Chavismo: The Re-Emergence of Progressive Populism in Venezuela

Populism can be seen as a movement with emancipatory intentions that opens up a democratic rift in the status quo by employing means of mass popular support in an attempt to overcome exploitation and poverty that emerge from an antagonistic socioeconomic and political situation. But good intentions are often not enough.


Populism is a controversial phrase when it is associated with progressive political and economic movements. As it is most commonly used, populism is what Western governments and academics like to call movements and governments that are somehow not subscribed to the dominant ideology and by one way or another are existing outside of their means. This way of looking at populism is largely denigratory and used to mask certain power dynamics and the vested interests that accompany them. This way of looking at populism is fundamentally false.

From a different perspective, populism can be seen as a movement with emancipatory intentions that opens up a democratic rift in the status quo by employing means of mass popular support in an attempt to overcome exploitation and poverty that emerge from an antagonistic socioeconomic and political situation. But good intentions are often not enough. Populism is not a political ideology with a rigid prescription for social change, nor is it a specific set of policies or tendencies. If anything, it is the lack of these attributes that gives populism its character. Especially as regards progressive populism, which this paper will largely focus on, the element that gives rise to populism is the utilization of a certain logic of “reaction.” It is this aspect of populism that is the starting point for its further limitations.

Populism is often used in reference to the Chávez administration in Venezuela. This paper will argue that, by looking at the history, theory and certain conditions that arise as evidence of the logic of populism, it is an appropriate term to use when discussing the Chavismo movement. To be clear, this paper will do so under the premise that the second aforementioned perspective of populism, not the first, is the correct starting point for looking at Chavismo. Too often certain critical analyses are used to sanction or excuse the supremacy of the dominant ideological discourse, and while this paper will remain highly critical of populism and of the Chavismo movement, it is done so in good will and solidarity with the people of Venezuela who are fighting for a better life. It is the hope of the author that this paper will help in constructing a critical analysis of populism in Venezuela and that the conclusions drawn are not ones that authorize the continued acceptance of the dominant ideological discourse. Instead, it is hoped that this paper contributes to conclusions and ideas that that go beyond both populism and hegemonic capitalist ideology.

In the first section, a look at the history of populism in Latin America will present a contextual introduction to the forms of populist governments in the past. The second section will develop a theory of populism by looking at the traditional academic theory of populism and incorporating more modern and radical theories. The third section will take this theory of populism and look at how it creates limitations, drawbacks and deficiencies in political and economic governance. Following this third section, a look at the presidency of Hugo Chávez and the Chavismo movement, and why it is a modern example of populism, will segue into the final section in which conclusions will be drawn and some encouraging aspects of populism highlighted.

A Brief History of the Origins of Latin American Populism

Conventional theory associates populism in Latin America with the rise of mass politics in the middle of the 20th century, when traditional forms of oligarchic domination connected to the latifundio based commodity export model were overshadowed by the social mobilization that came with the early stages of industrialization. Following the Great Depression, this export model was replaced by a state-led industrialization effort that transformed the socioeconomic landscape of the continent. While new middle and urban working classes were created by this process, the traditional forms of political representation and inclusion could not fulfill the demands of these new demographics. It is this void that populism filled. Populism incorporated workers and capitalists within broad, multiclass political coalitions backing social reform and state led industrialization. It relied heavily upon nationalism and charismatic leadership to bring together diverse social demographics, and it made special appeals to urban workers and labor unions, who were bound to the state for distribution of benefits and the exercise of political infl uence. Leaders such as Perón in Argentina, Cárdenas in Mexico, Vargas in Brazil, and Haya de la Torre in Peru mobilized the masses from the top down, challenging the traditional oligarchic order with their promises of political inclusion, social organization, and economic well-being for the working and lower classes.[1] In gaining access to public office, most of them also expanded the economic role of the state by protecting and subsidizing basic industries, restricting foreign investment, regulating labor markets, and providing a broad range of social benefits.

Traditional populism was largely considered outdated by the economic and political changes of the past several decades. The wave of right-wing military coups starting in the 60s led to the repression of labor and popular movements and to new forms of capital accumulation. When a wave of democratization occurred in the 1980’s, it coincided with the infamous Latin American debt crisis and ushered in the era now best associated with neoliberalism and economic “discipline.”[2] This new era marked an incapacity for government to intervene with social programs and spending to respond to popular demands due to the stringent demands of institutions like the IMF and World Bank who insisted on rigid economic policy for debt repayment. These changes weakened organized labor and they deprived governments of the policy tools that had been used by populist leaders in the past. Thus, the “Washington Consensus,” as it is popularly conceptualized, a global neoliberal project led more or less by the leadership and overwhelming support from the United States, seemed comfortable enough to assume that previously negatively characterized “populist regimes” would not return to the region and a new era of representative democracy, “fiscal responsibility,”[3] and globalized markets was there to stay.

It is now widely accepted that this comfort was unfounded. Highlighted by the complete collapse of the Argentinean financial system from 1999-2002,[4] the neoliberal project in Latin America has crumbled. In the same period, and continuing today, there was an unprecedented wave of electoral victories for Left-leaning presidencies including those that can be identified as populist. The election in 1998 and ongoing presidency of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela can be characterized as the bedrock of this development. Before continuing, it is important to recognize that the more recent wave of populism in Latin America is a result of the dissolution of the social, economic, and political models built during the era of state-led import substitution industrialization which was constructed mostly by the first generation of populist leaders such as Perón and Vargas and continued into the 1970’s by the proliferating dictatorships.[5] The debt crisis of the 1980’s made statist and nationalist development models impossible and paved the way for neoliberal reforms and an opening to global markets.[6] It was then largely the implementation and subsequent failure of neoliberal reforms that led to the modern re-emergence of Latin American populism. But what constitutes populism? What makes, for instance, the Chávez presidency populist but another not? It is to these questions that we now turn.

Theories of Populism

In traditional scholarly writing on Latin America, populism has been treated as a largely economic phenomenon which encompasses a style of political leadership (charismatic and autocratic) and a specified model of policies (import substitution industrialization with economic nationalism and a large role for the state).[7] According to this position, populism led to financial crises due to the unsustainable nature of these policies, and neoliberalism was the prescription.

