Hugo Chavez salutes during a military parade to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his failed coup attempt, on 4 February 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
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Hugo Chávez: An elected autocrat

He kept power by bullying those who dissented – and his departure leaves a dangerous vacuum.

This piece was originally published as part of a cover package in the New Statesman magazine, alongside an article by Richard Gott entitled "Man against the world".

It was visiting day at Los Teques women’s jail, a jumble of concrete ringed by guards on a hill overlooking Caracas, and the inmates were dolled up, tight jeans, heels, lipstick, bangles, to receive their menfolk and children. All lounged in the courtyard, soaking up sun, chatting and snacking.

All save one. Maria Lourdes Afiuni’s cell door was open but she stayed inside, perched on her bunk, smoking. Pale and pasty, she wore baggy jeans, a shapeless sweater, trainers and no make-up.

A portrait of the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon, a gift from a friend, adorned the wall. The dragon bore a distinct resemblance to Hugo Chávez. Afiuni smiled. The president had already sentenced her; what did she have to lose?

It was January 2011 and I had come to interview Venezuela’s best-known prisoner. Afiuni was a judge who had come to national attention 13 months earlier by releasing a highprofile banker accused of fraud.

Chávez erupted. He went on television to accuse Afiuni of having been bribed, of being a bandit, and said in earlier times she would have been shot. “We have to give this judge and the people who did this the maximum sentence . . . 30 years in prison in the name of the dignity of the country!”

A single mother in her forties, Afiuni had cancer. Inmates attacked her and threatened to “drink her blood”. An international campaign for her release was launched but on this bright January day she remained incarcerated and hunched in her cell, afraid to mix with the other inmates. “I’m here as the president’s prisoner,” she said.

There was no disputing that. Guilty or not – Afiuni vehemently protested that she was innocent – there was no chance of a free trial after Chávez’s intervention. Noam Chomsky led the international outcry, yet her fellow judges stayed silent, too intimidated to join in. “Cowards and accomplices,” she said.

Afiuni’s plight was not typical of Hugo Chávez’s rule. There were no gulags, no mass arrests, no fear of the midnight knock on the door. Chávez did not rule through terror. But when it suited him he bullied the courts into jailing those who challenged or angered him.

He was neither a tyrant nor a democratic liberator but a hybrid, an elected autocrat, and the nuances of that category often escaped his friends and critics abroad.

He relied on the ballot box for legitimacy while concentrating power and eroding freedoms, shunting Venezuela into a twilight zone where you could do what you wanted – until the president said you couldn’t.

Chávez praised Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gaddafi as brothers but restrained the bloodshed, settling for selective intimidation and thuggery. Repression was usually a last resort – when oil revenues, charisma and political skill were not enough for him to get his way.

His domestic opponents faced mounting threats. The first weapon was humiliation. Intelligence agents passed recordings of intercepted calls to a chavista television show, The Razorblade, which would gleefully spin and broadcast them, to an accompaniment of animal noises.

The second weapon was disqualification from running for office. Leopoldo López, a potential pre - sidential rival descended from Simón Bolívar’s sister, was accused of corruption, tangled in legal knots and sidelined.

The third was emasculation. Antonio Ledezma was elected the metropolitan mayor of Caracas but became irrelevant. A red-shirted mob occupied the city hall, with police complicity, and Chávez transferred the mayor’s powers to a newly created city authority run by an apparatchik.

Those who posed more serious threats, or who just got under the president’s skin, faced jail, usually charged with corruption. Manuel Rosales, who ran against Chávez in the 2006 presidential election, and lost badly, fled to Peru. Raúl Baduel, a defence minister who turned against the president, was jailed for eight years.

Union leaders who agitated too hard for workers’ rights, such as Rubén González, were jailed for unlawful assembly. Political prisoners, to use that loaded term, seldom numbered more than a dozen at any one time. A small number that sent a loud message: Chávez owned the courts.

In the case of Afiuni there was not even any pretence about separation of powers: the president publicly ordered her jailing. This proved too much even for Chomsky, otherwise a supporter of Chávez. His intervention is one reason Afiuni was granted house arrest, where she remains today.

Craven judges gave a threadbare legal cover to punishing foes, expropriating property and violating the constitution. The chavista militias that rode around town on motorbikes lobbing tear gas at opposition targets were a circus sideshow. Judges were the real fist. Hardly a Stalinist dystopia, but not the democratic New Jerusalem Chávez’s propagandists proclaimed.

