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Life lessons from a dictatorship

The most recent troubles of the opposition in Venezuela are illustrative of savvy strategic thinking by dictator Nicolás Maduro. Although we still know little of what has happened behind closed doors we know the following:

  • Three of the opposition’s most recognizable leaders, Juan Guaidó, Maria Corina Machado and Henrique Capriles Radonsky are publicly at odds.
  • Maduro released more than 100 prisoners ahead of the December 6 Congressional elections and some are likely to run in this election controlled by Maduro.
  • Having opposition politicians participate in the election will give it some, meager, semblance of credibility, which is what the Maduro regime wants.


Lesson 1: Create the illusion of transparency and fairness. It is important to understand that dictatorships are not happy with having absolute power in exchange for being labeled nasty autocracies. They want to have their cake and eat it too. They want power but also the ability to deny they are dictatorships. Autocracies that last are those that focus as much on creating the illusion of fairness and transparency as they do on exercising absolute control. For the Maduro regime it is not enough to control all levers of policy making. Maduro wants to be able to argue that he has given the opposition enough of a chance to have political representation. That’s why regimes like Cuba’s still bother to hold so called “elections”.

Lesson 2: Divide opponents to succeed. The opposition is divided among those who want Maduro removed by force by the international community (Machado), those who want to continue to use symbolism to expose Maduro as a dictator (Guaidó) and those who want to participate in elections despite the regime controlling them (Capriles Radonski). Maduro benefits from this infighting, especially since no radical opposition leader has emerged yet seeking to stage a structured, well-organized, armed struggle against the regime. Dictators understand that dividing adversaries or competitors is the best way to succeed and survive in power longer.

What I’m (Re)Reading 

The book “Scarcity: Why having so little means so much”, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, shows why the scarcity of food, money and time, dramatically reduces cognitive capacity because people focus on addressing dire need – they focus on survival. The authors set out to show that “poverty itself taxes the mind” and that “the same person has fewer IQ points when she is preoccupied with scarcity than when she is not”.

For those of us following dysfunctional politics, illiberal regimes and dictatorships, this book explains how and why hungry and destitute people appear to tolerate bad leaders for so long instead of rising up to bring about political change.

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