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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.

Chavez’s democratic legacy is weak at best. He increased electoral participation; however, there’s been a systematic effort to undermine freedom under provocative statements, threats, and actions. In a never ending campaigning mode, he needed democratic elections to legitimize his rule. This electoral legitimization was a key difference between the old radical left of the Cold War, and the new autocratic democracies of the 21st century.

The allegation of electoral fraud is a too simplistic answer to Chavez’s success, and for now there is no concrete evidence of such. But, elections were not clean neither due to an abusive use of the state’s funds and assets to benefit his campaigns. Instead, his success can be explained by the social behavior of his followers, also known as political science.

Chavez’s derogatory political and socioeconomic discourse left a country with a deeply divided society, an economy barely sustainable by high oil prices, food shortages, one of the highest crime rate, and inflation rates in Latin America. What many people failed to understand is that Chavez’s quire preaching was not part of logical, but an emotional mystique he made with his followers that went beyond pragmatism. Surely these variables should have been strong enough to make an impact on his popularity, and it did, just not enough to tip the balance of power to the opposition.

Because Venezuela’s democratic majority live in poverty or near poverty, Chavez’s message resonated with the most neglected sectors of the population. The use of an informal favor swap system called clientelism, which is using the state economic and bureaucratic system to benefit one part of the population in return of political support to win elections, was brutally effective.

Chavez’s sudden surge to power and his radical populist discourse were a direct result of a set of variables like the debt crises of the 1980s, low oil prices, perceived corrupt governments, and badly prioritized implementation of the Washington Consensus. These actions culminated in February 1989 in El Caracazo, a social explosion that rocked the entire country with riots and lootings where hundreds died.  When you have radical problems, people seek radical solutions, and this happened in Venezuela to an unprecedented level.  This is a warning to organizations like the IMF not to impose policies without taking into consideration local priorities and culture, and to avoid a “one size fits all” solution.

What Chavez delivered was quite simply a rock solid emotional connection between him and his followers, impossible to replicate because he was one of a kind. Chavez’s impact was not just socioeconomic, this conclusion is too narrow. His most important impact was the institutionalization of radical populism in every aspect of society to win elections. The institutionalization of radical populism wasn’t just a factor; it was the commanding factor that made everything else possible.

Gerardo Gonzalez is a political blogger and a contributor to

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