Quora Question: What Can We Learn From Chavez and Venezuela's Crisis?

Venezuela
Venezuela's football fans call for the resignation of the country's president Nicolas Maduro before a 2015 Copa America football championship match, in Valparaiso, Chile, on June 18, 2015. JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer from Rodolfo Chacin, Venezuelan:

If I had to sum every lesson that I believe we (Venezuelans), collectively, have (or should have) learned from this mess it would go like this:

You can't democratically give power to those who tried to take it by force: Chavez and his entourage attempted a coup d'etat in the 90's under the excuse of reforming the country, becoming Robin Hood, taking out corrupt politicians, etc. It was an actual coup, not the mini strikes the opposition has used now and then as a form of protest. Chavez's was a real, militarized and violent coup where people died, there were tanks, there were fighter airplanes, there was gunfire.

Chavez wasn't successful seizing power. But he demonstrated he was willing to become a violent extremist in order to obtain what he wanted and deemed, under his line of thought, worthy and righteous. Fast forward a few years and he was released from prison by what many considered a peer-pressured presidential pardon. In a eerily Hitlerian way, he was then pushed into fame by his very coup and imprisonment, which later would fuel his shift towards propaganda rather than violence.

Long story short: People voted into the presidential house a man who tried to override every law and mechanism society had devised to protect everyone's rights and maintain peace, a man who disregarded the civilized ways, a man who thought himself so above everyone else that he'd "punch" his way in and bring the machine to a halt because he was convinced it had to be done. And everyone was so pleased to him do it, they saw in his irreverence and apparent regret a Christian messianic figure—but then you realized they were all idiots, and that it was so simple. Why give the violent guy who tried shoot his way into power a legitimate chance to rule your life? They were historically blind.

Populism takes advantage of one of the basic flaws of democracy. It doesn't work: Chavez was pushed into power by ways of ignorant masses who never earned democracy themselves, but were rather bestowed with it by their ancestors. Chavez took us by storm when he came saying he was gonna make Venezuela great again, that he was gonna do this honoring our forefather Simon Bolivar (ugh) and following his ways, that he wasn't going to let rich men keep stealing form the poor, that he was going to take all the oil and turn into riches and well-being for all the poor. He promised them everything they'd wanted and more, and then blamed every living politician in the planet for all the things that were wrong with the country. Then he proceeded to claim he'd be the only one (with his movement which later became Socialist) able to fix it and turn Venezuela into a world superpower.

Now you have to consider a few things: Populism has failed repeatedly in Latin America, Nazism happened, Soviet and Cuban communism happened, even Venezuela had several dictators. For lack of a better word, we were friggin warned. Yet people were completely oblivious to the horrific things that have happened as a result of their own innate ignorance and bought what this man had to say. Those who could kind of see through the populist veil were too overcome by emotion and resentment toward whatever current system they didn't agree with, and in a good Catholic manner they went along with it hoping "this time someone fixes this country." Populism did its job and made Venezuelans poorer, which made them more dependent on the government. They then promised more riches and gold to an already starving population, and then we arrive in today. The lesson in simple: Populism does not work. We need to recognize and ban it from our lives.

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A statue of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez is unveiled during an event at the entrance of the Venetur Hotel Convention Center in Venezuela September 16. Reuters

A couple days ago I was having a conversation with a Cuban-American who supported Donald Trump, and he was trying to convince me Trump was a way better option than Hillary Clinton. Eventually I got to the point where I said to him, "But what about his populist ways? He's sweet-talking people, telling them what he knows they want to hear, aiming at the resented part of the population with tacky comments, playing the strong bad guy, etc. Doesn't that set off an alarm in you? I mean, look at what populism has done to Latin America alone. He's a populist." To this he replied, "Yeah, so what?", implying that if populism is what Trump needed to resort to to save us all, then so be it. That scared me a little for obvious reasons.

Ignorance is the weapon with which a population calls upon its own demise, and we must be aware of that: Venezuelans were very ignorant. I'd dare say we still are. That has been explained in my previous points. If Venezuelans had had two degrees more of intelligence in the right direction, then we could have avoided this.