The traditional perspective sees populism as a response to the demands of popular masses for political inclusion, and it is often generated and reproduced in democratic and electoral settings. Populism thus emerges in situations where large sections of the lower classes are available for political mobilization but are not successfully represented by traditional parties and do not have access to institutionalized forms of political self-expression.[8] It is this definition that separates “progressive” populism from other forms of populism, such as fascism.[9] Populism is thus a political movement which “…enjoys the support of the mass of the urban working class and/or peasantry, but which does not result from the autonomous organisational power of either of these sectors. It is also supported by nonworking class sectors upholding an anti-status quo ideology.”[10] The development that follows is what Tortuato Di Tella, writing in 1970, referred to as the “revolution of rising expectations,” in which:

The mass media raise the levels of aspirations of their audience, particularly in the towns and among the educated. This is what has been aptly called the “revolution of rising expectations”… Yet economic expansion lags behind [these expectations], burdened by demographic explosion, by lack of organisational capacity, by dependence on foreign markets and capital, or by premature efforts at redistribution. A bottleneck necessarily develops, with expectations soaring high above the possibility of satisfying them.[11]

A way to see populism, therefore, is in the relationship between the demands of the peasants, workers and anti-status quo sectors of society and the economic reality of the situation. Additionally, this traditional outlook also sees the linchpin of populism being that the political mobilization triggered by populist leaders is inherently sporadic and never permanent because it cannot be sustained given this relationship between demands and economic reality.

A tradition of dictatorial political leadership in Latin America that is best characterized by the image of the caudillo – an authoritarian but popular military leader – may seem appropriate to populism. But what separates the populist leader from the caudillo is that populism operates in a context of mass politics instead of dictatorial, singular power. In this sense, populist leaders must have a democratic form of popular support for their rule – either through street demonstrations and rallies or through constant calls to the voting booth. Populist mobilization, therefore, is an inherently top-down process that often feeds off a direct relationship between a leader and an originally unorganized mass of followers. But this is not nearly enough, as almost any original movement can be seen this way.

An alternative approach to populism is taken from a more radical left viewpoint. Ernesto Laclau, a philosopher of the Marxist tradition, in his essay Towards a Theory of Populism, is an essential reference point here.[12] For Laclau, populism is not a specific political movement since no defined “populist” movement is the same, but instead occurs when a series of particular “popular” demands is enchained in a series of equivalences (“interchangeabilities”), and this enchainment produces “the people” as the universal political subject. It has no inherent program or political orientation but through the discourse of “the leader” towards the audience of “the people” a certain political subjectivity emerges through “interpellations” and “the people” develop an identity that did not exist before.[13]

The limitation of Laclau’s analysis is analyzed by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Zizek postulates that populism seeks to overcome a refusal of a complicated systemic analysis by using a logic of “reaction.” For Laclau, populism represents a neutral space for which open struggle can incorporate a larger and necessary sphere and where the content of what is at stake is formed. This means that in populism the content is situation-specific and this specificity is never predetermined, while a theory such as class struggle “presupposes a particular social group (the working class) as a privileged political agent.”[14] For Laclau, the series of equivalencies does not have to be the result of a general particular struggle. In some cases it can be worker’s struggle, in others anti-colonial or anti-racist. The inherent nature of populism is thus a form of frustration or grievance being “interpellated” through a new discourse, but this frustration is mitigated by the “reactionary” belief that there is a hidden agent causing all the problems. As Zizek puts it:

Populism is ultimately always sustained by ordinary people’s frustrated exasperation, by a cry of “I don’t know what’s going on, I just know I’ve had enough of it! It can’t go on! It must stop!” – an impatient outburst, a refusal to understand, exasperation at complexity, and the ensuing conviction that there must be somebody responsible for all the mess, which is why an agent who is behind the scenes and explains it all is required.[15]

Zizek goes further, contrasting the populist discourse to the Marxist one:

[F]or a populist, the cause of the troubles is ultimately never the system as such but the intruder who corrupted it (financial manipulators, not necessarily capitalists, and so on); not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such but an element that doesn’t play its role within the structure properly. For a Marxist, on the contrary… the pathological (deviating misbehavior of some elements) is the symptom of the normal, an indicator of what is wrong in the very structure that is threatened with “pathological” outbursts. For Marx, economic crises are the key to understanding the “normal” functioning of capitalism…[16]

It follows that a theory of populism is not so much an idealistic economic/political enacting of policies, an unrealistic relationship between demands and conditions, ideological “interpellation” or solely marked by the will of political charisma. Instead, these characteristics arise from the original lack of systemic analysis that utilizes a logic and rhetoric of “alien” elements infecting the unified and potentially balanced social whole. The solution is thus to find and destroy the problem-causing invaders, rather than seeing society as a society always already divided by antagonisms with there being no “natural” or “harmonized” state to return to or advocate for. Thus, inconsistent references to the “financial manipulator,” “international capitalists,” “oligarchy,” or the effects of imperialism are used in an effort to externalize the congenial contradictions of the nation. The main issue with this approach is that its ambiguity is the starting point for undemocratic and authoritarian politics.

It may be simply that populism is best embodied by Zizek’s point about the “agent behind the scenes”; populism in this sense is nothing more than a refusal to confront the complexity of the situation with a systemic analysis and thus is the underlying flaw of populism and is the catalyst for its further limitations and shortcomings. This is the true point of departure for which some regimes are characterized populist and others are not. For a traditionalist liberal or conservative, the game is played within the parameters of capitalism and there is no radical change necessary. Obversely, as opposed to the progressive populism we are addressing here, the radical emancipatory project also differs. Zizek again elaborates upon this point:

[T]he ultimate difference between true radical-emancipatory politics and populist politics is that authentic radical politics is active, imposing, enforcing its vision, while populism is fundamentally reactive, a reaction to a disturbing intruder.[17]

It is with this understanding – that populism is a refusal of systemic analysis and its subsequent political and economic prescriptions and instead an almost ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ social and ideological movement – that we can proceed to look at its negative limitations.

