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The Institutionalization of Radical Populism

The passing of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, after 14 years in power, left behind a country with a deeply divided society, an economy in shambles, and a legacy that would be intensely debated for years to come. Contrary to popular belief, Chavez’s most important impact was not necessarily making socioeconomic conditions the prime time issue. But the institutionalization of radical populism as the vehicle to spread his socioeconomic message to rally emotional support from traditional neglected sectors of the population to win elections.

Hugo Cavez Coffin
Hugo Chavez may be dead, but his controversial legacy will live on for years to come.

Contrary to other parts of the world where the divisive factor is ideology, religion, race, ethnicity or language; in Venezuela, socioeconomic status is the main divisive factor. Because socioeconomic conditions determinate legitimacy, opportunity, and power in society; divisions are between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Chavez forever changed the way of doing politics in Venezuela. Although previous leaders shared populist tendencies, they were perceived as distant people that could only be seen on television. Chavez went to the barrios or slums to greet people; he got closer to them both physically and emotionally.  Chavez’ style was very personalistic indeed, which helped him secured his followers loyalty.

Chavez foresaw that by empowering the traditionally neglected sectors of the population he could achieve his main objective which was to win elections, and stay in power. He implemented educational, healthcare, small cooperatives business credits, and training programs called misiones. However, these apparent socioeconomic advances are dependent on unpredictable, and volatile oil prices; if oil prices drop so will the funding for misiones. Chavez reinforced the petro-rentier dependency of the Venezuelan economy.

The daily dose of radical populism in all of his activities was constant and effective. He promised the most neglected sectors representation and voice. He understood what people wanted to hear, and perfected his message through the power of television. Most importantly, Chavez revolution gave them a sense of belonging, equality, political and socioeconomic inclusion.

Gerardo Gonzalez is a political blogger and a contributor to

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