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Dueling Narratives in Venezuela

By Taylor Marvin

Last month Dorothy Kronick published a long piece on Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis at FiveThirtyEight. In keeping with the young publication’s self-proclaimed data-driven mission, Kronick attempts to explain Venezuela’s political conflict between supporters of the government, led by Hugo Chávez heir Nicolás Maduro, and the opposition, which is primarily supported by the middle class and the country’s traditional elites, through Venezuela’s economic performance and social metrics, such as poverty reduction and the infant mortality rate. Kronick suggests that the violent political divide between chavistas and opposition supporters is partially due to different measures of Chavismo’s success. “Chavistas compare the present to Venezuela’s pre-Chávez past,” Kronick writes, “while the opposition contrasts the current economic situation with more recent developments in the rest of Latin America.”

Under Chávez, first elected in 1999, and his successor Maduro, who was elected in April 2013 after Chávez’s death, poor Venezuelans have experienced real gains. Poverty rates have fallen, and the social works championed by the Chávez and Maduro administrations have brought healthcare and other forms of social welfare to the poor who form the bedrock of Chavismo popular support. However, at the same time Venezuela’s wider economy has decayed, a decay driven by the state’s reliance on the oil economy, political instability, and Chavismo’s erratic appropriation of private industry. To middle class Venezuelans, the argument goes, the last decade compares poorly to Venezuela’s neighbors, who have been able to fight poverty while not sacrificing political stability and sustainable economic growth.

Via Erik Loomis, a piece by Mark Weisbrot posted in Jacobin critiques Kronick’s analysis. Most interestingly, Weisbrot doubts the theory that Maduro’s supporters compare contemporary Venezuela’s development with its two-party-oligarchy past while his opponents judge it against the wider region: “Do voters anywhere in the world judge their government based on a comparison to its peers?” Weisbrot further argues that Venezuela’s economic performance under the Chávez and Maduro administrations is better than commonly believed, and faults Kronick for highlighting metrics unrelated to Venezuelans’ standard of living. Weisbrot also notes that Venezuela’s heavy foreign aid spending means that oil revenue that left the country did not do so to line the pockets of corrupt officials. “From an economic, human, and moral point of view, this is relevant,” he writes, closing the piece.

This exchange is interesting because of its intersection between economic analysis and identity politics. While limited both by space and FiveThirtyEight’s data focus, Dorothy Kronick appears to understate the role of social identity in Venezuela’s political conflict. Chavismo has always been driven by the state’s relationship with Venezuela’s common people. Chávez and, less skillfully, Maduro speak directly to Venezuela poor, in a racially diverse country look like them, and have devoted great effort to improving their lives in a very visible way. Not unreasonably, chavistas view the opposition as a remote elite desperate to recover their historical privileges at the expense of the masses. But that does not make the ‘truth’ of the opposition’s perspective false. Middle and upper class opposition supporters are not wrong to see Madruo’s administration as erratic, authoritarian, and totally unprepared to address the country’s economic problems and out-of-control crime rate, and its repressive response to student protests as vicious and brutal.

These two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Chavismo can enjoy mass support while still being autocratic and supplementing its ability to win elections with a deliberate campaign to subvert independent institutions. Similarly, the Venezuelan government’s anti-poverty measures have made a real difference in millions of lives, while also doing so in a clientelistic manner and are less sustainable and evaluated than conditional transfer programs like Brazil’s successful bolsa família.

At a time when many Latin American countries are strengthening democracy and growing their economies, it’s silly to dismiss the thought that the Venezuelan opposition sees the differences between the neighbors and their own country’s failing institutions and mass basic good shortages. But chavistas can draw a different lesson. Ideologically-aligned or at least allied administrations, such as Evo Morales’ in Bolivia, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and, more distantly, Cristina Kirchner’s in Argentina and the administrations of Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, all face some domestic opposition but have not seen the same violent mass opposition as in Venezuela. The lesson Maduro supporters can draw from this is that their own opposition is less willing to compromise — a reluctance, of course, driven by Chavismo’s own radicalism — than elsewhere in South America, a virulence that puts greater repressive actions on the table, so to speak.

Ultimately support for or opposition to Maduro’s administration is more a question of politics and identity than data. Even more uncertainly, it rests on inherently-uncertain counterfactuals and predictions about the future. Would Venezuela — whether the country as a whole, or specific segments of society — be better off today if Chávez had never come to the presidency? Will it be worse off at the end of Maduro’s term than today? If an over-reliance on oil is one of the greatest long-term challenges facing Venezuela, what’s to say that this same resource curse — which is not limited to leftist governments — would not have metastasized under another administration? Will Maduro ever leave power at all, or will he be forced from it before his term is completed in 2019? If Maduro is not forced out now will a military coup depose him in the future, making a coup driven by opposition politicians and technocrats today ultimately preferable to a more violent one in the future?

Data can help us make educated guesses about these questions, but can’t definitively answer them, and the business of politics is more driven by the narratives that inform people’s engagement with them. These narratives are the real long-term costs of Venezuela’s political conflict. When politics becomes this contentious, with such violently high stakes, someone will always be the loser. If Maduro is forced from power now or even fairly loses the 2019 election, chavistas will, not unreasonably, see it as the work of a classist — ‘that bus driver‘ — and elitist opposition who played dirty rather than lose their privileges. If the opposite occurs, the opposition will watch their country being run into the ground by negligent ideologues who would rather dismantle democratic institutions than risk losing power.

Both these narratives are, in a way, true.

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