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To Venezuelans deep in crisis, the US election seems irrelevant (except for the echoes of Chavez)

Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, with then-president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez, in 2011. Reuters

This piece is part of The Conversation Global’s ‘The View From …’ series, explaining how governments and citizens in key countries worldwide view the US election. Today, Miguel Angel Latouche explains why Venezuela – immersed in its own political battles – isn’t paying much attention to Clinton v Trump.

As they do on so many things in Venezuela today, citizens have conflicting opinions on the United States. For some, the US is a melting pot of freedom, a representation of everything good to which one could aspire. For others, it’s a militaristic nation that for centuries has imposed an imperial vision on Latin America, aka “America’s backyard”.

Both perspectives are, of course, exaggerated. In the end, we get closest to the truth when we examine our northern neighbour with a critical but non-ideological perspective, without our own Venezuelan dreams and fears getting tied up in it.

Living between love and hate

This mix of love and hate has become the default stance in this extremely polarised, ideological country. Venezuela is confronting a roiling social, political and economic conflict that touches every aspect of our lives, and the truth is many Venezuelans today are just fighting to survive.

In seeking to protect ourselves, to save our own lives, we have embraced corporatism – that is, the logic of constituting a political corpus that functions around private interests and reduced social good. We live between distrust and fear.

It’s basically inevitable at this point that we view everything – from how we live our lives to what we hope for the future and how we assess political leadership – through a partisan lens.

Venezuela’s markets have empty shelves. Jorge Silva /Reuters

International politics take a back seat

In a context of domestic crisis, international news fades away. When you’re worried there’s no medicine at the pharmacy, it’s harder to care about a hole in the ozone layer. When you must resort to the black market to buy canned corn, toothpaste, or soap, you can’t worry about North Korea’s nuclear testing or the fate of Tierra del Fuego’s penguins. The same goes for the US presidential elections.

It’s not that we’re not talking about politics in Venezuela, because we are – a lot. It’s just that the dire national situation monopolises the conversation. How are we doing as a country? What’s the latest on the conflict between the National Assembly and the Executive? Is this an authoritarian regime?

Media coverage in the country is quite limited and subject to self-censorship. Restricted access to newsprint is killing off dailies, and air rights concessions are inequitably distributed. What news there is, then, centres on national issues, often presenting dichotomous views.

When the media does cover international affairs, it focuses on those that hold the most interest for Venezuela’s government. So we see a lot of coverage of Colombia’s peace process, for example, because Venezuela is acting as mediator. But we read much less about the US, from which we’ve politically distanced ourselves.

Without meaningful media coverage of the US election, we don’t really know what Venezuelans think of the candidates. But based on conversation, my impression is that Hillary is perceived as a boring person, lacking character and the capacity to lead, while Trump is seen as a lout who isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. People think he’s a strongman type, capable of launching the postmodern rendition of Teddy Roosevelt’s politica del garrote – Big Stick politics.

A world power, weakened

These are liquid times, as the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman tells us, and one can understand how true that statement is when a world power like the US has shifted from world domination to debates on the global governance on issues related to climate change, drug trafficking, and poverty.

Even from here, it’s clear that the US has changed. The presidential debate in the United States seems to be swinging between two extremes, from the excesses of Hillary Clinton to those of Donald Trump. There’s the mudslinging over the candidates’ personal affairs, and how they’re struggling to convey a message of hope in this complex moment for the world.

If anything about it is getting Venezuelan attention right now, it’s just how sad the US electoral season has been.

We can tell this year is far removed from traditional campaign dynamics. For example, for the first time in the US, there is a candidate who’s truly anti-party (though he is running under the banner of a party), who doesn’t respond to the establishment. That’s noteworthy, because Venezuelans are accustomed to American politicians who show commitment to the Washington way.

Even to those not paying much attention, the US electoral season’s lack of ideas has been noteworthy. Rick Wilking/Reuters

We’re also interested by the lack of ideas in this presidential race. Clinton and Trump are playing with emotions. This frivolisation of politics in one of the world’s great powers indicates an important and symbolic weakening of democracy, both in the US and worldwide.

Echoes of a Latin American strongman

But the worst thing about this election, far more so than Clinton’s email scandals, is – and I say this with a shudder – Trump’s similarity to Hugo Chavez.

Trump’s brazen, loudmouth way of arguing, and the garrulousness with which he attacks his opponents and criticises everyone else, is uncomfortably similar to the openly rabble-rousing populism of Hugo Chavez. It’s the approach Chavez used to win election in the late 1990s.

The plethora of Trump-Chavez comparisons this season has elicited some backlash. To be clear, I am not saying that the two represent the same political perspective – but there’s no doubt on the question of style.

Both Trump and Chavez have appealed to the aspirations and fears of their electorates, playing with ambitions, hopes and demands of vindication. Neither cared at all what other people say.

Both also represent a manifestation of populism that emerges when a weakened political system has ceased to satisfy the reasonable demands of a country’s poorest, most excluded citizens. When politics fails to adapt to accommodate them, old symbols lose meaning.

Chavez sought to change politics in order to break the existing political order, and now, in the post-Chavez world, Venezuela is living through a kind of horrible magical realism of political rupture and scarcity. The US is experiencing its own magical reality now, too – but in Trump’s hands, it’s one borne of excesses.

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