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Breaking through the political echo chamber in Venezuela

Inaccurate polling led many to believe the opposition would defeat Chávez for president this month. Accurate polling is possible in Venezuela, writes a guest blogger, but only if citizens demand accountability.

By David SmildeWOLA / October 20, 2012

 David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.

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Last week on the Caracas Chronicles blog, Juan Cristobal Nagel wrote a remarkable post. He lamented that he had become a cheerleader for the [Henrique] Capriles campaign, drawn into the opposition bubble that was convinced Capriles was going to win. The post is worth reading not only for its admirable candor and reflection, but also for Mr. Nagel’s description of the value-added process by which he was led into the bubble. He tells how, after he posted a piece critical of Capriles, he was taken aback when a member of the Capriles campaign said he needed to decide if he was a “friend or enemy.” Over time he realized that he did indeed feel a strong affinity for the campaign’s basic themes and communicated frequently with friends he had on the campaign staff. This led him to lose his critical edge, ignore the polls that showed Capriles way behind, and focus on the one that showed him ahead. The post gets at two of the core elements of political polarization in Venezuela during the [Hugo] Chávez period.

The first element is the logic of friend or foe. During the Chávez period both Chávez supporters and opponents have tended to think they are fighting for their lives against a political power that seeks to eliminate them. Thus constructive criticism is considered treason, and “loyal opposition” is simply a contradiction in terms. In Venezuela, if you support candidate X, you not only hope that he or she wins, you publicly claim that he or she will win. Anything less reveals you as lacking resolve or as being of questionable integrity. In addition, if you can put forward some new theory about how and why your candidate is going to win, you become something of a hero. Of course, none of this is unique to Venezuela. Watch CNN for an hour during this election season in the US and you will see spin from both sides: from Obama and Romney campaign officials as well as the columnists that support them. What is unique to Venezuela is how far this logic of spin extends into the public sphere among journalists, academics, and other opinion makers.

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If you just take a look at one newspaper, El Universal, and some of the titles of the opinion articles the two weeks before the election you will see that the hype of an inevitable Capriles win was deafening. Authors applauded a people who had finally turned against Chávez: “Venezuela Wants Progress” Santiago Quintero (October 1); “Venezuela Wakes Up and Reacts” Emilio Graterón (October 1). And they triumphantly proclaimed that Capriles would win: “The Final Stretch, Capriles Is Winning!” Flavia Martineau (September 29); “Capriles and the End of the Story,” Asdrúbal Aguiar (September 25). Some commentators went a step further to focus instead on the margin that Capriles would win by, hoping that it would be large enough to overcome fraud and have a clear mandate for change: “Capriles: The Avalanche Effect,” Roberto Giusti,  (October 2); “The Gap is the Challenge,” Claudio J. Sandoval, (October 4).


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