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Conspiracy theories won’t save the governing party in Venezuela

- December 3, 2015
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters during the launch ceremony of a new bus route in Maracaibo, in the state of Zulia. (Reuters)

Venezuela approaches elections for its National Assembly on December 6 in a state of political uncertainty. With oil prices cratering, the country is in an economic free-fall that combines economic contraction, inflation approaching 200 percent, and the world’s top ranking on the misery index. All this points to significant losses for the incumbent Partido Socialista Universal de Venezuela (PSUV). In an effort to stem the tide, the PSUV’s leader, President Nicolas Maduro, and his party have been emphasizing conspiracy theories in their campaign rhetoric. Venezuelans are open to conspiracies, but new research suggests they are not buying the ones the government is selling.

Conspiracy theories have been at the center of Venezuelan political discourse since the long presidency of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, from 1998-2013. Both presidents promoted elaborate narratives about nefarious forces opposed to their Bolivarian Revolution. The United States (“The Empire,” in Chavez’s parlance) and Colombia are favorite external foes, set on bringing down the PSUV government or even carving up Venezuela to exploit its riches. Private businesses and paramilitary groups (sometimes funded by former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe) are local villains bent on economic and political chaos. Venezuelan opponents of Chavez and his legacy are not averse to conspiracy, but the theories feature more prominently in chavista than opposition discourse, and are often repeated on state-sponsored media.

To understand how much Venezuelans actually believe these narratives, my co-authors Brendan Nyhan, Thomas Zeitzoff and I conducted a nationwide survey that included questions about conspiracy theory beliefs along with more conventional questions about political attitudes. We found that belief in conspiracy theories in Venezuela is widespread. Most notably, while key demographic characteristics track only loosely with politics, conspiracy theory beliefs are tightly bound up with Venezuelans’ preferences between the governing chavistas and the opposition. Moreover, the conspiracy beliefs the government has promoted are far less frequently endorsed than one promoted by the opposition — an indicator that the PSUV’s attempts to avert electoral disaster are failing.

We commissioned a survey with the Venezuelan public opinion research firm Datanalisis, which ran from October 13-23, on a nationally representative samples of 1,000 respondents  The survey included standard demographic questions as well as questions about how respondents evaluate President Maduro’s performance and whether the respondent identifies as a chavista, an opposition loyalist, or neither (“ni-nis,” for neither/nor).

The questions on Maduro’s performance and on political loyalties bode ill for the government and its allies. Only 19% of respondents identify as chavista, whereas 46 percent identify with the anti-chavista opposition, and 31 percentas ni-nis. Worse still, 77 percentof respondents regard President Maduro’s job performance as “pretty bad,” “bad,” or “very bad” (with 42% in the lowest category). Not surprisingly, Maduro performs worst among those members who identify as ninis or with the opposition.

We also asked about level of agreement with four conspiracy theories that have been persistent in Venezuelan discourse during the last year:

  • “Shortages of basic goods are caused intentionally by Venezuelan businesses and merchants in order to create economic chaos.”
  • “The United States played an active role in the death of President Hugo Chavez and has well developed plans for the assassination of President Maduro.”
  • “The governments of the United States and Colombia have plans in place to invade Venezuela and divide up its natural resources.”
  • “The Venezuelan government is, ultimately, an arm of the regime of Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba. President Maduro does not make a major decision without first consulting with Havana.”

The first three statements, which seek to discredit chavismo‘s domestic and international adversaries, are associated with a pro-government narrative. The last runs in the opposite direction and is consistent with opposition criticisms of chavismo. All four conspiracy theories command substantial support, but the Cuba-calls-the-shots story is most frequently endorsed, as the graph below illustrates.

Support for Conspiracy Theories in Venezuela (Data: Datanalisis Survey – October 2015; Figure: John M. Carey)

Support for Conspiracy Theories in Venezuela (Data: Datanalisis Survey – October 2015; Figure: John M. Carey)


Fifty-four percent of respondents agree with the Cuba-calls-the-shots statements — twice as many as the conspiracy theory stating that merchants intentionally generate shortages of basic goods to sabotage the government. The assassinations and invasion theories are both endorsed by fewer than 20 percent of Venezuelans. These results suggest that the Venezuelan public views the government negatively and that relatively few people endorse the conspiracy theories that Maduro and his allies have used to try and deflect blame

Respondents’ views of specific conspiracy theories are highly correlated with each other. There are people — 18 percent of the sample — who reject (either disagree or strongly disagree with) all four statements, but the most prominent pattern is that Venezuelans who agree with the pro-government narratives stories tend to disagree with the pro-opposition narrative, and vice-versa.

What’s more, conspiracy beliefs and political loyalties are tightly connected. We produced a single Conspiracy Beliefs Index running from full acceptances of all government-endorsed narratives and rejection of the opposition-endorsed statement, to full acceptance of the opposition-endorsed statement and rejects all government-endorsed narratives. Only chavista loyalists lean toward the government-endorsed conspiracies. Perhaps more importantly, the distribution of conspiracy beliefs among the ni-nis looks a lot more like that of opposition loyalists than that of chavistas. Ni-nis, as a group, tilt away from the government-endorsed conspiracies and 52 percent endorse the Cuba-calls-the-shots statement.

The last key point from our surveys is that the strongest conventional markers of socioeconomic status — income and education — are only weakly related to Venezuelan political loyalties and attitudes. Income, by itself, tells us little or nothing about these loyalties or beliefs, and education is only weakly connected. In fact, controlling for education, those with higher incomes are actually more pro-government in their conspiracy beliefs.

Despite widespread belief in conspiracies in Venezuela, the government’s efforts to promote conspiracy theories disparaging its adversaries seems to have failed. At this point, the government-endorsed narratives hold far less credence than the Cuba-calls-the-shots narrative.

Looking ahead to Sunday, these survey results suggest that a clean election (if the government allows it) should deliver a massive setback to the PSUV. The numbers look bad for chavismo in terms of outright loyalists, and the opinions that underlie political identity suggest that far more ni-nis should break toward the opposition than the PSUV.

Beyond Sunday, the country will remain divided between chavistas and anti-chavistas, but that schism is not well defined by conventional markers of socioeconomic class. If you want to know a Venezuelan’s politics, you may want to know what conspiracies she subscribes to rather than how much money she makes or whether she went to university.

John Carey is Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences at Dartmouth College, where he teaches in the Government department. More about his research is here.