in the country while either exhausting the opposition via attrition or negotiating a transition pact with it. The military will need to use stealth, manoeuvre and cover against a superior force, hoping to prolong the conflict so that Trump begins to pay a price for his folly. In this it will have the help of Cuban advisors skilled in the art of guerrilla warfare, including proficiency in tunnelling (learned from the Vietnamese) and the use of tactics such as helicopter trapping (where attack helicopters are lured into range of anti-aircraft weapons by small arms fire). If the conflict can be prolonged and US soldiers begin to die in significant numbers, then the bully gambit may just backfire on Trump.

I may have omitted or erred on a few details, but this will be the general thrust of things should Trump decide to pull the trigger that starts a war. I have not included post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building scenarios, but I assume that State Department planners, including those from the Agency for International Development (AID, already on the ground in Cucuta) will be hard at work figuring out post-conflict plans (although truth be told the US is not very successful at producing post-conflict outcomes that are clearly favourable to it). The matter of “what happens next?” once the war is over remains open to conjecture.

The bottom line is that a lot of preparation and resources go into contingency planning for war even against a relatively weak opponent, and even if the costs and fallout are uncertain and multidimensional in nature. This is true even if war is avoided: the costs of the preparations alone are monumental. One thing is therefore certain. The US path to war with Venezuela would have to have started some time ago and the costs are real even if battle is not joined. And if it is, the consequences will be felt for a long time to come way beyond Caracas.

42 thoughts on “The Bully’s gambit.

  1. The trouble for US isolationists is that they really are not. If they see a chance for the US to do some a** kicking aboard, they are usually all for it. And that is what Drumpf is feeding to them–an easy slap down of an uppity dark-skinned commie regime.

  2. Wonder how the Trump “isolationists” would react if a Venezuelan War turns out to be Vietnam-on-the-Caribbean, given how much Putin & Xi have invested in the Maduro regime. It could also expose the split between purist isolationalists like Richard B Spencer & Trumpnik crypto-imperialists.

  3. Interesting to see positions distill down as this unfolds.

    You started out Pablo basically saying “leave it to the military to turn…” but they may not turn at all, or in large enough numbers, so Trumps ill advised attack, in league with Brazil, could happen.

    I am more of an implacable opponent of US Imperialism, so once the would be opposition leader’s pedigree was revealed, my sympathy went with the Venezuelan people, they should be allowed to sort matters out.

    The American forces do not seem so keen to attack in Yemen or intervene on behalf of the Palestinians…

  4. What seems missing from your analysis is the diplomatic context, but I presume that was a deliberate choice. The US would be unlikely to do military intervention without a UN mandate, and would be blocked by Russia & China from getting that. A request by Guaido wouldn’t suffice unless the OAS joined with him in the request, and even if that was enough to get Trump willing, it may not be enough for his string-pullers.

    If the CFR agreed, perhaps the US military heads would feel the loose-cannon-in-chief had sufficient establishment support?

    Geopolitics is an unprincipled arena. Dictators prevail due to the UN doctrine of non-intervention in national politics. Victims tend to see the UN as providing sham global governance. Venezuela’s descent into class warfare shows how fragile democracy is. Lack of trust means a return to a fair social system seems impossible currently. The Stalinist takeover of the institutions intended to provide and administer democracy seems intended to prove they can fake it whenever necessary. Yet the pretence that US intervention can produce free and fair elections is an equal and opposite sham.

    Resolution via both sides agreeing worked in Nicaragua to produce a viable democracy, so it seems that model could serve, and an OAS agreement to utilise it would be a basis upon which to proceed.

  5. Tiger Mt.:

    I still believe that the military is the key to resolving the Venezuelan crisis peacefully, and that involves them turning away from Maduro and moving to oversee a transition government that sets up and holds free and transparent elections. This does not mean that they should support Guaido, but that they serve as “arbiters” or “mediators” (both terms widely used in the comparative civil-military relations literature) during the transition process, to include enforcing the results of the elections. The shift in loyalty could also avert US intervention, although I fear that Trump may want to go to war for his own reasons and could use the military’s refusal to support Guaido as an excuse for doing so.

