"March 2014 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Venezuela’s Caracazo, the name given to the 1989 nationwide riots in response to austerity measures announced by then President Carlos Andrés Pérez. To quell the street protests and end widespread looting, Pérez declared a state of emergency and unleashed the army, which killed hundreds of civilians. Venezuela is still suffering the consequences. Venezuelan social scientist Margarita López Maya notes that “after ordering the repression, neither [the Pérez] government nor democracy itself was able to regain legitimacy.”

Three years after Caracazo, a faction of the army attempted a coup. Although it failed, it helped launch the political career of Hugo Chávez, one of the officers involved. In 1998, Chávez made a successful bid for the presidency, a position he held for 14 years. At the end of his presidency and facing terminal cancer, he named as his successor Nicolás Maduro. Following Chávez’s death in March 2013, Maduro won a special election by a mere 1.5 percent of the vote. He remains president today. 

Chávez redistributed wealth and created new mechanisms of grassroots democracy. He also fostered a nationalist and “anti-imperialist” foreign policy, and grossly mismanaged the economy. Venezuela’s current inflation rate is 57 percent, third-highest in the world, after Belarus and South Sudan. Shortages of basic consumer goods are rampant and cities are plagued by frequent outages of electricity and water. In addition to its crumbling economy, Venezuela’s murder rate has more than doubled since Chávez first took office in 1998. Today, it has the highest rate of homicide in all of South America. While compiling this record, the Chávez-Maduro regime packed institutions with their supporters and placed restrictions on press and other freedoms.

It should come as no surprise that Maduro now confronts the biggest and most sustained outpouring of popular protests against the government since the Caracazo. Since the protests began in February 2014, at least 41 people have been killed -- the majority of them government opponents and students gunned down by state agents and members of armed civilian militias. Scores of protesters have been jailed, including prominent opposition leader Leopoldo López, the former mayor of a Caracas suburb, and two other mayors from opposition strongholds. The protests still show little sign of dimming and, despite a government-opposition dialogue brokered by representatives of neighboring countries and the Vatican, the potential for even greater violence is real. 

It’s tempting to conclude that the current street protests mark the beginning of the end of the Chávez-Maduro regime, and a return to the democratic path from which Venezuela began to drift 25 years ago. But that would be to misunderstand how exactly the Chávez regime rose in the first place, and which social forces it has relied on to sustain Chavismo for the past 16 years. Maduro and Chávez are both part of a long and controversial tradition of Latin American populism. In demanding greater democracy, the Venezuelan protesters have highlighted that their country, like much of Latin America, is divided over the very meaning of the term. 


Populism is a form of governance that fosters divisions between the people and an elite oligarchy. Central to Latin American populism is the role of a charismatic leader, someone who establishes a direct relationship with the masses and claims the right to override allegedly corrupt and out-of-touch political institutions, such as political parties or legislatures in the day-to-day functioning of government. These leaders tend to present politics primarily as an ethical struggle between good and evil, redemption and downfall, while characterizing their rivals -- whether on the left or right -- as enemies of the leader, the people, and, by extension, the nation.

In the 1930s and 1940s a generation of populist leaders came to power in Latin America, including Juan Domingo Perón and Eva Perón in Argentina, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre in Peru, and José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador. Once in power, they fought against electoral fraud, expanded the franchise, redistributed income, and were exalted as the embodiment of the nation’s true, uncorrupted traditions and values against those of foreign-oriented elites. At the same time, they also violated the rights of the opposition, fought bitterly with the privately owned media, and co-opted or repressed organizations of civil society.

Chávez fit perfectly into this history of populism. Under his leadership, Venezuela drafted a new constitution that established new political institutions under his direct control and served to pack existing ones with his supporters. (Until his diagnosis with cancer in mid-2011, he seemed ready to govern indefinitely, under provisions of a constitutional reform that did away with term limits.) He also used rhetoric and pursued policies that would be maximally polarizing within Venezuela and throughout the region. One of his most consistent targets was the United States: he claimed to be part of -- indeed, to lead -- a global movement against imperialism, in solidarity with the world’s oppressed peoples. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa soon followed Chávez’s example in their own countries. Despite differences among them, this new generation of populists represents a resurgence of Latin America’s populist past.

But it isn’t just a resurgence. It’s clear that these leaders also represent a new and distinct phase of populism in the region. First, these populist revolutions are carried out through elections, not armed struggle. Latin America’s contemporary populists wage permanent political campaigns, using frequent elections to rally supporters, consolidate their hegemony, and displace older elites. Second, these revolutions are carried out in the name of democracy, although the populist leaders demand that the concept be interpreted in substantive rather than procedural terms. Correa, for example, claims that democratic citizenship is, essentially, an economic status, which obliges the state to pursue certain policies. Chávez and Maduro claim that advancing democracy depends on replacing the unresponsive institutions of liberal democracy with new forms of direct, participatory democracy. And Morales claims that democracy means replacing or complementing liberal institutions with enhanced grassroots, particularly indigenous, participation."


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