Limitations of Populism

Populism’s positive aspect lies in how it often ushers in a new mass democracy that transcends the old, traditional, and oligarchical politics, providing a new sense of dignity and self-respect for lower class sectors of society, who are encouraged to recognize that they possess both social and political rights. Populist leaders are often wildly popular and capable of winning any free and open democratic contest. Because populists have no single doctrine (drawing from existing sociopolitical models such as socialism, corporatism or democratic capitalism) their ideas remain inconsistent and their ideas change frequently over time. The flexibility of these ideas allows them to appeal to the largest amount of voters at any given time.[18] The electoral victories of populist leaders show a clearly expressed public discontent with the way things were and a desire for major political change. They give hope to the democratic principle that an alternation in power could bring about a change in policies and government that had failed to articulate popular demands in the past and were viewed largely as corrupt. But once in office they unfortunately tend to exhibit tendencies that show little respect for the rule of law, political pluralism, and democratic checks and balances.[19]

By definition, populist leaders are elected with large electoral majorities from unorganized masses and thus tend to view themselves, and are often viewed, as the embodiment of “the people” and the manifestation of the popular will. The image of the leader who had emerged from “the people” and would return power to them, displacing corrupt and elitist incumbents who had hijacked democracy for self-serving interests (alien elements) is reinforced through this process. As “anti-establishment” or “revolutionary” political outsiders, they characterize the restrictions posed by existing institutions – such as an independent judiciary and congressional opposition – that limit their political autonomy, force them to make concessions with opponents, or constrict their efforts to implement the popular will, as unnecessary and in need of replacement or transcendence in the name of political change. Populist leaders often view institutionalized party structures as constraints on their political autonomy and vestiges of the corrupt past, and see little need for such structures when they can communicate with the public and mobilize electoral support through the media.

Popular referendums are often used to justify institutional changes, allowing populist leaders to claim a democratic mandate. But when the underlying rules-of-the-game are so fluid that they can be rewritten at the whim of temporary and contingent electoral majorities, then there emerges a certain threatening pressure.[20] Zizek categorizes the situation as such:

[T]here is in populism always something violent, threatening, for the liberal view: An open of latent pressure, a warning that, if elections are manipulated, the “will of the people” will have to find another way to impose itself; even if electoral legitimization of power is respected, it is made clear that elections play a secondary role, that they serve only to confirm a political process whose substantial weight lies elsewhere […] This is what gives the thrill to populist regimes: the democratic rules are never fully endorsed, there is always an uncertainty that pertains to them, a possibility always looms that they will be redefined, “unfairly changed in the middle of the game.[21]

Moreover, under conditions of top-down relationships with the leader and the masses, a direct link of sorts, it can be argued that most citizens vote on the basis of loyalties rather than leadership qualities. This loyalty functions within party organizations’ control of access to public office, and their recruitment and socialization activities serve to channel and filter political ambitions.[22] Even further, it can have an added component of danger when it is associated with the military.

Where populist leaders are associated with institutional support from the armed forces, rather than parties or other organizations, they usually expand the political role of the military and draw it into functions that are far removed from its normal responsibilities. This is dangerous for two reasons. One, it blurs the line between the role of the military and civilian institutions, usually to the detriment of the latter. The military enjoys government support and funding based upon a long tradition while civilian institutions, especially under new governments, rely on secondary forms of funding and are delegated responsibilities based upon their abilities and capabilities as opposed to sort of “providence” which is the case when it comes to certain duties of the military such as defense. Second, making the military political is never a guarantee of loyalty. Latin America especially has a long history of military coups, even in cases of progressive populism in which members of the military find that they can do a “better job” than the democratically elected government.[23]

Anti-corruption rhetoric is a regular component of the legitimization of populist transcendence of traditional parties, but the cure is often worse than the disease. The lack of institutional accountability and the tendency towards opportunism and favoritism under populist governments presents an incentive (especially in poorer countries where government positions are not necessarily well paying) to corruption between public authorities and private agents. Additionally, promises to put an end to corruption are hard to take seriously in cases when populist leaders must fill the void presented by a lack of organized support and experienced associates and thus must simply do so by appointing inexperienced loyalists to government positions.

There are certainly some more nuanced issues with historical Latin American populism that could be addressed, but the aforementioned limitations have been highlighted in order to transition into an exploration of a modern progressive populism that is called to attention by the current transformation of Venezuelan society ushered in by the election of Hugo Chávez and the proclaimed “Bolivarian Revolution.” While the use of Chavismo as an identification of the development of this movement may seem pejorative, it is likely because of the impression that it gives special credibility or importance to the singular influence and power of Chávez himself. While this is not necessarily the intention, it is the intention of this paper to assert that Chávez’s discourse and ideological content are populist. As such, the term Chavismo – much like Perónismo – indicates both the uniqueness of the rise of Chavismo and its relation to historical populism. It is with this in mind that we turn to the presidency of Chávez and the emergence of Chavismo populism.

Chavismo Populism

In more recent times, populism has been characterized with more of an emphasis on the political mobilization of largely unorganized masses by charismatic leaders who typically circumvent institutionalized forms of representation and challenge established political or economic elites.[24] If we use these parameters, a look at Venezuela and the election of Hugo Chávez can be enlightening.[25] Latin American history has no shortage of Leftwing military coup attempts, but Chávez’ case is unique. Following a failed coup attempt in 1992 that he personally led, Chávez’ name was catapulted to political prominence and he was democratically elected on a ticket to transform the national constitution in 1998 with close to 60% of the vote. Using a discourse of nationalism, anti-imperialism and claiming to support a “Third way” that was not completely socialist/communist or completely capitalist, Chávez discredited the institutions associated with neoliberalism while employing a charismatic personality that marginalized masses associated with. By instituting certain measures, such as re-nationalizing the national oil company (which had been previously nationalized but had more or less degenerated into a “state within the state,” no longer answered to the government and was thus close to a private company), setting up subsidized medical services and food (through the much reported missions), and generally supporting a larger role of the state in the economy, Venezuela began to move away from the type of economic orthodoxy associated with neoliberalism. Following a U.S. supported coup attempt against Chavez, led largely by big business, in 2002 and a strike, again led by big business, in late 2002, Chávez’ rhetoric and actions became increasingly progressive and radical. It was following these events that Chávez began to employ a heightened discourse of anti-capitalism and supported a new, yet largely ambiguous, vision of “21st Century Socialism.”[26] Following his election and throughout his terms as president, Chávez has consistently, if we use the guidelines set above, utilized a populist discourse.