Many people warned us. If you surf the web you'll find countless interviews like this where important people at the time described with such level accuracy what's happening today that it's almost premonitory. One of these people was ex-president Carlos Andres Perez, who despite having a turbulent political career and becoming Chavism's scapegoat, described today's political turmoil to the dot. The lesson here is simple: We must be skeptical, we must investigate further, we must rely upon the notion that we don't know enough, ever. Things are never as simple as they seem.

Chavism continues to rely greatly on people's ignorance, even today. On top of that, they've fed that same ignorance that gave them power and multiplied it. Today's Venezuelans are more ignorant than ever. The Chavist generation was deprived of a proper education, and add to that the brain drain we suffered, and you'll end up with a population whose only smarts is Street Smart.

Emotions have nothing to with politics. We must be objective, unbiased: One of the reasons Chavez won is because the masses felt identified with him. The poor saw in him a fellow poor man, and the middle class saw an irreverent man who'd been poor and who had facial features a little too black, but was kicking rich men's butt in short debates. They found pleasure in seeing him shoving "facts" up old white men's noses. They found pleasure in seeing him speak louder than the others in debates and fooling them with word play and "win." They found pleasure in seeing him punish those they hated (without regards to the law). They projected their most primordial desires in him: Be rich, be irreverent, send everyone to hell, give a lesson to that rich snob boy down the street, give priority to myself above the others, punish those politicians who were too worried about not defaulting the country instead of giving me more food stamps and free stuff (how dare they), etc.

On top of this, Chavez promised riches to people. He promised outrageous things. And you can't go wrong with that, you're bound to earn people's hearts when you tell them they're gonna go from living in a shag to a brick home, that they're gonna go from taking that old crowded bus to driving their own cars, that they're gonna go from eating boring meals to eating all the nice things they can think of…all that, only through you and your government.

On top of this, Chavez took advantage of the sick religiousness of Venezuelans, and not only painted himself like a true Christian, but also like he was himself a messiah sent by god. He said all the time it was his Christian duty to do what he was doing, and people believed him. After all, he was a novelty, irreverent, hated by the authority…wasn't that Jesus' description? At least that's what they thought. You can't trust a society that can't separate their own religious ideas from the their civic duty to choose a president—eventually it will all end up "working in mysterious way." That's what Venezuelans thought, and probably many still do, that they were living an epic story and that Chavez was their David fighting the Big Man, or the Romans, and that they were trying to crucify him for wanting to help the poor; something like that. The lesson is simple: People let their emotions guide them. They let their own frustrations and resentment with the world guide their vote. They wanted revenge, they wanted riches, they wanted a nice place to burst out of thin air. They had unrealistic desires given the tools available, and let their judgement be clouded by them.

Everyone falls. But we must learn the lesson at some point: You can't fully blame Venezuelans for falling for Chavez the first time. Honestly, even the best families put some faith in the guy. I'm not waving Venezuelans from the blame; we are idiots, I admit that. What I'm trying to say is that at some point it was expected for such an isolated society like ours, with no historic involvement, to fall. That I know, I've even made peace with all the dictators we've had which should have taught us a lesson, but all right let us say that was too ancient history to count. But here's the problem: People never learned the lesson. Millions kept falling for Chavez over and over again, election after election. And that, that was their fault entirely. We are in this mess today because millions of people with the power to vote never took into account any of the points I have briefly described in this post—and if that wasn't enough, they weren't capable of adjusting, learning and evolving. They kept falling for the same tricks over and over again. Like a dumb dog, they never realized they were chasing their own tales.

Even today, after almost 20 years of this hell, most Venezuelans haven't learned the lesson. You might think they have, given all the opposition and turmoil against the government, but that's just smoke. They'd be willing to sell their souls for immediate reward…over again. They hate the Chavist government merely because they're starving and it's affecting them now, but many will praise past dictators and torturers because of their infrastructure achievements or the like, regardless of how anti-democratic that is.

