The three-legged stool


Juan Cristóbal says: Lately, this story about the 1988 Referendum that ended the Pinochet dictatorship keeps coming to mind.

(Translated from Spanish Wikipedia):

“At 12:18 AM on October 6th (the night after the Referendum, when results were trickling in), Pinochet meets his cabinet and informs them: “Gentlemen, the referendum has been lost. I want your immediate resignations. That is all.”

An hour later, he finally meets the other members of the Military Junta. On his way up the steps of La Moneda Palace, Chile’s Commander of the Air Force, General Fernando Matthei, tells journalists: “It’s pretty clear the (opposition) No has won, but we are calm.” General Matthei’s statement was transmitted by Radio Cooperativa at 1:03 AM on October 6th.

In the meeting, [Interior] Minister Sergio Fernandez recognized the government’s defeat and expressed the high percentage obtained was, in any event, a source of pride, to which General Matthei ironically replied: “Why don’t we bring in some champagne to celebrate?”

According to Matthei’s memoirs (“Matthei, my testimony”), Pinochet then handed the members of the Junta a decree through which he assumed all the country’s powers and disavowed the results of the Referendum. This threw the Junta’s members, specially Matthei, into a rage, and Matthei himself ripped the decree with his own hands.

“After that,” Matthei recalls, “and without insisting on the decree, the President informed us that he would leave Santiago for a few days to get some rest, and the meeting was adjourned.”

Right at that moment, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff suffered a heart attack, presumably caused by the heated confrontation among military leaders. After the meeting, Pinochet accepted the situation and ordered the release of the third electoral bulletin.”

Someone once said that Hugo Chávez’s support is like a three-legged stool. Those legs are

  1. Popular support
  2. Oil money
  3. The military

Our goal, to obtain power and reinstate democracy, can only be met once all three pillars of support have worn away.

One out of three, two out of three – those don’t seem to cut it anymore.

Chavismo has engineered a state system where alternation is tantamount to regime change. Under those circumstances, consolidating a majority and winning an election are not going to be enough. Popular support is just one of the legs of the stool. Our recent history confirms this.

In April of 2002, Chávez’s popularity was waning and his oil income was shaky. With PDVSA momentarily paralysed, the military tried to overthrow him, and for a second it looked like all three legs had gone.

It turned out that his popularity was not as low as all that and, in fact, reaction to the coup quickly raised it. The popular support pillar still had some life in it.

Then it also turned out that the military leg was not broken either – the military’s unity cracked, as we all know, and a good chunk of the Armed Forces backed the President. And so, ultimately, the stool regained its balance.

Later that year, the opposition led an (ill-advised) Oil Strike. The subversive act of shutting down PDVSA entirely chopped off one of the legs for a good six or seven weeks. But by that point, the Misiones were starting to work and Chávez’s popularity was on the rise. More importantly, the military did not support the strike, and the people turned against the oil workers. A few weeks after the strike began, oil income began to recover and PDVSA was operational again.

The assault on one of the legs was over.

Fast-forward to Chávez’s shock electoral defeat December of 2007. We showed, at the ballot box, that dissent could be more popular than the chavista status quo even amidst a dizzying oil boom. Unlike in normal democracies, that reality was a subversive act – a “golpe electoral”, as José Vicente Rangel would say – surprisingly spearheaded by a group of students.

Did it work? Partially. It took considerable military pressure, spearheaded by jailbird Baduel, for Chávez to accept defeat, and then only for about two seconds. But a few days later, he appeared – not coincidentally – in front of the military high command, and practically announced to the country the referendum results did not mean anything. Two years out, most of the things he’d been denied the power to do at referendum have become law.

Why? Because after an initial wobble, military support of the regime resumed, the dissidents were purged, and the oil boom kept going for another few months.

Fast-forward to next year.

Imagine that Chávez becomes really unpopular and, by some act of God, the opposition gets its act together and manages to win a majority of seats in the AN, fair and square.

Will the CNE accept the results? Will our friend Socorro stand by and validate an opposition-controlled National Assembly, with all that entails? Maybe, maybe not.

And even if that miracle panned out, can’t you just see the AN, through an act of its outgoing majority, stripping itself of most of its powers? Do we have any doubt the almighty, reverential Constitutional Chamber of the TSJ would rubber-stamp such a monstrosity in the blink of an eye?

Some last minute re-think is not entirely impossible, but it’s looking increasingly foolhardy to gamble the country’s future on the democratic scruples of the chavista State.

Hanging on to power without regard to the majority’s rejection is the distinguishing trait of authoritarianism. Chavismo is an authoritarian regime.

And that, in the end, is what it means to come to grips with chavismo’s inherent authoritarianism: for our side, majority support is not enough.

Necessary? Yes. Sufficient? Not by a long shot.

At some point, all of this makes us very uncomfortable. We are democrats, and part of the normal game of a democracy is that you don’t tip stools over or smash them with an axe. You work with the stool you’re given and do what you can to adjust it. And certainly, the chavista Venezuelan military nomenklatur is so disgusting to some of us that the thought of accepting and even embracing them as political players is mighty unappealing.

But the reality of the chavista dictatorship is that, in the unlikely event the CNE recognized our victory in an election, we would find it all but impossible to work with the stool we’re given. By now, it’s Chávez’s stool: made to order and able to accommodate only his fat ass. The kind of 2009 Antonio Ledezma has had is living proof of that.

The upshot is that we need a three-legged strategy.

One of the legs – oil income – is pretty much beyond our control, especially after the PDVSA purge. But, despite the fantasists’ fondest daydreams, the global oil market is beyond Chávez’s control, too. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have a strategy for countering the vast difference in disposable income between them and us. For the moment it’s enough to note that, even with oil prices well above $70/bbl, Chávez can’t raise enough cash to finance the level of public spending it would take to keep GDP growing.

What’s clear is that any serious attempt to subvert the Chávez dictatorship will require concerted action on the two other legs.

Yes, we need an effective political strategy. There’s no way out of this without people’s hearts and minds.

But given the conditions chavismo has created, there’s just no way out of this hole without a military strategy, too.

Before chavistas out there go postal and begin crying “golpista,” we should clarify. That doesn’t mean having a strategy for rebellion. A mad idea like that would only lead to a bloodbath. It means having a strategy to challenge the unconditional support the military gives Chávez, in very much the same way as the Chilean democracy movement’s rising clout created the key cracks needed at the right time to force Pinochet’s hand.

The Chilean democrats of 1988 had a political strategy that led them to a convincing electoral victory. But without a military strategy resulting in Matthei & friends willing to subvert the Pinochet regime, the Chilean stool would have been left in place.

We should be crystal clear about this: a military strategy is not a para-military strategy, and it’s not a call to golpismo. It means making sure that, when the chips are down, the military support for the dictatorship is not unconditional. It means having the guts to remind the military that the loyalty they swear is to a Constitution, not an autocrat, and that that constitution’s article 333 creates clear obligations they, sooner or later, will be held accountable for.

The Chilean democrats, Corazón Aquino, Boris Yeltsin. In key moments, they all had military strategies in place that helped propel their movements to subvert dictatorial regimes. In all three cases, the military played a fundamental role in knocking down the status quo forces.

Without it, popular support is easily mocked. The Burmese monks did not have a military strategy. They now rot in jail. Back in 1928, Venezuela’s students didn’t have one either, so they spent the next eight years in La Rotunda.

This is how it goes, folks. It sucks, but it’s how it goes.


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