Chavez’ rise to power must be seen through the lens of the historical conditions predating his election. As indicated above, an important element of the rise of populism is the failure of traditional models to incorporate popular demands and that large disaffected sectors of society are available for mobilization. In 1989, rioting throughout the country brought about severe repression from the government and hundreds if not thousands of people were killed.[27] It was following this event that the traditional model of political representation (marked by decades of representative alternation between two parties, COPEI and Acción Democratica) was discredited in the eyes of many segments of the Venezuela population. Chávez’ coup in 1992 was a reaction to this event and although it failed, its timely arrival was enough to place him as a courageous, anti-establishment revolutionary that was what was needed to change the country. This characterization is what propelled Chávez to victory and is part of what continues to sustain his legitimacy.

As indicated above, the key element that makes a discourse and movement populist is its tendency to utilize a logic and rhetoric of “alien” elements infecting the unified and potentially balanced social whole, and so suggesting a solution of finding and destroying the problem causing invaders. This applied to Chávez more so in his earlier discourse than his latter, after the adoption of a “21st Century Socialism” program.

In terms of rhetoric, the Chávez presidency can be historically divided by two stages. The first stage was one of a moderate political and economic stance roughly corresponding to the period of 1999-2003. The second stage was one of a more radicalized discourse that adopted the rhetoric of socialism and roughly corresponds to the period of 2004-present. It is important to differentiate between these two periods because the reference to alien elements that upset social unity has remained in both periods, but has largely changed in regards to context and terminology.

The first stage was marked by the use of a “Third-way” nationalism, in which the state was seen as being hi-jacked by corrupt politicians who did not have the interests of the Venezuelan people at heart and that Chávez’s movement (which was made up of a variety of different ideology backgrounds, a telltale mark of populism, but more heavily leaning towards the left) was elected to overcome. Additionally, Chávez employed an inconsistent (in terms of rhetoric vs. practice) anti-neoliberal position that rejected the principles of privatization and fiscal austerity, and was institutionalized on paper through the new 1999 Constitution, but nonetheless failed to substantially materialize initially as many neoliberal positions were continued, and even new ones put into practice.[28] As opposed to traditional and radical discourse, this viewpoint saw capitalism as neither inherently stable or problematic but instead saw the results of neoliberalism as a negative outgrowth of poor political decisions marred by corruption and a failure to be adequately patriotic.

Following the 2002 coup attempt, Chávez attempted to reduce the tension caused by the event by employing an even more moderate rhetoric and offering compromises to the coup plotters. This was obviously an attempt to stem the virulent opposition to his anti-neoliberal policy prescriptions, which will be discussed below. This conciliatory gesture obviously did not work as intended, for from late 2002 to 2003 an eight-week long strike headed by commercial and business interests practically shut down the oil industry and crippled the country’s economy. Chávez, speaking on this development, noted: “[T]he oil belongs to the entire nation, not just an elite.”[29] This confrontation marked the beginning of the second stage of the Chávez presidency and a new contextual populist terminology displayed by the aforementioned quote on “elites.”

Following a recall election in 2004, which he won in a landslide, Chávez began to declare his government “anti-imperialist” and began calling for a rejection of capitalism and a new “Socialism for the 21st Century.”[30] While this transition can be characterized as a qualitative change,[31] it is obvious that the massive opposition to his initially moderate changes by business and old political interests were the main catalyst of Chávez’ radicalization and that the ideological coordinates and long term goals still remained intensely ambiguous.[32] This stage in the presidency marked a new policy direction in which structural changes in the economy were to be mitigated by larger state intervention and an introduction of parallel political organization (such as the community councils) was to be implemented. Again, it is important to recognize the populist nature of these changes especially given that the new economic policies of redistribution and state intervention were accompanied by a gigantic spike in world oil prices that swelled state revenue. Furthermore, the frequent reference to the “oligarchy,” the influences of imperialism, and the Venezuelan “elites” continued alongside this new rejection of capitalism and thus, even under this more radical context, we see the rhetoric of “alien elements” that infect social unity still being employed.[33]

The economic policies of the Chávez government are very reminiscent of previous populist governments in the sense that it involves a larger role for the state, especially in regards to redistribution and regulations, and a new form of import substitution titled “endogenous development.”[34] Large scale nationalization of certain key industries such as key electric companies and construction oriented industries increased the centralization of the economy under the state, as these “strategic” areas of the economy were made exempt from the experiments of workplace democracy going on in other sectors.[35] This centralization of the economy is not necessarily an element of populism, but when one looks at the corresponding political situation, things become different. For instance, the state’s use of large oil revenues is largely a mixed blessing. Zizek sees Chávez’ limitation lying in:

“…the very factor that enables him to play his role: oil money. It is as if oil is always a mixed blessing, if not an outright curse. Because of this supply he can go on making populist gestures without paying the full price for them, without really inventing something new at the socioeconomic level. Money makes it possible for him to practice inconsistent politics (to enforce populist anticapitalist measures and leave the capitalist edifice basically untouched), of not acting but postponing the act, the radical change.”[36]

The traditional “bottleneck” situation mentioned earlier, in which the demands of the popular mobilization cannot be met by the real social and economic conditions, was somewhat, if not entirely, alleviated by this oil revenue windfall. Additional socioeconomic policies, such as the government missions, which include food subsidization, free medical care and educational services, and the role of the state in regulating private business, are suggestive of populism for two specific reasons, respectively. First, most of the mission programs are not state institutions, but instead operate in a form of “outsourcing” through a direct relationship with PDVSA.[37] Because they are not institutionalized, they can either be eliminated by a leader down the road who sees no need for them or can simply evaporate when oil revenue does. Second, the regulation of private business, through price controls and calls to ethical or social production, is a distinct representation of seeing the “alien elements” failing to act sufficiently ethical and thus being the sole bearer of responsibility for the malaise of certain economic conditions. Recently, calls to create “Social Production Enterprises” in which businesses must fulfill a set of “ethical” requirements and invest in parts of their profits in their communities in order to gain special privileged financing, state purchasing and other preferential benefits from the state employ such a logic.[38] Even more recently, nationalizations of, and calls to criminal prosecution against, private enterprises that are failing to institute government price controls is even more revelatory of the populist logic of the Chávez discourse.[39] Thus, it is hard to tell if any of the economic policies put into place by Chávez are, 1) sustainable (given the nature of fluctuating oil prices); 2) legitimately institutionalized forms that are not dependent only upon those same oil prices; and, 3) viable models and not just experiments or idealistic models put into place by the impulse and hopes of a single charismatic authority.

