Economic Downturns and State Violence: A Conversation with Andres Antillano

VA interviews a Chavista professor and activist about the social effects of hard-on-crime policies.

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Andres Antillano. (Venezuelanalysis)
Andres Antillano. (Venezuelanalysis)
By Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis.com
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Andres Antillano is a social psychologist and professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas, where he holds the Criminology Chair. He investigates violence and the conditions that favor it, examining these issues from a class perspective.

For years, the Bolivarian Revolution attempted to offer a new approach to police activity, worked to develop a new model based on social justice. These policies, unfortunately, have been rolled back during the crisis. In this interview Antillano, who is also a human rights activist, walks us through the historical relation between economic fluctuations, government policies, and police repression.

Note: This interview was conducted in January 2019, prior to Juan Guaido’s self-proclamation as “interim president” and months before the publication of the OHCHR’s controversial and widely disputed human rights report.

The hard-line approach to crime has had a cyclical history in Venezuela. When the economy shrinks, reducing the average income, then police activity becomes more repressive. That’s what happened towards the end of the Fourth Republic, when an undeclared “war against the poor” began. In recent years, police policy and practice in Venezuela has been turning once again toward the hardline approach. How do you understand this?

The hardline policies that you are pointing to and the discourse justifying repression have to be understood in terms of class struggle, not just as a response to crime. Disregarding the class factor would lead to mechanical and naive interpretations.

In Venezuela, it is easy to show how the increase in police repression and in the incarceration rate – the repression of the poor in general – goes hand in hand with periods of economic downturn due to squeezed oil profits. The thesis of [Pierre] Bourdieu about the left hand and the right hand of the state becomes a reality. That is, when the state loses the capacity to redistribute as a mechanism of containment and control of the poor, then it opts for the right hand, which brings in hardline policies: repression, containment, police violence, and vamping up the criminal justice system.

Venezuela is no exception to this pattern. We have seen how, in times of economic downturn, repression against the popular sectors increases as a mechanism with various functions. The first function is to contain, repress and intimidate, using systematic terror on the popular classes, which are the ones who feel the crisis most sharply. The weight of the crisis falls on those in the barrio, and so the police send them a clear message to not rebel, quelling any possibility of disorder in the face of deteriorated living conditions.

Furthermore, these policies aim to please middle-class sectors who consider insecurity to be one of their main concerns. With “public order” and “security” as the stated goals, police repression becomes a means to acquire political legitimacy in the eyes of the middle class.

Finally, in Venezuela as elsewhere, these repressive policies are connected to economic control and distribution in grey markets. During a crisis, repression goes hand in hand with the regulation, reorganization and access to illegal markets, where practices of extortion are closely tied to the police. Thus, when diverse groups struggle to take charge of illicit distribution networks, police violence usually takes sides with some particular interest.

All this occurs, I contend, cyclically in Venezuela, and we can see it taking place in recent years.

In this regard, we can distinguish two periods in recent history. When Chavez came to power, that ends a period of growing prison population in Venezuela. The prison population had gone up in the 1980s – a decade of economic downturn and reduced oil profits (in effect, it represented the downswing of the oil profit cycle). Prison population rose in a sustained curve during the 1980s, hand in hand with an increase in police repression. I insist that both mechanisms – police repression and incarceration – coincide with this idea of controlling, intimidating, and disciplining the population that is excluded as a result of the economic downturn and structural adjustments.

With Chavez this repressive cycle stops and with it the tendency to increase prison population. Now the incarceration rate falls. Also, under Chavez, repressive policies toward the poor were explicitly rejected, both in the discourse and in reality. It was understood that these policies were functional to the neoliberal program that former governments had maintained.

Through most of Chavez’s presidency, prison population remains more or less stable and police violence declines. With Chavez, there were no police operations of the kind used in the 1980s such as “Plan Union” (Union Plan), which were sometimes referred to as “social prophylaxis” (a term that reveals their ideological and political nature). Arrests without warrant, so common before the Bolivarian Revolution, went away, and the number of deaths in the hands of the police dropped too, while torture episodes and repression of protests fell significantly.

Contrary to what is said by the international centers of power, Chavismo was not only the most democratic project in its moment, but it also made human rights key to its program.

This is interesting because on the Left we have always had suspicions about human rights since they are framed as liberal achievements associated with the bourgeois revolution. I think this has to do with the historical context and conditions in which Marxist-Leninist thought took shape, in countries where there was little tradition of human rights and individual liberties such as Russia and later in Third World countries. For example, the position that Lenin had about this question is very different from that of Rosa Luxemburg, for whom the idea of democratic liberties and rights is central.

The Left, or a part of it, has seen human rights as an instrumental question, but it seems to me that Chavismo put it in the center of the debate with the claim that it is not possible to reach equality and social emancipation without respecting rights, because respect for rights is all about respecting the rights of the poor.

Infringing human rights is, in fact, usually the violation of the rights of the most vulnerable, of the poor. That is what is happening here. Police never infringe the rights of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is always able to defend its rights, whereas the rights of the poorest are easily cut back. So Chavismo put human rights and democratic liberties in the center of its political project and that, in turn, leads to repressive policies going into abeyance.