    As I mentioned in the post, if it happens this will be a war of opportunity rather than a war of necessity. There is nothing existential about the crisis in Venezuela when it comes to US interests. In terms of US strategic interests it arguably ranks lower than Yemen when it comes to cause for intervention. But then again, in Yemen the US has proxies and can sell weapons to them, whereas even Colombia and Brazil will stop short of playing US military proxy in Venezuela.

  6. “I still believe that the military is the key to resolving the Venezuelan crisis peacefully, and that involves them turning away from Maduro and moving to oversee a transition government that sets up and holds free and transparent elections.”

    In other words, a Portuguese-style Carnation Revolution.

  7. KR:

    That would be a near-ideal option (although the military leaders of that revolution were returned field officers and NCOs from the colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique, where they were radicalised by their leftist guerrilla opponents during the course of long-term jungle (i.e. close proximity) conflicts, whereas the Venezuelan field grade officers who need to lead the regime change will most certainly be a little jaundiced when it comes to the merits of Bolivarian “socialism).

    A closer parallel might be the arbitrator military regimes of Argentina and Brazil in the 1950s (although these failed to end citizen partisan conflict). The idea was/is to step in, use military rule to stop partisan squabbling, governmental paralysis, impose social order and reset the economy, establish the framework and terms for a new election, hold it, then retreat to the barracks and resume their professional focus on the management of organised violence in defence of the nation. Their tenure was/is by definition supposed to be temporary, unlike the “ruler” military-bureaucratic authoritarian regimes that governed Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and Uruguay in the 1960s through the 1980s (Colombia and Ecuador has civilianised variants of these during much of this period while Paraguay had Stroessner, then a military regime, then assorted failed civilian governments alternating with arbitrator military rule up to this day).

    All of which is to say that even short of the Carnation Revolution, a military-led transition “from within” is a heck of a lot better option than an imposed transition “from without.”

  8. ” and Brazil will stop short of playing US military proxy in Venezuela ”

    Hola Pablo.

    I hope for Brazil’s own sake they don’t get involved.

    I am quite shocked at how easily this Bolsonaro Presidency
    has rolled over to to gain favour with US interests.

    I have always thought Brazilians as very patriotic about their country. The domino effect of such participation could well spark even more social upheaval

  9. Democratic nations don’t go to war with other democratic nations.

  10. The Bolsonaro regime didn’t “roll over”. That implies that they gave up on some kind of principle. In fact, rolling back the leftist regimes in the rest of Latin America was always a core project of the Bolsonaro Presidency. Brazil would be pursuing this project regardless of American policy. When the Brazilian government goes all in to topple Maduro, they are not selling out or giving in to the USA (or anybody) else, they are following their homegrown political program. Sure, it’s a despicable program, but it’s entirely indigenous.

    Of course Brazilians are patriotic about their own country (as indeed almost everybody is). But why does this mean they wouldn’t intervene in their neighbours? If patriotism meant non-intervention, well, there’d be a lot less intervention.

    Re: arbitrator regimes, I’m sorry to disagree with you Pablo, especially in an area I know you have very deep knowledge of, but it does occur to me that globally (and more specifically in Latin America), the idea that the military will be a disinterested and neutral player on the political scene is rarely borne out.

    Even the Carnation Revolution isn’t really an example of the military playing an arbitrator role. The Portuguese officers weren’t playing a mediator role, they had a definite policy preference and were closely aligned with one “side”. In this case, as you say, it was the right side.

  11. Gorkem:

    In a broad sense you are correct in saying that the military takes a side. But that is because the military serves and is part of a specific type of state, which means that it supports the class interests that rule the state apparatus as a whole. These may be capitalist or they may be proletarian depending on the class nature of the state, but it is only in that sense that the military “leans” one way or another. However, within that general orientation there is room for the military to mediate between class or political factions, which is what may eventuate in Venezuela if the desire for peace and stabilisation is strong within the officer corps.

    It is true that the Carnation Revolution leaned in a certain way but it never truly challenged the foundations of the Estate Novo. It just sided with ascendant class fractions over the declining Salazarist aristocracy.

