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What Americans Don’t Get About Dictatorships

Lily Padula


BOGOTA, Colombia — It’s been five months since the opposition lawmaker Juan Guaidó assumed the symbolic role of interim president of Venezuela, hoping to unseat the country’s strongman, Nicolás Maduro. Despite more than 50 countries recognizing Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, oil sanctions imposed by the United States, massive street protests, and the worst economic crisis in modern history, Mr. Maduro persists.

The staying power of Mr. Maduro’s embattled government has confounded the international community, academics, analysts and journalists. Call it a lack of negative imagination — the capacity to conceive of and prepare for worst-case scenarios. The inability to fathom the resilience of an authoritarian regime shows how politically naïve those in liberal democracies have become. Freedom and wealth give us strength, but it can also become a weakness. We become unprepared for the unthinkable and blindsided by events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the rise of Donald Trump, or the Brexit vote in Britain.

When the likelihood that Mr. Maduro could defy expectations and hold onto power for much longer is raised in meetings with policymakers in Washington or financiers in New York, it often incites anger or disbelief. I should know. In my work with Control Risks, a global risk management consultancy, we have raised the alarm for the last three and a half years that Mr. Maduro and his Chavista political movement can cling on to power longer than most people think. Mr. Maduro’s friends in Cuba, China, Russia and Turkey have helped him cling on. The West has consistently underestimated his determination and lack of scruples.

When I explain this to incredulous clients, I’m often met with uncomfortable silences or a battery of angry counterarguments. A journalist once wondered, half in jest, if my professional opinion was the result of being a closeted Chavista. People in democracies where logic, well-functioning institutions and strong civil societies prevail struggle to understand countries without those norms.

We assume that cash-strapped dictators will quickly fall because they can no longer buy people’s loyalty. But we fail to understand that when money becomes scarce, unscrupulous regimes like those in North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela use fear and terror — including jailing or killing dissenters and their families — to enforce obedience.

We also like to think that dictatorships are constantly teetering on the brink because of weak and corrupt institutions. But regimes like Mr. Maduro’s encourage graft as a way to keep greedy bureaucrats loyal, and to have something to hold over their heads if they should become enemies. There are plenty of examples of corrupt Maduro loyalists who were persecuted when they turned on the regime.

In Venezuela’s latest racket, for instance, passport agency officials have been known to charge citizens up to $2,000 for a new passport. Corruption is a trap that makes it hard for criminalized civil servants to have a normal life outside the regime, because they will always run the risk of ending up in jail or dead. Criminalized institutions have staying power precisely because they are corrupt.

A particularly romantic misconception is that hungry people will fight for their freedom and inevitably topple regimes. Studies show that people who are experiencing food shortages are focused on day-to-day survival. Hunger makes people more dependent on the state that controls them, just like Venezuelans are now more dependent on Mr. Maduro’s food handouts. An abused citizenry falls into “learned helplessness” and becomes more pliant and cowed. Hungry people rarely topple dictatorships — well-organized coups or insurgencies do.

If and when a nasty regime falls we also like to think the good guys take control. If Mr. Maduro leaves — especially following a negotiation — a number of Chavistas who control the levers of power could come out on top. No one gives up power willingly without something in return. This means that regime insiders whom the international community finds unsavory could still wield power post Maduro, likely sharing it with populist-leaning members of the opposition. It’s unrealistic to assume that pro-business, democratic leaders will immediately control Venezuela if and when Mr. Maduro departs.

To help countries overcome dictatorial rulers, the international community must first take off its rose-tinted glasses. Positive thinking has almost become an ideology in foreign policy circles. But only when we begin to account for all the things that can go wrong, can we prepare to successfully tackle negative outcomes ahead of time. Understanding how illiberal and criminal regimes function is also crucial, instead of assuming they will respond to the same incentives that motivate us. Hoping for the best won’t rescue nations from political backwardness. To achieve a democratic transition in Venezuela requires more than wishful thinking.