However, we began to witness a shift around 2010. First came the “Madrugonazo al hampa” [Wake-up call to the criminal underworld], with aggressive police repression very similar to those employed in the Fourth Republic. Along with it, were massive detentions of poor youth from the barrios, and a rapid growth in prison population.

This led to filling up of prisons. The prison population went up from about 20,000 – the lowest in the continent – to more than 50,000 in a few years. It more than doubled! By 2014, coinciding with the decline of oil profits, this tendency became firmly established, with a turn that didn't just involve massive imprisonment but also systematic killings of young people from the barrios, first in the hands of the OLP [Operation for the Liberation of the People] and now with the FAES [Special Action Forces].

From my point of view, all this has to do with the logic that I mentioned at the beginning: the dynamic of containing and disciplining those sectors which are the first to suffer the severe effects of the economic crisis, [and] a form of governmental legitimation for [middle-class] sectors that call out for security. So, the state’s legitimacy ceases to depend on its policies of redistributing wealth or its social reforms, but rather on guaranteeing security – what’s more, carried out in a questionable way. Additionally, we should mention that there is a sector of capital that is attracted by, and directly benefits from, these hardline policies.

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FAES, special action forces. (Archive)
FAES, special action forces. (Archive)

To understand the situation now, it might be useful to describe the general political context in Venezuela especially with regard to Chavista project and how that project has survived or been transformed during the crisis.

Sure, the hardline repressive policies that we have been discussing are part of a larger shift and new rhetoric against the poor that has unfurled over the past few years. The human rights issue has to be understood in this context.

In effect, we have witnessed a drift away from the centrality of the poor, the poor as the historical subject, which was at the core of the Chavista project. Now, in various spheres, we can observe how the poor are no longer considered to be the historical subject. There has been a process through which at first the poor became simply an object and then they became a problem or even an enemy.

So this marks a shift away from the original revolutionary discourse in which the pueblo (people) was the subject, to a discourse where the pueblo is a beneficiary object or kind of receptacle. All this indicates a radical discursive shift. The pueblo is no longer the historical subject, the subject of the Revolution, nor the agent of transformation. Now the pueblo is understood to be a helpless object that needs tutelage. It has to be reprehended, led, protected and, above all, domesticated. This is a discourse that has emerged in many arenas, and in the most diverse spheres of government.

The next step is to make the pueblo into an enemy. This expresses itself in diverse forms. For example, when the right won the 2015 [parliamentary] elections, the problem was the people “who lacked political awareness” or “the ignorant people who voted for hunger,” etc. It was a missed opportunity to do a very serious self-critique about the nature of the policies that the government had been implementing. The political leadership chose to turn the pueblo into the victimizer rather than engage in the critical reflections that could lead to making the necessary corrections

Another example has to do with the “economic war” discourse. The economic war transforms the historical discourse of Chavismo. Now it is no longer big capital that is responsible for the economic situation, or corruption, or mistaken economic policies. Instead, it’s the people, the poor, the bachaqueros [people who resell goods purchased at state-subsidized prices.] Who is to blame? Who is responsible for the tragic economic situation? The bachaqueros. They are the problem, they are the ones who make merchandise disappear from store shelves. They are the ones who are responsible for the price hikes. The problem is not the Mendozas [the family that owns Alimentos Polar, the largest food monopoly in Venezuela and the maker of the popular PAN corn flour brand], but the barrio woman who buys three packages of PAN flour, one for her family and two to resell for survival.

So we encounter a [new] discourse in which the pueblo is no longer the agent of transformation, it is not the subject of history. Instead, the pueblo is presented as an obstacle in history. This, of course, goes hand-in-hand with a process of growing disconnection between the Chavista direction and its social base.

Returning to the 2015 elections, the key to correctly interpreting them is not focusing on the defeat in itself, but rather how the defeat and the discourse that emerged as a response to it reveals a rupture between the class components that had defined Chavismo until then. There was an electoral defeat, what’s important is the degree to which it came from barrio sectors and rural areas – the strongholds of Chavismo.

The disconnect between the government and the people goes hand in hand with the idea that the pueblo is no longer the historical subject, but is rather an obstacle to the revolution.

So there was a change in the discourse and a significant rise in repressive policies dictated from above. This goes along with the diluting of another element that is central to Chavismo: democracy and participation. Democratic participation has shrunken, going from electoral processes [where Chavismo primaries have vanished] to the exercise of local participation. We see participative democracy being weakened by top-down mechanisms: “transmission belts” that the government uses to deliver orders and organize clientelistic policies. These break down the mechanisms that allow for a real exercise of power by the people.

We have seen how first communes and then even communal councils vanish from the official discourse. Now the only organizational expression legitimated by the official discourse is the CLAP [Local Supply and Production Committees, responsible for distributing subsidized food], which is not a mechanism of participation. Without passing any judgment on the CLAP, it is no more than a mechanism for distributing food, a clientelist, assistential mechanism. It is not Popular Power in action.