    Remember that the military has a fundamental problem when it assumes control of government: not only does it take responsibility for policy well outside of its professional purview, such as health, education, welfare etc. It also turns away from the combat training that is its raison d’être. General and colonels no longer lead troops in realistic exercises but instead sit behind desks and enjoy the benefits of being state managers. Over time this erodes the readiness of the force, a weakness that is noticed by competitors. The more the military stays in or close to government the more it loses its ability to fight against a military adversary (as opposed to, say civilian demonstrators). This is exactly the situation that the Venezuelan armed forces find themselves in. They have more generals in Venezuela than in the US, and practically none of these are soldiers in the true sense of that word. So it behooves the field grade officers to protect their institution from the decay and sclerosis that Bolivarian patronage and corruption have brought into the ranks.

    In effect, it is in the military self-interest to hold power for as short a time as possible. Remember that the military-bureaucratic authoritarians of the 1960s through the 1980s had civilian allies who handled the non-military aspects of the state in accordance with capitalist class projects designed to restructure the social relations of production while re-inserting their countries in the global economy (the most well known being the “Chicago Boys” work in Chile under Pinochet). But rule by the military as an institution is in fact injurious to the core purpose of the institution itself, so a retreat to the barracks is warranted if for no other reason than corporate self-preservation.

  12. I suspect the Venezuelan military are divided along class lines, and their in-house discussions reflect a context of long-held family and community alignments. Since the rule of law depends on public perception of democracy actually working, soldiers preferring wealth-distribution to keep people alive may not approve Maduro’s stalinists capturing oil profits for themselves.

    “Public opinion polls taken after 23 January show more than 80% of Venezuelans support Guaidó as interim president.” []

    That’s because the only legitimate parliament voted him their leader, and it used the constitution clause 233 to mandate his position as interim president. The stalinists created their alternative parliament after earlier succeeding in their takeover of the supreme court, forcing opposing judges into exile. Now Venezuelans see their rule of law compromised by stalinist subversion of their democratic institutions.

    Military leaders cannot force any return to real democracy until colleagues still hoping for the permament success of their fake democracy give up that dream and yield in the national interest. Maduro doesn’t trust his people: “A Cuban military presence of at least 15,000 personnel was in Venezuela in early 2018”.

    “Hugo Carvajal, the head of Venezuela’s military intelligence for ten years during Hugo Chávez’s presidency and “one of the government’s most prominent figures”, publicly broke with Maduro and endorsed Guaidó as interim president. Serving as a National Assembly deputy for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, The Wall Street Journal said the retired general is considered a pro-Maduro legislator. In a video released online on 21 February, he called for Venezuelan military forces to break ranks and to allow the entry of humanitarian aid to Venezuela… Carvajal also questioned the status of Venezuela’s sovereignty, explaining that Cubans control the Maduro government.”

    There are further examples of disaffection in the military hierarchy: “The Venezuelan Air Force’s head of strategic planning, divisional general Francisco Esteban Yánez Rodríguez, recognized Guaidó as interim president on 2 February 2019.”

    “Air Force general Víctor Romero Meléndez supported Guaidó and called upon the Armed Forces to “support the people and the constitution”. Retired air force major general Jorge Oropeza recognized Guaidó as interim president. Major General Alexis López Ramírez, who resigned his command of Venezuela’s National Defense Council in 2017, recognized Guaidó as president on 23 February 2019. López Ramírez demanded respect for Venezuela’s constitution, criticized the presence of Cubans in Venezuela’s military, and said that command of the armed forces had been usurped by police and politicians from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.”

    I hope this indicates a trend toward Venezuelans deciding in favour of the rule of law on a genuine basis. Trump ought to be more explicit in supporting that, to reduce expectations that he is merely rerunning the old gunboat diplomacy strategy. The UN leader ought also to call forcefully for a peaceful resolution based on adherence to the constitution. Stalinism only succeeds when sham democracy is allowed to pervert natural justice. The doctrine of non-intervention permits evil to prosper.

  13. Dennis:

    Your constant references to “Stalinists” is intellectually lazy and boring. It is as if you cannot see the difference between Stalinists, socialists and populist authoritarians like Maduro. What the Maduro regime is full of are corrupt, incompetent Bolivarian apparatchiks who are motivated less by ideology than by greed. They have neither the inclination or the capacity to engage in the type of oppression that the Stalinists were known for, no matter what John Bolton and Elliott Abrams say.

