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
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
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.
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