As such, Chavismo’s major limitation is in the role of Hugo Chávez himself. Charismatic leadership is a key component of populism and it is in this area that Chávez has made his fame. The adoration of Chávez is both a product of the nature of the movement and a concerted effort by Chávez and the government to reinforce his indispensability. Campaign slogans such as “With Chávez the people rule,” “With Chávez everything, without Chávez nothing,” or “With Chávez we all govern” are constitutive of this orientation.[40] While this leads to more obvious problems such as dependence and divisiveness (either you are with Chávez or against him), the real issue is the sense that Chávez is the embodiment of “the people” and thus an almost “divine providence” to rule through the direct link with them. It is from this relationship that a top down form of management is employed.

As indicated earlier, populism’s penchant for charismatic leaders creates a condition in which the leader tends to exert autocratic methods of management. Chávez seems to exhibit such proneness:

“Chávez’s management style seems to be completely top-down, rather than bottom-up or team-oriented. He seems to consider it perfectly normal and acceptable to issue orders, much like a general in the battlefield, to his ministers in the spur of the moment, with little regard for their existing work-plans or duties.”[41]

This top-down method of management is populist for two reasons. First, it is premised on the authority of a single charismatic leader and, especially in Chávez’ case, his ever changing, ambiguous goals and plans. Second, it pays into the logic of the “alien element” of society that can seemingly be corrected through the will towards efficiency and anti-corruption instead of a systematic, structural analysis of the problem. Moreover, this second characteristic is mitigated by the fact that top-down management tends to produce inefficiency and a state of affairs that stifles necessary criticism. Orders are constantly being changed without regard to preexisting plans, organizational improvements are impossible and all this happens under the rhetorical demand to improve the functioning of government and to eliminate corruption. As such, in the realm of corruption, as noted earlier, populism has played a specifically inefficient role in Venezuela.

Like populist leaders in the past, Chávez was elected under the pretenses of a vastly corrupt and delegitimized government. Speaking from a patriotic, nationalist platform Chávez ran on an electoral candidacy of anti-corruption (among other things). Although corruption is not a new circumstance brought into being by Chávez, there is no doubt that the populist discourse has contributed to very little change, if not a worsening, in the types of corruption most associated with the clientelism and patronage inherent in populism. The logic of populism that alludes to the alien element, or enemy, that is attacking the social unity of the whole creates a condition which those associated with Chavismo must band together, thus reinforcing patronage, in order to keep the “alien enemy” out. Moreover, as is the case with Chávez following the coup attempt of 2002 and the subsequent strike of 2003, the professional, experienced class of workers and managers were mostly associated with the opposition to Chávez.[42] This created a situation in which individuals were appointed to positions of extreme importance based not on their ability, but their loyalty to the Bolivarian project and to Chávez.[43] This is especially the case with role of the military:

When asked why it is that his government has such a high presence of military officers, Chávez responds that the main reason is that he lacks qualified citizens who support his project. That is, there are plenty of qualified citizens and plenty of civilians who support Chávez, but all too often most of the civilians who support Chávez have no experience in running large complicated state bureaucracies.[44]

As with past populist governments, the inclusion of the military into the sphere of politicization and patronage is a unique feature of this patronage.[45]

By appointing officers to key government positions, Chávez has blurred the distinction between the role of civil society and the military. Putting the military in such a position can have the benefit of bringing it closer to the people it represents, making the military more civilian and thus bringing about a feeling of solidarity between the people and an institution that has most notably been linked to repression in Latin America. While it has yet to be seen if there are any long term negative effects of this move, it is apparent that certain policy changes are not conducive to helping alleviate possible problems. For instance, following the new Constitution of 1999, it no longer became the role of the legislature to approve military promotions but instead was delegated to the military itself. Because Chávez wields enormous influence in the military, it is seen as a way for him to exert influence over those promotions. Additionally, the placing of over 200 active duty officers at different levels of government institutions following the new constitution certainly blurs the distinction between authoritarianism and democracy.[46] Critics have gone as far as saying that Venezuela is under military rule, not under the rule of Chávez. While this is a significant stretch, it is not hard to see what might happen in the future given this blurred distinction and politicization of the military. The true disaster in this area would be if something happened to Chávez and the military, given its politicization, could see itself as the true “heir to the Revolution” instead of looking to civil institutions to find an alternative.

In regards to democracy and civil society, there are several pivotal areas of Chavismo that warrant concern. As highlighted earlier, populism heralds a large mass democratic movement that makes an effort to include the voices of marginalized sectors of the population that could not be done by traditional politics. Relying on mass rallies and constant calls to the voting booth, Chavismo displays all the characteristics of this type of populism. Mass rallies are a frequent occurrence in Chávez’s Venezuela and since his election in 1998, not a year goes by when an important referendum or recall or election is put to popular vote. As highlighted earlier, these mass calls to the voting booth are an intricate part of legitimizing populist discourse because it justifies changes as a result of democratic mandate. But the limitation of this is two fold. Firstly, due to the charismatic leadership of Chávez and the resulting soft personality cult and lack of an alternative, it can be said that people vote on the basis of loyalty instead of leadership qualities. Secondly, the constant calls for voting distract from other key issues facing the country. It is hard to focus on more physical manifestations of struggle when the polarized political discourse comes to the fore every 6 months at the voting booths instead of in everyday life, where micro-solutions are found for common peoples problems.[47] But it would be a mistake to see this as an aberration instead of an inherent aspect of populism and Chavismo. Chávez needs the constant democratic mandates to bring about the changes he wants, if not only because his ideas are constantly being altered but also because it allows him to justify changing traditional institutions and circumventing traditional practices, the “rules of the game,” in the name of a “direct link” with “the people” who voted for him.