    Your class analysis of the armed forces has some merit in that officers from the Air Force and Navy tend to come from the upper middle bourgeoisie whereas the Army officer corps is dominated by lower urban bourgeoisie and rural small property owning backgrounds. It is therefore not inn the least surprising that Air Force officers are the most notable military defectors so far. More importantly to me is the role of 02-04s and NCOs since these people actually command soldiers and are living the crisis everyday when they return home (unlike the general officers whose loyalty has been bought by sinecures and corruption). This is particularly true for Army officers since those are the boots doing the stomping when push comes to shove in a civil war.

    I find it hard to believe that 80 percent of the population want Guaido, who was little known until he made his (clearly US-backed) move in January. If that were true the military certainly would have turned on Maduro. It is precisely because they country is more evenly divided that it has not. And remember, the Bolivarian masses are well-organised thanks to the Cuban presence, so when push comes to shove it is they who will begin with the upper hand.

    As for your references to the rule of law, that is a low priority when people are starving and have no access to medical care, education, etc. What people want at that point is security and stability, and if the means of achieving so is extra-judicial in nature, then they will support it. The democratic rule of law is founded on consensus and reinforced by everyday popular consent to it. Such a consensus cannot be reached during an organic crisis such as this. Which is exactly why the military must act–since there is no rule of law and no agreement on how it should be administered while the crisis is ongoing, then the best option is a moment of what Gramsci called “dominio” (domination) where the armed forces impose their will on society in the interest of security, stability and the transition to legitimate civilian rule.

    There is no doubt that the Maduro regime is illegitimate and stole last year’s election. But I do not think that Guaido’s claim to be the legitimate president is valid either, if for no other reason that he has not been electorally measured on a nation-wide basis. I will therefore not support an externally-supported overthrow of the regime under current circumstances. Instead, as I have said repeatedly, a military-supervised transitional government that oversees the process towards free and open elections while stabilising the economy with foreign help seems to me to be the best way out of the crisis. And for that to happen the military must act, first against Maduro by publicly withdrawing their political support, then by purging the Cubans from the intelligence services, National Guard and Bolivarian militias. That will be a difficult and likely bloody task.

  14. As far as I know, Stalinist is the best technical term available to describe the organised takeover of political organisations by covert methods. Trotsky, in his history of the Russian Revolution, explained in detail how Stalin used his position of general secretary to the Bolshevik inner circle to control the information flow so as to marginalise all his competitors after Lenin’s death.

    If there’s a better option, I’d like to know it. Maduro’s authoritarian socialism does not explain his regime’s creation of an alternative assembly after the election gave the opposition got more members in the National Assembly, nor his regime’s selective replacement of members to obtain a majority on their equivalent of our Electoral Commission, nor the same method used to replace judges on their Supreme Court, to ensure his control of that too.

    If John Key’s govt had done even just one of these three things here everyone would have identified it as fascist, right? Seems logical to call it stalinist when done by a government of the left, and three such instances establishes an undeniable pattern.

  15. Pablo – you may well be right that military government degrades the effectiveness of militaries at traditional large-scale counter-state combat operations. It would be interesting to look at case studies, I think there is a lot of evidence in favour, but also a lot of evidence against it.

    But I actually want, in this comment, to focus on another possible objection to your thesis. If we do agree that militaries who assume governance become less adept at state-to-state combat operations, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Venezuelan military (either collectively, or in the form of any subgroup) recognises this cost. Nor does it follow that, if they do recognise this cost, they will see the cost as too high.

    Institutions do things that are against their long-term interest all the time. Every other military that has seized power has faced the same dynamic you described, but they still seized power. I don’t see why the Venezuelan military is especially likely to act in a principled way.

    It’s true that there is currently a norm towards civilian governance in Latin America. But as Paul Brooker wrote, there has always been a norm towards democratic civilian governance in Latin America, even during the “golden age” of Latin American military governments in the 20th century. This norm wasn’t sufficient to prevent military governments from forming or remaining stable. It just meant that they had to pay lip service to democratic civilian governance, especially while forming. I am not pessimistic enough to say that the Venezulean military would definitely form a dictatorship if it assumed an arbitrator role, but I see no fundamental obstacle, either in practical or ideological terms, to it doing so.

  16. Dennis:

    By your logic Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe and the Emperor Bokassa were all Stalinists. Concentrating power by creating parallel legislative bodies and stacking the courts is not a unique attribute of Stalinists. There was an ideological project in place that gave them a method to their madness. Maduro and his entourage simply do not have that foundation and certainly are incapable of carrying out the type of pogroms associated with the Stalinists.

    Remember that Stalinism was totalitarian in pretension and almost achieved it in fact. The Bolivarian Revolution is many bad things but totalitarian it is not. Otherwise, why bother with trying to circumvent an opposition-controlled legislature at all?

  17. “If John Key’s govt had done even just one of these three things here everyone would have identified it as fascist, right”

    Certainly lots of people in the broader commentariat would have called it fascist, but I don’t think anybody here would have (aside from the odd visiting commenter who would get shut down fast).

    I think you need to understand the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian. Hannah Arendt’s “The Origin of Toalitarianism” is a good start.

  18. I take the point that Stalinism took ideological form eventually, and history tends to define it accordingly. As a typical kiwi male encultured as a teenager in the sixties to call a spade a spade, I tend to judge political regimes on what they actually do – the ossified prescription has only marginal relevance.

    Consequently, I see Maduro’s replication of Stalin’s method of retaining control of the state as stalinist. I accept that others either can’t see the copying of the technique, or have personal reasons to avoid using the term. However political discourse becomes impossible when folks thus avoid identifying a regime’s distinctive chosen political practice, and the tacit refusal to acknowledge such instances of history repeating itself seems perverse. Surely it’s better to learn from history. The more we do, the more likely we will collectively upskill to prevent such malign repetition.

  19. @Dennis: There’s a lot to unpack in your statement, but I am going to repeat Pablo’s point – you would agree that the other examples Pablo described are also Stalinist? If not, why not?

  20. The problem with you analysis is that you are just plain wrong and it is now clear that your spade calling self has no clue about the voluminous literature on various types of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, Stalinism in particular. Since I spent most of the years following my adolescence studying and writing about such subjects, it pains to the point of cringe to read your persistent mischaracterisations of the Bolivarian regime. Gorkem tried to help you with the reference to Arendt but I am done. You are free to carry on.

  21. According to Wikipedia, Bokassa ” invalidated the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly” but it provides no evidence that he took the Stalinist step of creating fake alternatives.

    “Mobutu consolidated power by publicly executing political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other threats to his rule.” “1967 marked the debut of the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), which until 1990 was the nation’s only legal political party.” These quotes identify Mobutu as a dictator, but again Wikipedia provides no evidence that his totalitarianism was accompanied by the Stalinist semblance of democracy.

    Mugabe included rival parties in his cabinet in the eighties, until “in December 1987 Nkomo signed a Unity Accord in which ZAPU was officially disbanded and its leadership merged into ZANU-PF. The merger between the two parties left ZANU-PF with 99 of the 100 seats in parliament,[244] and established Zimbabwe as a de facto one-party state.”

    However “in April 1999 Mugabe’s government appointed a 400-member Constitutional Commission to draft a new constitution which could be put to a referendum. The National Constitutional Assembly—a pro-reform pressure group established in 1997—expressed concern that this commission was not independent of the government, noting that Mugabe had the power to amend or reject the draft.[302] The NCA called for the draft constitution to be rejected, and in a February 2000 referendum it was, with 53% against to 44% in favour; turnout was under 25%. It was ZANU-PF’s first major electoral defeat in twenty years.”

    But it proves Mugabe was still seeking to use a semblance of democracy to mask political reality. Power-sharing with the MDC 2008-2013 then proves he was trying to make this somewhat more real than sham. So although he seemed stalinist in his later years, the historical verdict is mixed.

