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Home Opinion Venezuela: Chavismo and the populist left

Venezuela: Chavismo and the populist left

Francisco Javier Diaz & Robert L. Funk - 31 January 2012

As Chavez’s populist and revolutionary rhetoric remains unchanged, can social democracy in Venezuela gain popular support for alternative policies?

How to be popular without being populist? Just one of the questions facing social democratic politicians around the world. In Latin America leaders like Lula in Brazil, Bachelet in Chile, or Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay appear to have shown that it is possible to achieve popular support while sacrificing neither essential democratic principles nor good policy.

Hugo Chavez, however, has another answer. As pleased as he may be with Lula’s, Bachelet’s, or Vazquez’s popularity, he would disagree with their unwillingness to alter the basic capitalist structure in their respective countries. “Chavismo” is about radically modifying a country’s institutional foundations, so that the Washington Consensus becomes the Bolivarian Consensus (in honour of the Nineteenth century revolutionary, Simon Bolivar). Chavez would argue that other leaders, in failing to support such change, were not genuine revolutionaries.

But are these really the only options available? Many well-meaning people in the developed world critique social democratic governments for failing to carry out deep structural reforms, whilst seeing in Chavez a revolutionary who works for the benefit of the excluded and dispossessed. Others might see social democracy as offering reasonable and gradual reforms, in contrast to populist and revolutionary rhetoric which contributes little in the long run towards real political, social and economic improvement.

Judging by the concrete results, the social democrats are ahead of more radical leaders. The economic and social record of countries such as Brazil, Chile or Uruguay is better than Venezuela’s, where not only has there been economic stagnation (sometimes hidden by the high price of petroleum), but social retrenchment as well. Venezuelan crime rates, for instance, are amongst the highest in the region.

On the political front, there has been what Larry Diamond has called a “democratic recession”. Venezuela remains, formally, an electoral democracy. Elections, observed by international organizations, are carried out regularly in a proper way. But infringements on freedom of expression and the mistreatment of opposition figures have become increasingly commons. Cases like that of Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the social democratic party “Voluntad Popular”, who was punished by a local court and prevented from holding public office (his case was condemned by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights), place Venezuela on the borderline of proper democratic conduct. These are not isolated incidents; there are several elements in the Venezuelan constitution which raise doubt on just how democratic many of the country’s institutions really are.

Colonel Chavez first attempted a coup d’état in 1992, and failed. Buoyed by the collapse of the old and corrupt party system, he then managed to win a democratic and clean election in 1998, garnering 56% of the vote. Since then, he has consistently and convincingly won election after election, and referendum after referendum, with the notable exception in 2007 of a proposed constitutional reform (thanks in large measure to opposition from university students). Nevertheless, in 2008 Chavez pushed through Congress an amendment allowing indefinite reelection for president, allowing him to run this year once again, health permitting. Indeed, it is difficult to predict what might happen in this year’s elections because, among other things, there is little certainty regarding just how serious the president’s cancer was, or is. Chavez has even suggested that his illness might have been provoked by the “imperialist forces” from the United States. “Would it be so strange,” he mused, “that they’ve invented technology to spread cancer?”

While he might not enjoy the best of health, it appears that the Venezuelan president continues to enjoy the support of the majority, so he may win reelection on October 7 yet again. The question is – as it has been in the past – whether the opposition will finally get its act together, and manage to consolidate some of the small triumphs of the last few years (such as the student movement or the 2007 referendum) into a true force for change. This is the scenario going into the 12 February primaries aimed at selecting a single opposition candidate to run against Chavez in the presidential elections. Venezuela’s fractious opposition has come together in the MUD (Mesa de Unidad Democrática, or Democratic Unity Table). Candidates competing in the primary include current front-runner, Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of the state of Miranda (Primero Justicia); Pablo Pérez, governor of Zulia state (Un Nuevo Tiempo); Congresswoman María Corina Machado (former director of the civic organization Súmate. Capriles has recently received the support of Leopoldo Lopez, from Voluntad Popular.

Almost 15 years after Chavez first came to power, it is still difficult to foresee a realistic counterweight to Chavismo in Venezuela, and it is even harder to identify a real social democratic alternative. But with inflation at over 20%, falling oil productivity, increasing crime rates and corruption – added to the president’s uncertain health – opponents have an opportunity to try to garner popularity whilst avoiding the populism.

A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

Robert Funk is professor of political science and deputy director at the University of Chile’s Institute for Public Affairs

Francisco Javier Díaz is a Senior Fellow at CIEPLAN

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Francisco Javier Diaz , Robert L. Funk , Venezuela , State of the left , Hugo Chavez

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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