The intimidation was selective. As the Guardian’s correspondent in Caracas for six years, I never had a problem with visas, accreditation or invitations to official events. The local media, however, were squeezed. Dozens of private radio and television stations lost their licences, encouraging the rest to self-censor. The exception was Globovisión, a Fox-like cable TV channel that fulminated against Chávez.

In 2002, Globovisión and other private channels shamefully fuelled a US-backed coup that briefly ousted Chávez. Their comeuppance was merited. Yet Chávez went too far, creating a sycophantic state media empire and cowing most, though not all, private media. This enabled his personality cult and his transformation from “el presidente” to “el comandante”, a military term his followers used to stress obedience. During his marathon broadcasts, ministers would compete during fleeting cameos (it was unwise to divert the limelight too long) to show loyalty and submission.

He cemented his rule by rewarding allies. Opportunists, notably senior military officers and the tycoons known as “boligarchs”, got rich manipulating government contracts. Civilian ideologues and Cuba got power and influence. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people got jobs in a bloated bureaucracy. And millions of the poor got social services, scholarships and handouts, notably fridges, tumble dryers and washing machines. Those who voted against him were often barred from government jobs and benefits.

Other Latin American governments knew of the abuses, that elections were free though not fair, but stayed silent. Venezuela’s hollowed economy required huge imports from its neighbours to keep shelves stocked. Why risk the bonanza? Plus Chávez offered discounted oil, called time on Yankee meddling and told the IMF to stuff itself.

As the comandante ails in a Cuban clinic, Venezuela’s one-man rule totters without the man. In the short term, that creates a dangerous vacuum. Chávez hovers like Banquo’s ghost while his appointed heir, Vice- President Nicolás Maduro, does an awkward tango with Diosdado Cabello, head of a rival chavista faction. Urgent decisions loom, not least a currency devaluation, but no one dares take them.

There are many ifs. If Chávez dies soon, expect a huge funeral and a swift election. If Maduro wins he will struggle to keep the disparate ruling coalition united and fix the warping economy. Chávez’s political genius was the revolution’s glue. Maduro is no genius and he relies on Cuban mentors, not a good augury for healthy democracy.

If the opposition stays united and wins the election it will face entrenched chavista bureaucrats, mayors and governors. Some will seek to perpetuate their movement the way the Perónists did in Argentina. Others will saltar la talanquera, a Venezuelan tradition of jumping the fence to accommodate new rulers. If oil prices stay high the transition will have a cushion.

The longer-term challenge will be the economy and rebuilding institutions – ministries, the judiciary, the armed forces, local government – which have been gutted and have become hyper-politicised. It will be messy and painful. At such times Venezuela usually clamours for a strong leader who promises short cuts. Too often, it finds one.

Rory Carroll was based in Caracas as the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent from 2006 to 2012. His book on Chávez, “Comandante: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chávez”, will be published by Canongate in March

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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The Okay Place: the psychological value of mediocre TV

Why do we watch comedies that don’t make us laugh?

I’ve been watching Brooklyn 99 on the train. The comedy cop show makes me laugh roughly once an episode, but nonetheless I watch it compulsively. I watch it on my commute, and I watch it while cooking dinner. It’s in the background when I’m paying my bills. I consumed so many episodes last night, Netflix sent me its most notoriously judgemental pop-up: “Are you still watching?”

Yes, Netflix, I was still watching. The real question was: why?

Brooklyn 99 doesn’t really make me laugh, and it’s far from the most critically-acclaimed show available on the streaming service right now. It’s not technically mediocre – the sitcom has won two Golden Globes – but it is to me*. It provokes the same feelings in me as Netflix’s The Good Place, a kitsch sitcom set in the afterlife. I am compelled to watch at all costs, but on the whole unamused and occasionally frustrated by formulaic storylines. (Sometimes, The Good Place even makes me cringe.)

I enjoy both shows, sure, but I don’t love them. So why am I wasting my time?

(*Because this is the internet, it's a good time to specify that "mediocre" here means in the view of the person being quoted, not objectively.)

“To understand why people are drawn to certain shows, it’s helpful to look at the type of feelings the shows elicit,” says Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist and assistant professor at West Virginia University. Cohen says media often has a “mood management function”, in that we use it to make ourselves feel better.