    The Bolsheviks canceled the constituent assembly they had promised Russians for January 1918. Lenin’s rationale was that the soviets were a more authentic form of local democracy, so the congress of soviets were a better way to form governments from national democracy. If they had continued to work that formula with the Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and other parties, history would have provided us with an alternative working model accordingly. It was the white Russian revolt that hardened Bolshevik state control into the addiction that produced Stalinism.

    But the semblance of authenticity was retained to mask the reality. Stalin required collective agreements to be made at all levels. If he wanted to be merely a dictator, all he needed to do was give orders and compel obdedience to them. It is the organised charade of using state organisations to fake democracy that Maduro is replicating: classic Stalinism.

  22. So by the above logic, you wouldn’t describe North Korea as Stalinist, since it didn’t abolish any existing parliamentary structures, instead creating its own (tightly controlled) assembly de novo in the wake of Japanese decolonisation?

    Which, if I’m right, would follow that Mugabe and Maduro are more Stalinist than the Kim dynasty?

  23. @Dennis: I realise Wikipedia doesn’t mention it, but in fact both Mobutu and Bokassa set up new legislative assemblies after dissolving the pre-dictatorial ones. Mobutu resurrected the Zairois Parliament with a new membership composed entirely of his cronies (maybe it doesn’t count as a “fake alternative” due to it not being renamed?), while Bokassa created a new Imperial Senate to replace the Parliament of the prior Republic and, again, packed it with cronies.

    So, with the above in mind, wouldn’t you agree that these examples are, by the definition you’re using, Stalinist?

  24. Yes, to the extent that the semblance of democracy is being used by any such regime. State power is preserved more effectively via collusion than fear, so any such regime will be pragmatic in choosing a deceit strategy that works sufficiently well to secure general acceptance.

    I presume Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent to convey that point from a political marketing perspective. People buy into any scenario the powers that be persuade them to accept if the cost/benefit equation doesn’t deter them. Popular delusions are part of the fabric of culture. Coercion to get the desired result need not be forceful. Machiavelli wrote the primer for this stuff, eh?

    China calls Tibet an autonomous region in the hope that enough observers will be fooled by the sham. The UN voted against their invasion, but realpolitik eventually prevailed. Didn’t matter how many centuries of operational sovereignty Tibet clocked up after their empire long ago, China waved suzerainty at the yanks & brits like a magic wand and the foreign office & state dept were bedazzled.

    Something in the communist psyche seems to require a combination of state control and political monoculture. They just seem unable to embrace diversity. Inasmuch as diversity is part of nature, not just human nature, it seems an elementary defect. Han monoculture prevents civil rights being allowed to the other Chinese ethnicities. Dunno if the same applies to North Korea though. But to return to the main point, Maduro seems to believe he can avoid providing free and fair elections by pretending to rather than actually doing it. It’s as if such dictators are tacitly conceding that a semblance of democracy is required to achieve viability on the global stage.

  25. It’s ironic that you talk about the “communist psyche” when you’ve identified people like Mobutu and Bokassa as Stalinists, since they were not just non-communists, but anti-communists.

    So would you describe communist China as a Stalinist state? If so, which counterfeit institutions did they set up to replace existing, legitimate ones?

  26. Irony abounds in geopolitics. Since I refrained from identifying those two as Stalinists, I’m puzzled that you believe I did so. Are nuances really so difficult to ascertain?

    Read the first two paragraphs of what I wrote on March 5 again and you will see that I cited the evidence from Wikipedia to explicitly prove that they did not use the stalinist methodology.

    And no, China has not done that – it has merely used the pretence of regional autonomy.

  27. @Dennis: I’m confused.

    On March 5th you said ‘According to Wikipedia, Bokassa ” invalidated the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly” but it provides no evidence that he took the Stalinist step of creating fake alternatives.’

    I replied “in fact both Mobutu and Bokassa set up new legislative assemblies after dissolving the pre-dictatorial ones” and provided some detail. I then asked
    “So, with the above in mind, wouldn’t you agree that these examples are, by the definition you’re using, Stalinist?”

    You then replied to me, “Yes, to the extent that the semblance of democracy is being used by any such regime. ”

    But now you’re saying that you stick by what you said on March 5th and that neither the Zairois nor Central African Imperial regimes were Stalinist.

