Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Chávez Trauma and the MAGAzuelan Phenomenon

Two decades of polarization, misinformation, and conspiracy theories under chavista propaganda were critical in making Trump so popular among Venezuelans

In late September 2020, the Venezuelan twittersphere went, once again, into a frenzy. The target: Erika de la Vega, a Venezuelan-American with Cuban roots and a successful media host and influencer currently based in Miami. The cause: she said in a TV interview that she’d vote for Biden in the elections. She also mentioned what she disliked about Trump andgasp!drew parallels between him and Chávez. Venezuelan-Americans who support Trump, the so-called MAGAzuelans, went berserk. They called her everything from ignorant and stupid to communist and traitor.

The vitriol towards Erika wasn’t isolated. With election day a few weeks away, viral text messages, posts, and voice notes on MAGAzuelan WhatsApp groups and social media echoed Trump’s narrative, describing Biden as a socialist or communist. In Miami, a well-known Venezuelan political pundit proclaimed, “Any Venezuelan who votes for Biden is supporting Maduro and the policies of Hugo Chávez,” and a former Venezuelan congressman in exile called Biden a puppet and talked about secret societies and the new world order. Some feared Biden would lead the U.S. into a new Venezuela. The most extreme even endorsed the “democrat pedophile ring” conspiracy theory.

This isn’t to say that all MAGAzuelans are conspiranoids. Some are single-issue my-economy-above-all Republican voters. Others put their domestic Venezuelan interest above anything else, praising Trump’s hardline towards the Maduro regime after years of what to them was disinterest or even betrayal by the Obama administration. 

What’s noteworthy, however, is how the radical positions permeated so deeply within MAGAzuelans and within the wider Venezuelan opposition. Indeed, “MAGAzuelan” refers, in addition to some of those who vote in the U.S. and some in the large and increasing Venezuelan community living there, to the Venezuelans who oppose the Maduro regime and who, from the distance, took the U.S. elections as their very own.

A Savior for Thousands of Venezuelans

Although there’s no hard data, the proportion and enthusiasm with which Venezuelan oppositionists supported Trump and his narrative seem unparalleled outside America. With a few exceptions, Trump’s image worldwide has been characteristically low.  Supporters of conservative or nationalist parties around the world do resonate with Trump in many ways. Yet their numbers (although rising in a global nationalist surge) remain low. Vox in Spain is a clear example. France’s Front National rings a bell. In countries like Poland, where conservatives are in office, Trump is popular but the U.S. election wasn’t a matter of last resort as it was to many Venezuelans who, at the time, perceived it as a battle for the last democratic bastion of their democracy and saw a savior in Trump. Cubans in exile and Israelis widely support Trump, yet the far-too-long domestic struggles and conflicts that shape their views and interests lack the sense of urgency and despair of MAGAzuelans.

The Chávez trauma pushed many so far to the right that mild socialist traits and “21st century socialism,” or even communism became tiny indistinguishable dots. They can’t tell them apart.

Just as we Venezuelans had a fanaticized relative or friend who believed (or still believes) in Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution beyond reason, we now have someone who believes in Trump’s conspiracy theories. What makes certain individuals or social groups more prone to believe? What makes MAGAzuelans such easy prey?

A curious combination of reasons seems to be in play.

Trained to Believe the Unbelievable

The main factor is the Chávez trauma. Research has shown that conspiracy belief is positively correlated to anxiety and distress, and to groups lacking sociopolitical control or who feel victimized. 

Venezuela clearly fits the bill. Anxiety and distress fall short to describe what we’ve been through. 

