Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde
Chávez was poisoned by dark forces that wanted to get rid of him…The cancer that the comandante was suffering from, time will reveal, broke with all of the regular characteristics of the illness… Everything indicates that they were able to affect his health with the most advanced techniques.
Nicolás Maduro, Monday, March 11, 2013
Everything has been coldly calculated…For weeks spokespersons came out saying they had had work meetings for five hours…You Nicolás, I know you´re watching, were capable of playing with the hopes of the people. Who knows when the President died. You had everything arranged.
Herique Carpiles, Sunday, March 10, /2013
Venezuelan’s have become used to conspiracy theories in recent years, both form the government and the opposition. Conspiracy rhetoric formed a big part of Hugo Chávez’s political discourse, with frequent denunciations of plots to assassinate him and of foreign and local enemies working to sabotage the revolution. Evidence to support these denunciations was almost never made public. However, they served the purpose of centering public opinion on a threatening “enemy,” against which constant vigilance and mobilizations were necessary on the part of Chávez supporters.
Conspiracy theories have formed an important part of the opposition’s discourse as well. From evidence-free accusations of electoral fraud, to charges that Venezuela is actually controlled by the Castros, to widespread rumors in the last months that Chávez was not actually ill but only plotting to comeback to Venezuela fully recovered.
Whether they are true or not, conspiracy theories effectively tell people that what meets the eye is not necessarily so, that there are people controlling things behind the scenes. They tend to unify followers behind leaders because it is the latter that apparently have the key to what is actually going on and know what to do.
However, they also depoliticize. Chávez’s conspiracy theories effectively maintained unity within his government and movement by reducing internal debate. This unity also produced an increasingly inefficient and unresponsive administration. And Maduro’s focus on foreign conspiracies effectively unifies pro-government sectors. But it also draws their attention away from how to address the shortcomings of their project and how to move it forward.
The Venezuelan opposition has suffered from voter abstention in the past after repeated claims that the National Electoral Council (CNE) was cheating, vote counts had been rigged, and that the electoral register was controlled by Cuban agents. Indeed dismantling opposition conspiracy theories about the CNE was an important part of Capriles´ effort during the last campaign.
Capriles’ focus this week on the apparent manipulation of Chávez’s passing certainly energized his base, but it also obscured the need for the hard work of communication. The message seemed to be that Maduro et al are so heinous that just unmasking them will be enough.
What is lost by both sides when they resort to conspiracy theories is politics: the forthright recognition of differing views and interests, negotiation with foes, and the attempt to convince voters on the issues.