    Did I misunderstand your reply?

  28. Oh I see. Yes, confusion is indeed understandable on that basis. Things often aren’t what they seem, which is why I try to be careful with the usage of the term.

    It hinges on the political intent involved. To clarify: the practice of stalinism seems intentional when a pattern of instances is established (as with Maduro). I’m reluctant to identify a dictator or regime as stalinist on the basis of one or two such instances, so I was just agreeing with you that it seems appropriate to apply the term to the two Africans on the basis you provided.

    Doesn’t mean I identify them as Stalinists though – I haven’t read enough about them to make that judgment and I’m too cautious by nature to jump to premature conclusions.

    What’s important is the motive – political psychology is unfortunately still a barren field in acadaemia, so we form our personal views from the behaviour of such dictators. Unless a pattern of political activity is established in the historical record, we cannot be confident in categorising the methodology used. Dictators seem often ad hoc – they just copy what predecessors did successfully, or role models who influenced them, so any ism one attaches can seem arbitrary. Some who profess an ideology also act in breach of it sometimes too…

  29. “Political psychology is..a barren field in academia.” Seriously? I mean, really? That whole last paragraph displays a profound ignorance of nearly a century of political science research and writing on exactly that subject as well as the differences between types and sub-types of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. It is cringe material that is Trumpian in its wrongness.

    Modern political science merged from the union of classic political theory and behavioural psychology. Its original concerns included explaining the rise of mass authoritarian movements in the interwar period, specifically European fascism and Bolshevism. This turned to the examining the forms of governance they developed, including the use of propaganda and exclusionary or inclusionary state corporatism as vehicles for mass mobilization in support of particular State-led economic projects (in Stalin’s case agricultural collectivization in support of a heavy industrial project). That expanded to study of Franco’s Falange regime as well as Latin American national populism The latter is where you need to look for comparisons with Maduro.

    Since its origins in the early 20th century, the sub-field of political psychology has not only been very well populated, but it is the practical field that has led to push polling, attack ads, and the like. Steve Bannon is a master at it.

    C’mon Dennis, if you want to be taken seriously you need to lift your game, which means that you need to opine less and read a heck of a lot more before you offer views not grounded in fact. And BTW–wikipedia is not a valid source for anything other than high school or first year undergrad essays. Its best use is as a lead to citations of the primary sources or dedicated literature. I mean really, would use the Encyclopaedia Britannica to discuss the intricacies of astrophysics or tropical bird song and nesting rituals? If so, then this discussion is hopeless. If not, then why would you use a wiki as a source in a discussion such as this.

    Sorry about this rant. I am frustrated by your obstinance.

  30. @Dennis: Just to be clear, what is the pattern evident in Maduro’s case?

    He attempted to replace the Venezuelan National Assembly with a de novo Assembly stacked with loyalists. That’s one instance of trying to replace democratic institutions with synthetic institutions.

    What’s the second case? What’s the third? Where is the pattern?

  31. Their equivalent of our Supreme Court and Electoral Commission were subjected to infiltration and takeover – to make them agents of the regime and not the people:

    “The Supreme Tribunal of Justice, with the majority supporting Chávez, elected officials to the supposedly non-partisan National Electoral Council of Venezuela (CNE) despite the 1999 Constitution stating for the National Assembly of Venezuela to perform the task. That resulted with the CNE board having a majority consisting of Chavistas or those that supported Chávez. Since then, the Venezuelan government controlled by the PSUV ruling party has manipulated elections”. []

    “the Supreme Court alleged that voting irregularities occurred in the 2015 Parliamentary Elections and stripped four Assembly members of their seats, preventing an opposition supermajority in the National Assembly which would be able to challenge President Maduro.” []

  32. A few years ago I decided to research the field of political psychology to see if significant conceptual advances had actually emerged. Since none had emerged into the media in the prior half-century since I became an interested observer of politics, it seemed evident that anything substantial would be too subtle to report or discuss there.

    Nonetheless, I did expect to find intellectual content worthy of consideration. I discovered a website that had a review of the discipline consisting of a pdf more than 20 pages long – I printed it out &sat down with a highlighter to identify the key points. An hour later I reached the end, rather bemused that I had not used the highlighter even once!