Academics also highlight the political leader’s role in polarization processes and conspiracy beliefs; Chávez not only traumatized and radicalized the opposition, making them more vulnerable to conspiracy beliefs: he also used lies and made up conspiracies that radicalized his followers. In this way, traumatized escuálidos believed in election frauds and chavista links to santería, narco-guerrillas, and even ISIS. Similarly, radicalized chavistas believe all sorts of conspiracies involving the CIA, economic wars, magnicide plots and Colombian paramilitaries, used by Chávez and Maduro as a never-ending excuse for their failures and abuse. Extreme positions crave conspiracies that support them and authoritarian or populist leaders use conspiracies as part of their epic I-am-the-illuminated-savior narratives. Yes, political polarization from both ends of the spectrum have been shown to be positively correlated with conspiracy belief.  

Other studies associate conspiracy beliefs with low levels of analytic thinking, or poor education. In this sense, Venezuela’s historical relationship with socialism comes to mind; see, before Chávez, our political culture already had socialist traits that were taken for granted (free health care and education, nationalized key industriesincluding oil)  without the now widespread socialism paranoia. Years later, Chávez took the country down the radical left road into what he called “the 21st century socialism”. In the process, the Chávez trauma pushed many so far to the right that mild socialist traits and “21st century socialism,” or even communism became tiny indistinguishable dots. They can’t tell them apart.

Considering the American influence over Venezuelan culture in general, and in MAGAzuelans in particular, the U.S.’ historical misconception of socialism indeed plays a role, too. During McCarthyism and the Cold War, when confronting communism, free welfare was pigeonholed as an exclusively communist trait, a false dichotomy widely believed to this day by many conservative Americans (and, by extension, Venezuelan-Americans). Sweden and Canada, which have two of the most (if not the most) liberal economies, are clear counterexamples. 

If anyone’s life has been disrupted by the radical left, if anyone can hold a grudge, that’s Erika and her Cubazuelan family: two forced exiles in a three-generation span.

Digging deeper into the research, evidence indicates that “conspiracy belief systems are monological; that is, one belief reinforces other conspiratorial ideas, making people who believe in one more likely to also believe in another.” From this perspective, it seems that Trump’s narrative was heard by the already conspiracy-prone MAGAzuelans, touching on sensitive trauma fibers. A wicked plot twist, Chávez spearheaded the MAGAzuelan conspiracy belief system while Trump reaped its rewards. 

A Letter From Erika

Defined as “the vast and growing gap” between two contending sides, political polarization is today a global phenomenon driven by deep and complex societal factors fueled, among other things, by social media (through fake news, filter bubbles, eco-chambers, and rabbit-hole-inducing algorithms), along with irresponsible leaders. As the gap widens, communication significantly deteriorates. 

In Venezuela, Chávez and Maduro played a major role in dividing the country, also succeeding in dividing the opposition. The polarizing nature of the “Chávez trauma” and the vulnerability to conspiracy beliefs associated with it, together with the regime’s infiltration, bribes, and wear-and-tear strategies, undermined and eventually dissolved the once hard-fought for but ultimately fragile opposition unity. Burned out after decades of setbacks, a wide gap has formed between Venezuelan moderate and hardline oppositionists.

A quick dive into Erika’s website is a revealing experience. The woman is as talented and sharp as they come, a multifaceted content creator who started as a radio and TV host in Venezuela, later migrating to the Latin American and U.S.-based Hispanic media. In the process, she has delved into stand-up comedy, podcasting, voice acting and theater monologues. No trace of leftist subtext; perhaps a touch of liberal feminism.

After the controversial interview, Erika posted an impeccable open letter in which she told the story of her family’s exile from Cuba; of how, when still living in Caracas, she criticized the government on her radio and TV shows while many others were still silent; of how doors started to close because of government pressure that later resulted in her forced exile. 

If anyone’s life has been disrupted by the radical left, if anyone can hold a grudge, that’s Erika and her Cubazuelan family: two forced exiles in a three-generation span. Still, she stood her ground without imposing her views. A wonderful combination of reasons makes Erika immune to political polarization, and if political polarization is to be tamed, if the Venezuelan opposition is ever going to reunite, we’re going to need more Erikas, not because of her politics or opinions, but because she pulls towards the center where the moderates and hardliners can meet and once again talk.