One that comes to mind is Marcos Perez Jimenez, a dictator who built many roads, many buildings, many bridges, etc. And while it's true that during his involvement the country grew, saw prosperity and tranquility, as well a decrease in petty crime, he was also a dictator and torturer. Some of our oldest grandparents will tell you stories about people being tortured in nearby houses. People screaming and people disappearing, be that criminals or simply people who didn't agree with the regime. Modern Venezuelans will praise this man. Why? Because he made criminals disappear, so streets were safe. He built roads and bridges, though people didn't get a say. He gave national currency new worth, even though people didn't get to vote. So what is it that people see? Safe streets, roads and bridges, strong currency, but they are unable to see that it's not worth it if you have to sell your soul for it. Some will go as far as saying, confidently and adamantly, "An efficient dictatorship is better than an inefficient and corrupt democracy." I'm not sure if I'm making my point across, but what I'm trying to say is that Venezuelans haven't understood the true values of democracy and freedom, they haven't learned that freedom is worth more than immediate reward, they haven't realized that is this attitude that has led them to disaster over and over again; they refuse to learn the lesson.

This, their biggest and most patriotic opposition political movement so far is not fueled by true democratic desires and understanding, but rather by mere accumulative and repetitive discomfort. Take them back to 2002 when Chavez fired thousands of opposition workers from PDVSA, but they had their money, their corn flour, and their new cars, and they'll most likely let it happen all over again.

Venezuelan society has a word, Vivo. There's no actual translation in English, except it's literal one: Alive.

When children are waiting in line for ice cream and one of them finds a way to fool the others and cut in to get there first, he's vivo. When other children tell their parents little Ben cut in line in front of them and got the last portion of ice cream, parents scold them and tell them they're not vivo enough. When little Ben grows up and sweet-talks his teacher into waving his term exam because "granny died," or sweet-talks you into finishing the group homework because "this or that happened," he's praised because he's vivo, and you're not. Little Ben gets friends and laughter for knowing how to cheat.

When Chavism came into power, many people joined them in order to get money out of whatever shady business they could find. Those who joined were vivos. Those who found it morally appalling and decided to stay out of it were not vivos, in fact, were quedaos.

Quedao' is another prevalent word in Venezuelan society. It's the opposite of Vivo. It's basically a mix of being dumb and not having street smarts. In Venezuela, when you choose not to keep that wallet you found on the floor, you're quedao'. When you choose to call the owner of the cell phone you just found, you're quedao'. When you choose not to screw someone who tried to screw you, you're quedao'. When you choose not to take advantage of others for your own benefit, you're quedao'.

Both words are part of the fabric that makes Venezuelan society. If you're quedao' then you might as well be a leper. The dynamics of the society develop like that, vivos vs quedaos. Everyone trying to screw everyone, everyone trying to outsmart everyone. Children are taught not to let others cut in line, that rather they should be the ones cutting in the line in front of Bennie. Every problem can be fixed if you're vivo enough.

Now, Venezuela knows what being vivo entails. They know it means cheating, they know it means lying, they know it means taking advantage of people. So, oddly enough, they use as a derogatory term from time to time…namely when they get out-screwed. "Damn it, that Bennie is too vivo. That's why I don't like that guy, I don't like vivo people."

The point is, Venezuelan society revolves around this need to screw everyone and not be screwed over. It prevents us from raising morally sound children. It prevents us from taking moral decisions. It prevents us from working as a team. It prevents us from focusing on what's truly important. It prevents us from looking at the greater picture.

Chavez was seen as vivo, and praised for it. When he lied about being a socialist, about currency controls, or private capital, etc, people felt cheated, but in a very twisted way, deep inside they had to give it to him, "He out-vivoed me." The whole idea of benefiting from lying and cheating is so stuck in the Venezuelan psyche that you can't even get mad anymore when you get screwed, you can't even expect support from your peers. If little Ben screwed you, is because you're a petty quedao', he didn't do anything wrong.

It's hard for a society to move forward with such a mentality embedded in its DNA.

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Quora Question: What Can We Learn From Chavez and Venezuela's Crisis? | World