Why We Do What We Do: Four Years On

David Smilde 

In the past seventeen years Venezuela has been subject to a vertiginous process of political polarization in which democratic representation has been the most important casualty. The centrifugal pressures of Venezuela’s political process are such that each side is continually threatening to slip out of the space of democratic contention, justifying their anti-democratic impulses by pointing to the treachery of “the other side.” Venezuela’s political actors put forward a continual flow of dehumanizing images that demand radical action now, lest the monstrous “other” side have their way and commit unspeakable acts of barbarism.

Political polarization effectively allows political actors to ignore the needs and desires of average citizens, and deflect their critiques and demands for accountability, under the argument that “this is no time for democracy.”

Four years ago today, we started this blog with a simple goal. In a context with extraordinarily polarized information, we aim to use available information and basic social scientific tools to make sense of the Venezuelan conflict for those who want to know. This involves making sense of the perspectives of Venezuela’s political actors, and the situations they find themselves in, as well as the average people whose lives are affected by their actions.

We are frequently criticized as trying to “be right with God and the devil” (estar bien con Dios y el diablo)–usually by people who were delighted when we panned the other side, but feel betrayed when we take a shot at theirs. Actually, there is no criticism we relish more, as it allows us to clearly distinguish our approach. For in our view, there are no angels in Venezuela. Here, as everywhere, political actors are all too human, and we try to portray them with all of their vices and virtues.  

We try to keep the debate on the issues and complicate political actors’ attempts to misinform and dehumanize their political others. Doing so forces them to do what is really hard: listen to people’s problems, propose viable solutions, mobilize their support, and accept accountability when things go wrong.

Being independent and “reality-based” should not be confused with “balance,” neutrality or being a-political. WOLA’s values of human rights, democracy and social justice are political. And while they generally cross-cut partisan political projects, they do not always and we have no problem applauding or criticizing one side of a political struggle more than the other, if their actions so merit.

Nor is our approach simply empirical and completely inductive. Weberian sociology undergirds our outlook and orients our analytic focus. It includes the best of liberal and Marxian approaches while adding more sociological elements to provide a fuller version of conflict theory (click here for more on “full conflict theory”).

Of course my main collaborator in this project has been my Venezuelan colleague Hugo Pérez Hernáiz who brings his analytic, research and translation skills to bear from abroad. Tim Gill and Becca Hanson have contributed some of our most read pieces, although they have had to reduce their contributions of late, while finishing their dissertations.

This blog would not be what it is without the WOLA team behind it. Everyone provides support and guidance but especially important are the wise edits provided by Geoff Thale and John Walsh. Gimena Sánchez, Adam Isacson and Joy Olson also provide expert information. WOLA’s stellar communications team led by Kristel Mucino keeps the blog visible. Loren Riesenfeld and Geoff Ramsey provide crack technical support. Geoff has more recently become a contributor at the key moments.

Friends of WOLA such as Marino Alvarado, Gastón Chillier, Carlos Correa, David Holiday, Carolina Jimenez, Cynthia McClintock, Eric Olson, Cathy Ross, Ana Maria Sanjuan, Rafael Uzcategui, Jose Virtuoso and Angélica Zamora provide much appreciated feedback and a occasional words of support.

Caracas-based international correspondents have become my closest interlocutors and I am always impressed by their interest in getting it right. I feel my conversations with Nick Casey, Hannah Dreier, Brian Ellsworth, Josh Goodman, Girish Gupta, John Otis, Daniel Pardo, Andy Rosati, Alexandra Ulmer, and Kejal Vyas are more free-ranging and open-ended than my conversations with virtually anybody else. Andy Cawthorne has become a friend as well as a colleague. Anatoly Kurmanaev politely pays for lunch even when I take more notes than he does.

My academic colleagues Carolina Acosta Alzúru, Andrés Antillano, Benigno Alarcón, Javier Corrales, Steve Ellner, Luis Gerardo Gabaldón, Gabriel Hetland, Luis Lander, Luis Vicente Leon, Dan Levine, Margarita López Maya, Miguel Martínez Meucci, Jennifer McCoy, Michael McCarthy, Francisco Monaldi, Dimitris Pantoulas, Antulio Rosales, Maria Pilar Garcia Guadilla, Iñaki Sagarsazu, Ana Maria Sanjuan, Harold Trinkunas, Alejandro Velasco, and Veronica Zubillaga provide key inputs and feedback—more often than not amounting to well-founded pushback. At Tulane Eduardo Silva, Ludovico Feoli, and Tom Reese frequently share their smarts as well as generous pats on the back.

It’s a little hard to celebrate our fourth anniversary when it comes in the midst of a crisis of governance that is taking a tragic toll on average Venezuelans. Worse yet, a growing political crisis could turn even uglier at any moment, making relief that much more difficult. Whatever happens, we will be here, doing what we can to separate the wheat from the chaff.