Tens of thousands took to the streets of Venezuela again today. I have written that kind of lead paragraph for at least half a dozen news stories after reporting here on four separate occasions over the past two years.
On Wednesday, demonstrations commemorated the first anniversary of the death of former president Hugo Chavez.
Government supporters, predictably, praised the late leader, while many opposition backers loathe almost everything about him and the “Bolivarian revolution”.
“Before Chavez, we were eating dog food, now we are eating good food,” said teacher Naida Briceno, who gathered with a dozen comrades in the working class January 23 neighbourhood. Periodic chants of “Chavez lives, the struggle continues” interrupted our interview.
“It doesn’t matter if they [anti-government forces] keep hiding our food,” she said, parroting the party line on why basic commodities often aren’t available. “We will keep being Chavistas... He gave us a new identity as a nation.”
A few days earlier, tens of thousands of opposition protesters took to the streets. “We can’t have a dialogue with them it’s a monologue. You know how communists are,” said demonstrator Petra Strum. “We [Venezuela] are under a lot of debt and we want to know what they [the government] have done with all the oil money.”
Quotes from both sides of the divide haven’t changed much in years. So what do we make of this? Is one side right and the other wrong? Not exactly.
In his article “A place for stories” historian William Cronon analysed two academic articles on America’s 1930s dust bowl drought. Both accounts, written by smart people, drew on the same data but came to markedly different conclusions about what caused the crisis.
Cronon’s hypothesis: Stories – not just data - have a fundamental place in how we understand the world around us.
When it comes to data here are some basic facts. Since 1998, poverty, illiteracy, and outright hunger have dropped in Venezuela as a result of government social spending and high oil prices yet inflation, violent crime and macroeconomic mismanagement have increased.
Emotional stories of suffering, pain, violence and alienation underpin both accounts.
In the Bolivarian Republic, the two narratives rarely interact directly they talk over each other.
Pro-government TV channels portray the opposition as mindless thugs, destroying public property and causing chaos at the behest of “gringo imperialists”. The opposition blogosphere and some newspaper columnists consistently mock government supporters, insinuating, for example, homosexual relations between Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Facts, the data used by historians to tell stories, mask Venezuela’s larger narrative. Many in the opposition are loathe to think a former bus driver, Nicolas Maduro, is their president. They would prefer someone educated at Harvard – jailed opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, for example.
Government supporters often refuse to acknowledge that the socialists are more dependent on Uncle Sam than ever – the US is still the largest customer for Venezuela’s oil.
The government loves to proclaim its sovereignty, but it’s increasingly import dependent and paying interest on foreign loans with oil straight out of the ground.
In a large part, Venezuela’s conflict is emotive – about who has the right to govern and whose story should be heard.
Facts on the ground could tip the balance – if the escalating economic crisis convinces 2 percent of the population to switch sides, for example, the opposition will win the next election.
But regardless of what happens to GDP growth, oil exports, or import ratios, major chunks of the population on either side of the divide will continue to stand by their position.
When it comes to framing a narrative, there was no one who could bring emotion and his version of Venezuela’s national story to the forefront quite like Hugo Chavez.
The future of Latin America’s largest oil producer will be determined by whose story resonates the most.