As identified earlier, this is a problematic aspect of populism. The direct link – the leader as the manifestation of the popular will – creates a certain level of arrogance. With Chávez this was highlighted by a climate in which criticism is frowned upon and this resulting in a top-down management style. It is within this context that a disregard for the rule of law, political pluralism and democratic checks and balances can be noted in several features of Chavismo. Following the original premise of his election, Chávez largely discredited the institutions associated with the previous regime by calling attention to their corruption and failure to account for the demands of the marginalized sectors of society. Once in office, as noted through the aforementioned two stages, Chávez applied the elementary populist discourse of “alien elements” – corrupt politicians, oligarchic elites, agents of imperialism, etc. – to justify the circumvention of traditional democratic procedures and institutions through the guise of manifesting the “popular will” as determined through the mandates of the voting booth.

This tendency is best exemplified by the method through which the 1999 Constitution came into being. Chávez’s campaign pledge to elect a constitutional assembly and overhaul the nation’s democratic institutions. Controlled by a 92% Chavista majority, thanks largely to a boycott of the elections by oppositional members, the constitutional assembly moved quickly to claim extra-legal authority to refound Venezuelan democracy.[48] It proceeded to increase the size the judiciary to include more judges (sympathetic to Chávez) and shut down the congress in order to convoke new elections to “re-legitimize” public officials at every level of the political system.[49] As such, having more than a two-thirds majority in Congress, the Chávistas had the ability to undertake a vast restructuring of the political system. With a two-thirds majority congress, a sympathetic and reformed judiciary, and the lack of voiced opposition in any democratic institution, there was little blocking the radical change many Chávistas hoped to bring to Venezuela and with this more or less domination of all aspects of governance, a wide variety of important changes were made to Venezuelan society during the fi rst stage of the Chávez presidency, all of which cannot be noted here, that have continued and expanded in the second.

It is not the changes made through the new constitution, the subsequent enabling laws and referendums, and the use of socioeconomic policy that requires attention seeing as how the effectivity, moral stature or necessity of these changes is up for debate. What is important to highlight is how these changes came about. As mentioned earlier, if the legal order can be circumvented through presidential decrees and popular democratic mandates on a reoccurring basis, there is little room for an understanding of “law” and regulations to take hold and the threat of general confusion sets in. This constant “changing of the rules” is a component of populism that may convey a radical element, but there is no doubt that a requisite part of a stable society is a rule of law and if it is constantly changing, or if people constantly expect it to change, then one can hardly expect them to know how to, or try to, follow it. Furthermore, as regards to political pluralism, while many members of the Chavismo movement see the opposition as highly corrupt, fetters upon radical change and undeserving of attention, if not “evil alien elements,” there is little doubt that any true democracy must at least make an effort to include all voices. The centralism of Chávez, the distrust and patronage issues following the coup and strike, and the general control of government by Chávez supporters does not bode well for such an actuality. Moreover, these issues also emphasize the importance of highlighting the effect of Chavismo upon the checks and balances of a democratic state. With the congress, judiciary and presidency all under the control of a single political proclivity, such checks and balances can hardly be expected to function in the way they are originally intended.

This section has looked at the aspects of the Chavismo movement that makes it essentially populist. It is important to note that these highlights are not the only narrative that is being communicated in and from Venezuela. The intention to describe the constitutive elements of Chavismo populism has allowed other important narratives to fall by the wayside. While populism, as described in this paper, is seen as largely a negative phenomenon with certain distinct limitations and drawbacks, there is no doubt that there exists positive aspects of populism that deserve to be accentuated. The next, concluding section will take a look at some of them as well as prospects for the future of the Chavismo movement.

Prospects for the Future

As mentioned earlier, populism’s positive aspect lies in how it often ushers in a new mass democracy that transcends the old, traditional, and oligarchical politics, providing a new sense of dignity and self-respect for lower class sectors of society, who are encouraged to recognize that they possess both social and political rights. The negative aspect of traditional populism was its effect on democratic citizenship. Populism requires the “privileged link” between the masses through electoral functions and acclimations, but once in power, this leadership provided few institutional means by which citizens can participate in the functioning of government or hold it accountable. Elections were thus merely delegative formalities where the masses choose who to give authority and then retreat to a paternalistic position. It is in this regard that the unique nature of Chavismo populism holds hope. The 1999 constitution and constant mandates from Chávez himself provide the institutional groundwork for the possibility of multiple forms of democratic participation from citizens. These include, but are not limited to, communal councils that have the potential for legitimate allocative responsibilities and political power, participatory budgeting in which citizens can take part in their local governments by auditing them for records, and attempts at forms of workplace democracy where forms of co-management act as a check to government influence in nationalized firms.[50]

The question regarding these new forms of democratic participation is; to what extent are these new forms institutionalized and how will they play a concrete role in decision making and influence upon the state. It is one thing to have these idealistic proposals put down on paper, and another to have them work efficiently within the state and civil apparatus. The overarching positive aspect of populism is that it can open up a rift in ideological hegemony and ossification, creating space for democratic thinking and control that goes beyond the limitations of populism. It is not beyond hope that the discourse of democracy and participation is taken more seriously by the people it affects, thus turning them against the populist bureaucracy, discourse and its limiting configuration.

Laclau’s theory of populism employs a hope of this sort; an analysis of populism that sees its most progressive aspects being rearticulated into a form of socialism. Laclau’s conclusion of populism, from a decidedly Marxist position, is that: “…the highest and most radical form of populism, is that whose class interests lead it to the suppression of the State as an antagonistic force.” Moreover:

In socialism, therefore, coincide the highest form of ‘populism’ and the resolution of the ultimate and most radical of class conflicts. The dialectic between ‘the people’ and classes finds here the final moment of its unity: there is no socialism without populism, and the highest forms of populism can only be socialist.[51]

In this sense, it is not impossible for a populist movement to change into a radical project that employs a more systemic analysis of the antagonisms of a given society. But Laclau’s mistake is to suggest that populism is an aspect of radical movements that is inherent and continuous instead of initial and something to be overcome. Again, Zizek acts as a corrective to Laclau, drawing attention to the vastly critical and eclipsing point about populism that overwhelms its other aspects:

[T]here is a constitutive mystification that pertains to populism. Its basic gesture is to refuse to confront the complexity of the situation, to reduce it to a clear struggle with a pseudoconcrete enemy figure. So not only is populism not the area within which today’s emancipatory projects should inscribe themselves, one should go a step further and propose that the main task of today’s emancipatory politics, its life and death problem, is to find a form of political mobilization that, although (like populism) critical of institutionalized politics, avoids the populist temptation.[52]

And, to employ an earlier quote from Zizek again, furthermore:

[T]he ultimate difference between true radical-emancipatory politics and populist politics is that authentic radical politics is active, imposing, enforcing its vision, while populism is fundamentally reactive, a reaction to a disturbing intruder.[53]

Accordingly, as long as the discourse of populism employs the rhetoric of the “disturbing intruder” or the “alien element” that affects social unity, it can never truly be a bearer of emancipatory radical politics or a be an element within it. It lacks a long term vision or unitary ideology with which to actively impose itself. It is reactive in the sense that it waits for the contradictions of society to emerge and creates attempts at solutions based on these reactions. Chávez’s “reaction” to the 2002 coup attempt and the 2003 strike is an unparalleled example of this tendency. Faced with a major contradiction, he first attempted a policy of moderate conciliation and when that did not work adopted a radical rhetoric and policy that was fundamentally a “reaction” to a “disturbing” element.

In very direct terms, there is a question of whether Chávez and the Chávista government has the ability and ideological fortitude to grapple with the difficult organizational, sociological, economic and political issues that arise from populism and come out the other side with something workable. It may be that Chavismo does not have the tools necessary to construct a viable and sustainable political and economic framework, and that an alternative is imperative. Additionally, there is the danger that Chávez has been caught in a cycle that leads him to believe that governance is not complicated and that he is a leader of the people whose large and vague ideas are all that is needed to radically transform society. The simple truth may be that despite the limitations of populism, there are few obstacles to the ability to lead a movement and a country with some degree of popularity if you have expensive resources that are in massive demand. But the obverse and hopeful hypothesis is that populism is inherently unsustainable and that eventually its limitations will be overcome. In regards to the contemporary developments in Latin America and Venezuela, building on this hypothesis continues, and will continue, to be of the utmost significance and importance.


[1] For an extended look at a history of Latin American populism, see; Populism in Latin America edited by Michael Conniff (1999 London)

[2] This term is largely problematic because of the implications associated with a certain, rigid conception of what economic “discipline” is. For neoliberals and institutions like the IMF it is considered following certain guidelines of what they deem necessary economic policies that may be uncomfortable for broad ranges of the population but necessary to gather revenue to pay off debt; hence the term “discipline.”

[3] Another problematic term. Who decides what “fiscal responsibility” means? Is it “responsible” to cut off social programs to pay off debt, as the IMF sees it, or are some seemingly unsustainable policies necessary for socioeconomic stability with the real fiscal issues laying in other areas, hidden to the ideology of the IMF? Recent history should point to the strength of the latter proposition.

[4] For an in depth look at the crisis and the role of neoliberalism, see Rise and Collapse of Neoliberalism in Argentina by Miguel Teubal (2004). Found here: http://www.hawaii.edu/hivandaids/Rise_and_Collapse_of_Neoliberalism_in_Argentina__The_Role_of_Economic_Groups.pdf

[5] For brief looks at the policies of Perón and Vargas, see, again, Conniff pgs. 22-43 and 43-63, respectively

[6] While this declaration may seem controversial, there is hardly any doubt that the policies put into place by the first populist leaders were largely unsustainable – especially in the case of Perón – despite their good intentions or origins. While the original pretenses for these policies (their necessity, effectivity etc.) are up for debate, there is little controversy that they largely failed in their intentions and paved the way for the debt crisis of the 80s.

[7] For a look at this type of traditional academia, see: The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America by Dornbusch and Edwards (1991 Chicago). Dornbusch and Edwards see populism largely in economic terms such as redistribution, popular consumption, fiscal expansion all at the expense of macroeconomic stability.

[8] Conniff pgs. 4-7 (1999 London)

[9] From here forward, when speaking of populism it will be in the sense that it is “progressive” populism – a populism that is associated with electoral democracy and progressive economic policy.

[10] Populism and reform in Latin America by Tortuato Di Tella in Obstacles to Change in Latin America (1970) pgs. 47-74

[11] Ibid pg. 49

[12] Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory by Ernesto Laclau (1977 London), pgs. 143-198

[13] Ibid pgs. 172-173

[14] In Defense of Lost Causes by Slavoj Zizek (2008 London) pg. 277

[15] Ibid pg. 282

[16] Against the Populist Temptation by Slavoj Zizek (2006) pg. 5 http://www.lacan.com/zizpopulism.htm

[17] In Defense of Lost Causes pg. 304

[18] For instance, Perón’s “Justicialismo” was a slogan that simply stood for “economic growth and social justice.” Who is against economic growth and social justice? (Conniff pg. 5)

[19] This criticism may ring hollow from a radical leftist position that see the rule of law, political pluralism, and democratic checks and balances dangerous within the context of capitalism, liberalism and the class rule of the bourgeoisie. The issue is not so much that these principles are de facto ignored or not respected, but in how and why they are ignored or not respected. To say that rule of law, political pluralism, and democratic checks and balances are only institutions of a liberal bourgeois capitalism borders on theoretical authoritarianism. In any case, such questions are outside the scope of this paper. Suffice to say that these principles are a requisite of modern democratic governance.

[20] Again, I must address the radical critique which might respond to this statement by saying; “What is more democratic than an electoral majority that votes for massive change?” The point of making this statement is not to lay claim to a theory that democratic electoral results are not true reflections of the needs of society (one is reminded of Kissinger’s famous quip about the election of Salvador Allende in which he stated, to paraphrase, that the United States could not stand by as the Chilean people made a mistake). Instead, it is important to recognize that a legal order is an important characteristic of a stable society and if “the rules of the game” can be changed so drastically and frequently, it is hard not to see how societal confusion can set in and a further reliance on authoritarian practices mitigated by the direct link between the leader and “the people” could be further institutionalized.

