- By Juan Cristóbal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution.
What brings Venezuelans to choose one candidate over another? As we move from the presidential election into choosing governors, political analysts are asking themselves this very question. It has taken on a whole new relevance now that deciphering the Hispanic vote in the United States has become such a hot topic.
The typical Hispanic American voter is someone who probably recently came from Latin America, or whose family came only a few generations ago, with all the cultural baggage that entails. Of Hispanic voters in the United States, only a few are Venezuelan-American: According to the Census Bureau, Americans with Venezuelan ancestry account for 0.4 percent of the Hispanic population. Venezuelans share many traits with other Latin American cultures, which may be useful in exploring the values that Venezuelans hold dear.
Venezuelans are generally of mixed race. As the noted Venezuelan sociologist J.M. Briceño Guerrero writes, the mix of black, native, and Spanish blood coexisting in the same person creates a peculiar social dynamic.
In his book, "The Labyrinth of the Three Minotaurs," Briceño Guerrero discusses the "savage discourse" that comes from the heritage of slavery and the imposition of European culture on an unwilling native population. This view of the world, he says, "is a vehicle for the nostalgia for non-European, non-Western ways of life, a refuge for cultural horizons apparently closed off by the imposition of Europe on Latin America. To this discourse, both the rationalist European and the Hispanic-colonial discourses are foreign and strange, strata of oppression, representatives of an alterity that cannot be assimilated and cannot rid itself of the savage’s apparent submission, occasional rebelliousness, permanent mischievousness and dark nostalgia."
Briceño Guerrero is obviously not saying that Latin Americans are "savage," but that one cannot neglect the inheritance of a culture that has been suppressed by the other two ways of thinking ("rationalist European" and "Hispanic-colonial"). "These three great underlying discourses," he writes, "are present in every Latin American, though with intensities that vary according to social class, place, psychic level, age, and the time of day."
So, if Venezuelans have an anti-Euro-rationalist streak in their veins, how does it manifest itself politically?
For one, Venezuelans are distrustful of business. Although they are quite entrepreneurial, they do not believe that a person makes their own success. There is no satisfactory criollo translation for "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." Venezuelans believe their home to be a rich country — and their "wealth" comes from the enormous amounts of black goo found underneath our feet. Success in Venezuela is associated with being lucky enough to connect your daily activities to the flow of cash emanating from the sale of oil. Naturally, Venezuelans are distrustful of the wealthy. They are seen as beneficiaries of a system that excludes the masses. Ergo, they vote for a populist snake-charmer like Hugo Chávez time and again.
Venezuelans also have a curious relationship with issues of public policy. They generally favor big government solutions to their problems, even though government seldom solves anything. For an example, most Venezuelans reelected a president that has presided over a dramatic worsening of the one problem they deem far more serious than any other: Rising crime.
In conversations with chavista supporters, it is not uncommon to hear that they do not blame Chávez for the crime wave. They speak as if crime is something that simply happens. The government, they will hint, is not responsible for rising crime. The thugs are.
Venezuelans actually do want big government — they just want it run better. Venezuela has a state-run health care system, but it is poorly managed. These social programs are so popular that the opposition dare not touch them. And in the end, nobody in Venezuela actually proposes to reduce the size of government. Thus "Get government out of the way" is not a winning motto in Latin America. Even in nominally right-wing governments, such as those in Chile or Mexico, government spending as a percentage of GDP has grown in recent years.
Finally, Venezuelan voters are sentimental, and they tend to vote for the person whom they identify with the most. The "beer test" usually trumps ideology or political philosophy.
This poses unique challenges for conservative parties, albeit not insurmountable ones. For one thing, Venezuelans are distrustful of cultural elites, and tend to be conservative on social issues. It is also worth noting that Venezuelans in the United States probably want a government that works to create jobs regardless of its ideology.
But while Venezuelans are naturally entrepreneurial, many have witnessed in their home country how big government can squash opportunities. They came to the United States looking for a society that allows them to reach their potential. These are all cultural aspects that a conservative party could identify with.
In the end, reaching out to Hispanic voters is going to require a bit more research regarding the cultural values they share, and they may be quite different from what either party is used to seeing.