“Sometimes we are looking to be emotionally stimulated, so we might choose to watch something that we think will thrill us,” she says. “But other times we might decide to forego the dark cerebral drama on our DVR and opt for a safe sitcom instead. That could be because we need something that will help us wind down, relax, and boost our mood.”

Photo: Netflix

A desire to unwind is one of the reasons Oliver Savory, a 30-year-old grad student from London, watches The Big Bang Theory, a comedy that has inspired much ire.

“It fills a niche of something to watch while eating, when you can’t focus fully, or you’ve just got in and want to unwind without thinking too hard,” he explains. Oliver says “average” TV comforts him more than “good” TV because he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up to date. “Good TV you have to make time for, average TV can fit around your own schedule without imposing itself.”

Cohen says this is referred to as “comfort food TV”, the entertainment equivalent of eating boxed mac and cheese even if you have the recipe for mum’s spaghetti. “These are shows that people watch not because they are exceptional in quality, but because they are simple, predictable, or nostalgic.”

Sometimes, we watch “okay” shows because we feel they have the potential to be great. Karen Dill-Shackleford is a media psychologist who explains this was her experience with The Good Place.

“I love The Good Place, but there was a stretch when I thought it was poor,” she says. “I kept waiting for it to right itself because I thought it had real potential.”

The potential many of us see in the show is its fresh premise, and its engagement with moral philosophy. As Dill-Shackleford puts it: “[the show] is a palatable way to ponder life’s biggest questions. So, even if the jokes are lame, the potential for real value is still there.”

Charlotte Mullin, a 23-year-old illustrator, says she doesn't laugh at the jokes either. “But what keeps me watching is the premise, and the characters. I’m a sucker for good character development, and The Good Place has it in spades,” she says. (Cohen tells me she does laugh at The Good Place, once again illustrating that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder.)

Photo: Netflix

Ross McCafferty is a 27-year-old journalist from Glasgow who couldn’t tell you anything about NBC’s Parks and Recreation, even though he’s seen every episode. During a difficult time at work, he consumed the entire show.

“It’s actually quite a derivative, even mediocre show,” he says. “But I still ate it up, because at the time it was oddly comforting to me, self-contained and uncomplicated and unobtrusive, like so little in my life at that time.”

The reasons McCafferty liked the show, he says, is because it was “nice”, “brightly lit”, “nonthreatening” and “so sweet it was cloying”.

Bright lights and pretty colours certainly feel like one of the reasons I keep going back to mediocre sitcoms, but I also find comfort in certain characters: Chidi in The Good Place and Boyle in Brooklyn 99 are comfortingly familiar – I almost switch on to keep up to date with them, as if they were friends.

George Clarke is a 25-year-old management consultant who finds similar comfort in Seinfeld characters, even though the show doesn’t make him laugh much. “Some days I might fancy Netflix’s latest psychological thriller, but most of the time I’d just prefer to sit and watch Kramer doing something ridiculous or George stuff it up with the girl of his dreams for the fourth time that season,” he says.

But couldn’t Clarke and I find our televisual buds in prestige dramas?

“I find the idea of watching prestige shows non-stop to be exhausting,”  says David Renshaw, a 30-year-old news editor, who jokes it can feel like you “need a map” to keep up with Game of Thrones. When he finishes watching something acclaimed, such as Breaking Bad, he “cleanses the palette” with shows like Masterchef or Gogglebox. “They are much lower maintenance… especially if you’re switching between TV and phone as often as I do.”

Photo: Netflix

The comfort of the mediocre is so powerful that it can often override other emotions, such as the cringing I experience during some of The Good Place’s more strained jokes. Lizzie Roberts is a 25-year-old masters student who enjoys Gilmore Girls even though she dislikes the character Lorelai’s “painfully unfunny monologues”.

“It’s my way of letting my brain reset,” she says of the show, as well as reality TV such as Towie and I’m A Celeb. “It’s not taxing, it’s tolerable.”

“Not taxing and tolerable” are perhaps the words that best sum up the complex psychological reasons we continue to watch mediocre TV during the Golden Age of Television. Streaming services like Netflix are also designed to keep us watching, with episodes auto-playing one after the other (plus it's easier to find a show you've essentially already paid for on the Netflix homepage than go out and hunt for something more prestigious).

Although watching mediocre TV can feel like a waste of time, it does seem to have a psychological purpose. When we're stressed, busy, or tired, it can be exactly the entertainment we need. Nothing is more stressful, busy, or tiring than a commute – so I'll be watching Brooklyn 99 on the train home.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez