Moisés Naím: ‘Democracy was destroyed in the last decade and we didn’t realize it’

The Venezuelan thinker talks to EL PAÍS about how autocracies are maintained by the three P’s: populism, polarization and post-truth propaganda

Moisés Naim
Moisés Naím, last April at the Rafael del Pino Foundation in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez
Jesús Ruiz Mantilla

Moisés Naím understands power. And that’s why he is warning about how it is being abused. It’s a subject he addressed in his last two non-fiction books The Revenge of Power (2022) and The End of Power (2013), as well as in the novel Two Spies in Caracas (2018). Naím wielded power himself as Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry under the administration of Carlos Andrés Pérez. These days he studies, observes and analyzes it from within organizations such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC – where the 69-year-old Venezuelan lives –, as well as his television program Efecto Naím (or Naím Effect) and EL PAÍS columns. He continues to be alarmed by the demise of global democracy, and the rise of mafia states masquerading as democracies.

Question. Are former US president Donald Trump and leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and the Spanish far-right party Vox all working for Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Answer. The oligarchs too, who also work for him... Well yes, they are some of the people who destroyed democracy in the past decade and we didn’t realize it.

Q. In The Revenge of Power, there is a chapter called Mafia States. Is this what we will end up in?

A. It is a perverse and dangerous mutation of corruption. From this, we move to kleptocracy and from there to a third variant, the one that Putin embodies: the criminal state. This implies that the criminals are not outside the government trying to influence it, but that the criminal is the government itself.

Q. How do you define the three P’s – post-truth, polarization and populism – that are behind this demise?

A. All three have always existed, but now they have become more powerful due to technological and social change, and economic and geopolitical transformations.

Q. In what ways has this happened?

A. Each of them is connected. Populism, to start with, is not an ideology, but rather a tool. It is the same old idea of divide and conquer. This in turn leads to polarization that increases fractured identities. And all this is partly produced by post-truth, which is another strain of propaganda: it’s putting forward an alternative story to reality. This is how they invent stories.

Moisés Naim
Moisés Naim during the interview with EL PAÍS.Samuel Sánchez

Q. You once wrote: “Putting a KGB agent on Twitter is like leaving a child in a candy store.”

A. That’s right…

Q. Why didn’t it occur to anyone that these technological toys would also fall into unscrupulous hands, which would take advantage of them to grab power?

A. When the internet first began, the heads of tech companies told us that their inventions were going to be tools of liberation. Over time, to a large extent, they have become elements of repression. The intelligence services working for tyrants saw that they could identify their opponents there. Now they coexist. They help foster democracy and repression.

Q. What was to blame for this outcome? Were these technological forerunners guilty of naiveté or greed?

A. Of political naiveté. Nothing in their past had prepared them to understand that you cannot separate politics. I have attended meetings in which some of them believed that they would be able to dismantle politics, that parties would not be necessary because the people would end up choosing their leaders. That they wouldn’t need to go to Washington.

Q. Until they became the powers that be?

A. Until today, when they have become the biggest lobbyists. Reality has made it clear to them that politics exists and matters.

Q. That’s what tech companies realized and cashed in on in the pre-Trump era, when they requested millions of dollars from the US government to develop the NSA surveillance project. Is former US president Barack Obama innocent in all this?

A. There are trends that transcend leaders. This is what I explained in my previous book, The End of Power, which argues that power is easy to obtain, difficult to use and easy to lose. This is illustrated by fact that they [tech companies] requested $150 billion for that service. But technology companies now face several pioneering laws in the United States and another in Europe, the Digital Services Act, which will be essential to controlling them.

Q. Have you regretted being right about the concerns you raise in your books, specifically your latest one?

A. What I regret is not having been clearer and more vocal about the attacks against democracy in the world.

Q. Do you mean more radical? You are a paradigm of moderation.

A. Not really. We just have to conscientiously work to expose autocrats masquerading as democrats. It’s difficult, because they are secretive. So far I have not been successful.

Q. Do you feel powerless? Or, rather, do you think that those who are trying to defend democracy will be overcome by feelings of impotence?

A. We must remain hopeful. For example, I think that Putin, with his war [on Ukraine], has made a mistake. A big one.

Q. A mistake made out of desperation or ego?

A. We mustn’t speculate. But he made a mistake. There is no way to understand it, not even when considering his own interests. He was wrong about the strategy of the invasion, he was wrong about the capabilities of his army and about the resistance of the Ukrainians, which has surprised us all, even though it shouldn’t. On the other hand, Russia is poor, it is also isolating itself from the rest of the world. It is going through a demographic crisis and is going to suffer a major brain drain. Any young person from Russia has the world ahead of them and sees no need to sacrifice their future in a society with medieval codes. Many of them will go.

Q. The war is leading to a crisis that is having a financial impact. And it’s true that historically there has been a correlation between high inflation and fascism, as seen in the 1930s.

A. The term fascism has become an empty insult, which has left the word without meaning or power. I prefer autocracy: it captures it better.

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