[21] In Defense of Lost Causes pg. 265

[22] Perón, for instance, was notorious for appointing loyalists to important positions of government, including but not limited to his appointment of a supporter to a previously independent position of party secretary of the largest Argentinean Union in May 1946. (Conniff pgs. 33-35)

[23] One of the most telling example of this coming in the form of the military coup in Brazil against Vargas in August 1954, leading to his suicide. (Conniff pg. 51)

[24] See, for instance; Neopopulism and Neoliberalism in Latin America: Unexpected Affinities by Kurt Weyland in the journal “Studies in Comparative International Development”

[32] (Fall 1996), pgs. 3-31

[25] It should be noted that, while I find many of the developments in Venezuela to be exciting, interesting and hopeful, I intend to focus specifically on the elements that I find to be populist at the expense of highlighting details of societal improvement in Venezuela.

[26] For a more specific look at the history and policies of the Chávez presidency up until 2007-2008, see Changing Venezuela by Taking Power by Gregory Wilpert (London, 2007) and Rethinking Venezuelan Politics by Steve Ellner (London 2008).

[27] Wilpert pgs. 16-17

[28] “Additional measures approximating neoliberalism included austere fiscal policies, overvaluation of the local currency, and the retention of the neoliberal-inspired value added tax with the aim of avoiding inflation and shoring up international reserves.” Ellner pg. 112

[29] Ellner pg. 119

[30] Ellner pg. 121

[31] For instance, in the book Democracy and Revolution (London 2006), D.L. Raby states; “The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is still very much a dynamic and unfinished project, but already we can see in Chavez’ discourse the emergence of a coherent ‘foundational project,’ the ‘Socialism of the twenty-first century.” She goes on to write that populism can be revolutionary, but only if it’s social base is an “autonomous movement of the dominated classes and where its leader is a true representative of the movement.” pg. 256. It seems, from this perspective, that the conditions for revolutionary populism are “autonomy” and “true leadership” – two highly ambiguous qualifiers that can be interpreted a number of ways.

[32] That is to say, Chávez was not necessarily radicalized by a theoretical shift in consciousness, but instead by a recognition that his goals could only be met by taking a different path. Earlier, a part of the nature of populism was identified as the lack of a single, unitary narrative and the ability to change positions depending on the conditions that are most “popular.” Additionally, Chávez initially said the he “is not a Marxist” and that the working class is not a privileged agent of revolution (Ellner pg. 128), but has taken many stances of an opposite nature. While things are always changing in populist discourse depending on convenience, it is enough to say that this was a key element discussed earlier on populism.

[33] It is, perhaps, time for a quite aside on this point. While I find the rejection of capitalism to be an important development of the Chávez presidency in terms of defining ideologically and institutionally the direction of the government’s intentions, the fact is that without changing the logic of the system the oligarchy, the elites and the influences of imperialism will remain. It is my contention that the “oligarchs,” “imperialists” and “elites” are not functioning as evil outsiders intent on destroying Venezuela but instead are simply following the logical coordinates of a capitalist system. To identify them as “negative elements” that need to be purged from the purity of the whole is to exactly employ a populist discourse that, as we will see further on, leads to authoritarian tendencies.

[34] “The emphasis [of endogenous development] is on agriculture (50%) and industrial production (30%), paying particular attention to achieving self-sufficiency with regard to the production of food, clothes and shoes.” Wilpert pg. 79

[35] Ellner pg. 128

[36] Against the Populist Temptation (2006) pg. 7 n4 138

[37] Wipert pg. 193 “Much of the government’s spending has, in recent years, been carried out directly from PDVSA, the state oil company. For example, in the first three quarters of 2008 (January through September) PDVSA had $13.9 billion, or 6.1 percent of GDP in public expenditures.” The Chávez Administration at 10 Years: The Economy and Social Indicators by Mark Weisbrot, Rebecca Ray and Luis Sandoval (Center for Economic and Policy Research, February 2009) pg. 17

[38] Wilpert pg. 82 (How these “ethical responsibilities” are to be monitored has not been detailed, but one can assume it will be through certain state regulations and inspections that would most likely employ highly ambiguous points of reference on ethical standards thus opening up the possibility of corruption.)

[39] Chávez Threatens to Jail Price Control Violators by Simon Romero, February 2007 in The New York Times; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/17/world/americas/17venezuela.html?pagewanted=print

(The institution of price controls is largely populist because of its refusal to address the systemic nature of the problem. A populist in effect shoots the messenger when instituting price controls because its logic emerges out of a rationality that does not know why prices are so high and thus blames the agent of the last step of the production process, distribution and pricing, for corruption and criminal negligence. In effect, the populist says; “We don’t know why rice prices are so high, but they are and you are selling them higher than we told you to. Either fix the problem or we fine/nationalize you.”

[40] Wilpert pg. 201

[41] Wilpert pg. 203 (Wilpert goes on to describe how Chávez has called ministers in the middle of the night to perform tasks and that, when faced with criticism, Chávez responds sometimes with “I remind you, you are speaking to the president.”)

[42] This is most notably highlighted by the infamous “Tascon List” which was essentially a blacklisting of opposition members from government industries and jobs following the coup and strike. (Wilpert pg. 205)

[43] Ellner pg. 147

[44] Wilpert pg. 49

[45] “Of the 61 ministers that have served in the Chávez government between 1999 and 2004, 16 (or 26%) were military officers. Also, Chávez supported the election of retired officers to numerous governor’s and mayor’s posts. Following the 2004 regional elections, of the country’s 24 governors, 22 belonged to the Chávez camp. Of these, nine (41%) have a military background.” (Wilpert pg. 49)

[46] Wilpert pg. 40

[47] During my trip to Venezuela, one of the most constant voices of concern was found in relation to the upcoming vote that would eliminate term limits for the presidency and other heads of local governments. The complaint was that leading up to the vote, the amount of propaganda related to campaigning distracted from other legitimate problems. People were told to wait until the end of the vote to voice their concerns and to focus on winning the “voting battle.” Additionally, many people I encountered sympathetic to Chávez mentioned that while they might be opposed to indefinite re-election, they could see no real alternative to Chávez and thus felt obligated to vote for the passage of the new law.

[48] Ellner pg. 111

[49] Wilpert pg. 21

[50] Wilpert pgs. 53-64

[51] Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory pgs. 196-197

[52] Against the Populist Temptation pg. 17

[53] In Defense of Lost Causes pg. 304