Political guru Michael Rowan explains how tribalism has brought Venezuela to ruin and where Caracas can go from here.
By Michael Rowan
The fatal flaw in the contest of wills between the Maduro and Guaido governments is that there is no government and there is no contest. There is no government because the place we call Venezuela is not a nation but a land of polarized tribes. And there is no contest because one tribe controls the money and the guns and is exterminating the other.
Chiefs of both tribes have declared chiefs of the other tribe to be enemies and evil. Members of both tribes are loyal to their chiefs. Extermination of the subordinate tribe by the dominant tribe is the ancient, natural consequence.
There is no effort to conflate the two tribes into one unified nation for all citizens. Nations and citizens have nothing to do with it. Citizenship is a national concept not a tribal concept. This is what twenty years of extreme polarization has come to in Venezuela: civilization has been flushed from the culture. What’s left are tribes.
Color, race, class, education and income are factors dividing the two polarized tribes in Venezuela. For decades of dictators and elected presidents alike, the elites from the minority side of those factors tried to fashion a nation with citizenship, but failed. Democratic presidents tried harder from 1958 to 1998, but they failed, too.
In 1998, the inequality between the two tribes was stark and foreboding. Hugo Chavez, who had attempted to take power through violence in 1992 – that was a hint about where he was coming from -- ran a transparently tribal campaign against a demographic minority of rich, white, educated, powerful elites, who were in his mind the tribal chiefs of the colonialist, imperialist past as well as the young democracy in Venezuela.
Chavez did not run a national campaign for all citizens. He ran a tribal campaign to solidify his chiefdom of a fiercely loyal base. The opposition complied, running an anti-Chavez campaign and not a nationally inclusive campaign. Tribal polarization solidified over time.
When Chavez began to rule in 1999, he believed everyone should join his tribe, his revolution, and accept his will, or get out. He made it abundantly clear. He said he was being kind and gentle until his 48-hour removal from the presidency in 2002 and the recall referendum of 2004. From 2005 to this day under Maduro, the gloves have come off.
This was planned from the beginning. Chavez believed his power came not from the election but from his revolution. He rewrote the constitution so his tribe would own and control everything. By the time of his death in 2013 he had achieved much of that. Those who opposed him, he attacked, imprisoned or drove away.
But internationally, Chavez was clever. He maintained the appearance but not the reality of a nation, a government, a democracy, a national assembly, courts, law, and civil society. North Americans like Jimmy Carter, Sean Penn and Joe Kennedy believed in the appearance. But millions of Venezuelans knew the truth. It was all gone years ago. Only the husk of a nation remains.
In fact, Venezuela the nation was destroyed by loyalty oaths and tribal behavior a decade earlier. In a tribe there is no property or personal right that doesn’t belong to the chief. The tens of millions of “Venezuelans” who have lost businesses, houses, treasures, jobs, benefits, food, medicine, rights and freedom can testify to this fact. They are in the wrong tribe.
When the unclever Maduro became chief, the Chavez hoax which had charmed so many, was exposed. The nation had been looted and ransacked. The democracy was gone. The economy was reduced by half. The population was shrinking by weight, by life expectancy, by disease and by fleeing for the border. But Maduro’s tribe had plenty of money and guns to ward off a challenge to his rule.
Among the tribal elders, extermination of a hostile tribe is not seen as genocide. It is seen as survival. Tribalism is a zero-sum game. The winning tribe gets 1. The losing tribe gets 0.
The reason hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue is missing over the years of tribalism is because the chief doesn’t have to account to anyone for anything.
Thousands of their tribe are swimming in wealth equal to the excesses of Saudi sheiks, or oil tycoons owning horses at the racetrack, or old Soviet Communists enjoying their dachas. To the victor belongs the spoils. Those not in the tribe get hyperinflation, starvation, depression, disease, poverty, inequality, migration, and death.
Chavez said it all when he proclaimed the military salute: Fatherland, Socialism or Death.
So, when Juan Guaido declared that the elected national assembly was the legitimate democratic government and 53 democratic nations in the world agreed with him, Maduro brushed it off the way a little bug is swatted away. In a tribe, legitimacy means absolutely nothing but the appearance of things to stupid states.
Here’s the way it is. Maduro is chief of a tribe that controls what the world believes is a “sovereign state” which has a “government” run by “laws.” That is a hoax. Maduro can legally buy arms from Russia, sell oil to China, sell cocaine to the world, terrorize at home with Cuban agents, terrorize abroad with Iranian agents, and steal whatever he wants in his own tribal territory, and there is absolutely nothing Guaido or those 53 nations can do about it. Law constrains nation states, not tribes. Maduro’s home free.
Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.