Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights Celebrates its First Birthday

David Smilde

What began as an experiment has surpassed all expectations. Indeed there is a market for independent analysis on Venezuela. Over the course of our first year we’ve posted 181 pieces by 19 authors and received an overwhelming reader response. Starting from zero we have logged 105k page views from 20k unique visitors, with a bounce rate of less than one quarter of one percent.

These numbers are peanuts compared to the partisan blogs that have been writing about Venezuela for ten years or more and run several posts a day. But given the relatively narrow audience we are focusing on—activists, policy-makers, journalists, scholars, and students who simply want to know—we are thrilled with the results.

I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate the perspective this blog works from and thank our collaborators.

VPHR is independent not a-political. It is guided by WOLA’s values of human rights, democracy, and social justice and that is a political stance. By independent we mean that we do not set out to support one side of Venezuela’s political conflict vis-a-vis the other by grooming and tailoring our information. When you do that you end up with spin which might be effective for partisan political purposes, but provides misleading analysis. Being committed to values and a perspective rather than a partisan political option allows us to maintain our edge, criticizing and giving credit where they are due.

It also makes visible certain issues that are occluded by Venezuela’s political polarization. For example, over the past four years the Chávez and now Maduro governments have pushed forward a first rate set of citizen security reforms whose success the odds are against. The threat to these reforms come not from the opposition—who studiously avoid even mentioning them—but from the long tradition of militarized approaches to citizen security in Venezuela (and in the region more broadly). Trying to understand this in terms of partisan politics simply leads you to miss the most important points.

VPHR is reality-based. This does not mean its analysis emerges straight from the facts; indeed there can be no analysis without a perspective. The blog’s starting point comes from the values mentioned above, but also from what could be thought of as sociological “conflict theory.”

In the first decades of the 20th Century, German sociologist Max Weber responded to Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism not by overturning it but by suggesting it was incomplete. He agreed with Marx that capitalists tended to concentrate wealth and that the natural tendency of the free market was towards monopoly. But he said the same was true of politics. Left to their own devices, parties and state bureaucracies inevitably try to concentrate power and deflect accountability. Weber was especially concerned about situations in which economic powers took over the state or when political powers took over the economy since they allowed the powerful to be ever less accountable to average citizens.

In this blog we do not concentrate exclusively on the tyranny of the state on the assumption that the market is naturally virtuous. Nor do we exclusively criticize capital while give politicians a bye because they call themselves revolutionary. We are ever-attentive to the tendency of global capitalism to distort democracy and the economy in developing countries. But we are likewise attentive to the tendency of socialist governing projects to concentrate power, marginalize dissent, and grow corrupt.

“Reality-based” does not mean that this blog provides inerrant truth. We simply try to get it right using the best available information, rather than spinning difficult facts in favor of one of Venezuela’s current political options. Nor does it mean that our analysis will necessarily be “balanced.” If at any given moment one side deserves it, they are going to get more criticism than the other.

This blog, of course, has been a thoroughly collaborative effort. My main collaborator Hugo Pérez Hernáiz brings his research skills to bear from Bilbao Spain, as well as his considerable knowledge on Venezuelan universities and political ideologies. Becca Hanson and Tim Gill contribute alternately from Caracas and Athens, GA, taking care of most of the copyediting. Becca, of course, has been doing great work on issues of citizen security. Tim Gill will be using his knowledge to write on civil society and Venezuela’s foreign policy.

Our guest bloggers have been key as well. Indeed the top-five most-read posts belong to guest bloggers: Iñaki Sagarzazu (3), Mark Weisbrot and Robert Samet.

Most of our posts get peer review from John Walsh, Geoff Thale, Gimena Sánchez or Adam Isaacson at WOLA. They bring a world of knowledge and make sure what we write is grounded in realities beyond Venezuela. Joy Olson is a wise and tolerant Executive Director providing only as much feedback as needed.

The difference that makes the difference for this blog is the crack media team at WOLA led by Kristel Mucino. Kris has been involved from the beginning—from designing the blog to putting out publicity blasts, to ensuring search engine optimization, to prompting us to step outside our bubble by doing Q&A pieces on complex issues. And Jessamine Bartley-Matthews and Kelly McCarty before her have provided just-in-time logistical efforts.

Beyond my co-moderators and the folks at WOLA there are also a number of discussion partners I must recognize. The ideas and observations of Carolina Acosta Alzuru, Marino Alvarado, Cindy Arnson, María Pilar García Guadilla, Luis Lander, Luis Vicente León, Margarita López Maya, Michael McCarthy, Jennifer McCoy, Dimitris Pantoulas, Ana María Sanjuan, Sarah Stephens, Alejandro Velasco, José Virtuoso, and Veronica Zubillaga inevitably find their way onto the blog whenever I talk with them.

I appreciate all of the journalists that I talk to but there are a few frequent interlocutors I would like to single out. Frank Bajak (Associated Press), Charlie Devereux (Bloomberg), Benedict Mander (Financial Times) and Peter Wilson (freelance) have given important feedback on the blog and shared key information. Interviews with them inevitably become two-way conversations that help me formulate the right questions and rethink pat answers.

[To celebrate our first birthday I will be doing a Twitter Q&A today from 3:00 – 4:00 pm. Use #askWOLAVZ to ask a question on Venezuela and I’ll do my best to provide the latest.]