McArdle: Maduro will hold on ’til majority realizes its power

Autocrats can appear unshakeable up until the point where it all comes crashing down around them.

By Megan McArdle / The Washington Post

In 1997, PBS’s “Frontline” interviewed economist Rudi Dornbusch about the disastrous currency crisis that had roiled Mexico a few years earlier. What was surprising, Dornbusch noted, was not that it happened; the trouble had long been predictable, and predicted, given Mexico’s monetary policy. What was surprising was when it happened.

“The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought, and that’s sort of exactly the Mexican story,” said Dornbusch, who died in 2002. “It took forever, and then it took a night.”

Dornbusch’s observation was the pithiest and most lyrical summation of what analysts feel when watching countries whose policies are driving them toward some seemingly inevitable catastrophe. You think, “This is mad, it can’t go on,” and then somehow it does go on — and on and on and on — and you think, “Maybe I was wrong, and it can.”

Then one morning you wake up and it’s over; every slow-moving independent trend has become quite sudden, and all at once, and the thing that has so long seemed like it had to happen, finally does.

You have to look at Venezuela today and wonder: Is this what we’re seeing, the abrupt end of Venezuela’s years-long economic nightmare? Has President Nicolás Maduro’s ever-more-autocratic and incompetent regime finally completed its long pilgrimage toward disaster?

Massive protests clashed with the military on Wednesday, and seven protesters were reported killed. Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared Maduro an illegitimate leader and proclaimed himself interim president until elections can be held. Foreign powers, including the United States, rushed to recognize Guaidó, saying Maduro must step down.

And Maduro may well be able to keep his hold on power, and to keep driving his people deeper into starvation. He apparently retains the support of the military, the judiciary and PDVSA, the state-owned oil company that provides much of Venezuela’s national income. The courts and the oil company have been stuffed with political cronies by Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez; the military has been cleverly bought off with plum jobs and graft opportunities. A fledgling uprising in the ranks earlier this week was quickly put down.

“Chavismo” has survived such crises before. Chávez was actually ousted by a 2002 military-backed coup, but he was back in power two days later. And yet Maduro has been confronted with mass protests many times, notably the clashes that followed his “victory” in last year’s rigged election. It wouldn’t be surprising if he survived this round too.

And yet. It still seems very possible, even perhaps probable, that Maduro’s reign will eventually end in his forced removal. It’s clear he won’t allow himself to be ousted by democratic elections; it’s also clear that he will not (or cannot) change the socialist economic controls and hyperinflationary monetary policy that have already shrunk Venezuela’s economy by 50 percent and sent almost 10 percent of the population fleeing abroad.

It is, of course, very helpful for an autocrat to have generals on his payroll and judges in his pocket. But that institutional power isn’t absolute; it is a somewhat fragile equilibrium that can collapse without warning. A day may come when judges issue a ruling and no one obeys it … when generals give an order to fire on a crowd of protesters, and the guns stay silent; or turn toward the generals. If that moment arrives, Maduro will fall, and his cronies with him.

But such moments come unpredictably. It isn’t enough for the majority of people to want the regime changed; Venezuela passed that point ages ago. Maduro’s committed opponents must also understand that they are a majority. It’s what social scientists call a signaling game: The problem is to discover how many other people are also willing to abandon the regime, without the regime’s finding out and punishing them. When you have a majority, you simultaneously defect, and no one gets punished.

Figuring out who’s willing is difficult, though; as long as there’s a risk that their signals will be detected by the regime, many people will falsify their preferences in public. That is how so many appalling autocrats can oversee so much appalling suffering for so long.

But a slight shift in the equilibrium can make the opposition’s strength suddenly apparent, as the recognition of the sheer number of opponents snowballs. That’s why terrible regimes so often seem to end almost overnight.

For Maduro, that night could come tonight, or any night. And right up until it does, we will probably all remain in the dark.

Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter @asymmetricinfo.

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