    With an open mind and critical faculties, I gloomily formed the opinion that the field was occupied by a bunch of pretenders devoid of intellect.

    However, if that pdf was unrepresentative of the field, I’m open to considering any alternative. I’d prefer proof that fundamental principles of the field have actually achieved currency. If so, you ought to be able to rattle of bunch of them off pronto, eh?

  33. Sometimes my replies don’t immediately appear onsite here – such as the one I posted about 15 mins prior to the one that did appear at 10.05 today, March 8th.

    Just in case it vanished into the ether, I’ll try to replicate it. The other two instances of stalinism by Maduro’s regime that I have mentioned in the past are its infiltration and takeover of Venezuela’s equivalent of our Supreme Court and Electoral Commission:

    “the Supreme Court alleged that voting irregularities occurred in the 2015 Parliamentary Elections and stripped four Assembly members of their seats, preventing an opposition supermajority in the National Assembly which would be able to challenge President Maduro. The Assembly nevertheless swore in the members in question, in response to which the Supreme Court ruled that the Assembly was in contempt of court and in violation of the constitutional order.” []

    “The Supreme Tribunal of Justice, with the majority supporting Chávez, elected officials to the supposedly non-partisan National Electoral Council of Venezuela (CNE) despite the 1999 Constitution stating for the National Assembly of Venezuela to perform the task. That resulted with the CNE board having a majority consisting of Chavistas or those that supported Chávez. Since then, the Venezuelan government controlled by the PSUV ruling party has manipulated elections”.


  34. Ah so wait – Stalinism doesn’t just require the creation of new institutions out of nowhere (a la the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly) but also covers the stacking of existing institutions with loyalists, while leaving the institution’s form and function intact?

    In that case Stalinism is even more common than I thought.

    For example, would you consider recent developments in Poland and Hungary to be Stalinism?

  35. Thanks KR, yes I was suspecting that quotes to validate assertions trigger the need for moderation.

    Re evidence of stalinism, remember that it lies in the eye of the beholder. I haven’t checked out whatever is going on in those two countries so I suggest you form your own opinion. Human nature predisposes us to argue about what constitutes evidence – that’s why arguing about it is normal in science & law.

    The only reliable guide to judgment apart from the pattern of consistency is whether it looks like a deliberate deceit strategy a la Stalin. Labour & National have had a habit of stacking quangos with loyalists our entire lives, remember, but their motive seems not to replicate stalinism (even if jaundiced observers may suspect Labour of that)…

  36. @Dennis: Just to be clear, I already have my own opinion about Poland and Hungary. I’m not asking about them because I want you to educate me about events in these countries; I’m asking because I am trying to further refine your definition of Stalinism with case studies.

    I say this because your definition (insofar as I understand it) defines a lot of regimes as Stalinist that I very rarely see called Stalinist, either in academia or popular discourse. Which isn’t to say you’re wrong, just that your analysis is quite unique.

    I will say, though, given that it is all, as you say, subjective, perhaps you shouldn’t be quite so harsh on people who disagree with you? You’ve frequently described the intellectual perspective of those who have other perspectives on Stalinism in quite severe terms. Isn’t it possible that their views are just as valid as yours?

  37. Everyone’s views are valid. They derive from the combination of experience, values, and social context. Thus differences of opinion are natural.

    Perhaps you haven’t noticed that I refrain from personal criticism? My motivation is to alert folks to danger. Beliefs often make humans into victims. Compassion for them is all very well, but better to prevent it if possible, so I try for that by pointing out political behaviour that produces evil.

    The blogosphere is full of folks warning of potential fascism, so I’m not needed on that front. The lack that is evident, re learning from history, is that the left are just as zealous as the right – they just differentiate themselves by being more devious/covert. The right feel so entitled that their arrogance makes them more blatant.

  38. You described people who had alternative views to yours as following “ossified prescription” and that they “can’t see” things for “personal reasons”.

    That does not sound like somebody who sees opposing views as equally valid.

    I have no response to the rest of your post since it doesn’t really seem like a response to anything I or Pablo said.

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