Thus, I think that we could put these repressive policies in a broader context of policies and discourses that seem to indicate a shifting of the government and of certain sectors of Chavismo away from the class coordinates that had been key to the Bolivarian Revolution.

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Chavismo has deeply popular roots. Here, Chavez in the electoral campaign in 1998. (Archive)
Chavismo has deeply popular roots. Here, Chavez in the electoral campaign in 1998. (Archive)

Returning to the issue of repressive policies, you have argued that not only are they ethically unacceptable, they are also incapable of controlling crime. In recent years, the actions of special forces units have led to thousands of extrajudicial deaths, but this hasn’t reduced crime.

These policies are not only inefficient, but they are also actually counterproductive. First, they don’t achieve their declared goals. In other words, these policies do not reduce crime. Let’s look at two strategies that have been used in the last ten years: massive incarceration and massive destruction based on the execution of poor people.

The policies of mass incarceration, which began with the “Madrugonazo al hampa” in 2010, meant that the prison population more than doubled. As a consequence, prisons became insidious mechanisms for reproducing criminal activity that, until then, had been disorganized delinquency. Prisons, in effect, worked to organize the existing but decentralized criminal activity.

By the way, the social basis of barrio crime should be addressed here. The Revolution was based, to a great degree, on creating redistributive mechanisms. It so happens that these mechanisms didn’t reach all sectors of society. Barrio youth didn’t participate in communal councils or in social missions, so they didn’t benefit from the process.

This produced a gap between, on the one hand, the generations that had experienced the last years of neoliberalism and were able to improve their living conditions during the years of the Bolivarian Revolution and, on the other hand, the youth that wasn’t directly incorporated.

The gap between these sectors is often not only intraclass, but also sometimes intrafamily. It’s the gap between the father, a worker whose living conditions decayed during the last years of neoliberalism, but whose situation improved with the Revolution, and the son who has no way of finding a half-decent job. These intraclass gaps, which are often invisible to traditional statistics, have to be taken into account to understand why crime persisted during all the years of the Revolution.

That’s the social base for the phenomenon. Then, we have to consider the effects of the mass incarceration policies that began at the end of the last decade and how they ended up priming these groups that had been left behind by inclusion policies that didn’t reach them. Much of this disenfranchised youth were involved in a disorganized or unstructured small-time crime, and the policies of mass incarceration bring all these precarious subjects together, fostering a reorganization of crime.

Thus, prisons become crime factories, as has happened before. In other words, when the Venezuelan penitentiary system went from twenty thousand to more than fifty thousand prisoners in less than three years, that generated favorable social conditions for the emergence of criminal structures inside the prisons that are later exported to the world outside.

Around 2012 and 2013, criminal groups began to have a much larger, structured capacity to carry out crime. They did it in a more organized, efficient manner. At that time, kidnappings for ransom began to increase. Criminality went up, and it was no surprise.

The state’s response – at a time when the economic conditions were clearly deteriorating, when the generational gap was rapidly widening – was to begin policies of systematic extrajudicial killings, first expressed in the OLP campaigns and now with the FAES.

From mid-2015 through the end of 2018 more than fifteen thousand people died in the hands of the police. That is really a scandalous number, particularly when one puts faces to these numbers. We are talking about young men from the popular sectors, the sons of the women who organize the CLAP or the Communal Councils in the barrios. These were the folks who were not yet included in the Revolution's initiatives – instead, they were killed by “iron-fist” policies.

A side-effect of these policies is that they began to give rise to new practices of territorial control by organized crime, which begins as an attempt to defend themselves from police incursions. To do so, they increase their firing capacity for the sake of defense – which they do very efficiently, paradoxically, by purchasing weapons from the police. This, in turn, leads to an increased capacity for extortion, etc.

Briefly put, the string of repressive policies has generated an efficient reorganization and an escalation in the criminal capacity of these groups.

In the face of this dire situation, what do you think should be done?

I don’t like proposing formulas. I think it would be very irresponsible to prescribe magical solutions.

The current policies, no doubt, go against the original ideals of Chavismo. This Revolution’s program focused on inclusion and the recognition of the poor as the subject. These policies are maintained in part because some sectors of the population approve of them. When the OLP was launched, it was supported by large sectors of the population. In terms of electoral cache, the beginning of the OLP was quite useful. At that time, everyone except the communities where the OLP did its work supported the initiative. Those views, of course, shifted later.

By the way, the OLP began in mid-2015. In terms of political cache, we can see clearly then that in those communities where the OLP intervened – in poor barrio sectors where, as I said before, Chavismo had always won – there was a tremendous electoral defeat. That is the case of the polling centers in Cota 905 [a Caracas barrio], where Chavismo had always won, but, beginning in 2015, people decided not to vote for Chavismo.

What’s the solution? I have the uncomfortable role of revealing what is going on, but society must define its strategies. The solution to this problem has to come through a democratic debate among the pueblo.

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