This is the seventh contribution in the series Thesis Pieces featured on For the Desk Drawer with a slight twist. Regrettably Ryan Brading was never one of my doctoral students but he did complete his MA in Comparative Politics at the University of Nottingham. At a time when commentators have referred to a pseudo-religious aura around Hugo Chávez, it is crucial to question in more detail the politics of populism in Venezuela.
For many years, I have tried to figure out why two thirds of the population in an oil rich country live in poverty and make some sense of the political phenomenon Venezuela has experienced in the last twenty-five years. This Bolivarian Revolution led by Hugo Chávez is commonly labelled populist. However, a convincing explanation of political populism has been difficult to locate and how this concept may refer to the Venezuelan case. As far as I am aware, there is nothing convincing in the literature contextualising what can be categorised as populist practices in Venezuela and describing the impact of this political phenomenon since Hugo Chávez led a coup d’état in February 1992.
In my book, Populism in Venezuela (Routledge, 2013), I employ Ernesto Laclau’s theoretical approach to populism and determine to what degree the case of Venezuela constitutes an instance of populist politics. I also provide a fuller and more general understanding of the phenomenon of populism. The key factors that account for the emergence and reproduction of populism in Venezuela are addressed and I differentiate between populism as a mode of opposition and populism as a mode of governance. Key elements in this in-depth investigation are the descriptive and analytical accounts of people’s problems from both sides in a deeply polarised society. An in-depth fieldwork study of a Cuban healthcare programme named Barrio Adentro (deep in the slums) in Venezuela’s poor and rural areas and the nonviolent Manos Blancas (white hands) opposition student movement, provide a balanced view about the problems different Venezuelans face in this dichotomised society.
Gathering material for my investigation of the Barrio Adentro (BA) healthcare programme, a comment from a Venezuelan medical student in Caricuao gave me an insight of the feelings many Chávez supporters share and how this revolutionary project has succeeded in keeping the hearts and minds of Venezuela’s ‘previously excluded’ population. Student Jasmín Horopesa said:
Medics from the traditional system only attend patients if they have money. We are trained to take care of the ‘people’. We have to work in dreadful barrios; many Venezuelans forget that these places exist.
Horopesa’s opinion in the context of healthcare epitomises what many other Venezuelans think about the deeply ingrained class-based differences operating through the dynamics of this society. This gave me a glimpse of the concerns and political views of a new generation of Venezuelans — brought up during Chávez’s administration (from 1999 till today) and why they feel a sense of pride and duty to do their part for the advancement of the Bolivarian Revolution. Interestingly, a woman in her late forties, who had just finished her appointment with the Cuban medic, started to listen to my conversation with seven students, and said:
The opposition doesn’t care about our needs and problems. They are ignorant. They just don’t know what BA means to us—thanks to the help of President Chávez.
These are the types of emotion many Chavistas have. Elements like gratitude to El Comandante for his tireless effort to fight, help and protect them from the enemy (the oligarchs, the bourgeoisie, los majunches [the mediocre], and so on), unconditional camaraderie to Chávez because ‘he is one of us’, and backing the ‘Us versus Them’ frontier Chávez continuously used for his populist discourse, are the social, political and emotional components that neatly blend together and make Chavismo such a successful political force.
Chávez intended to stay in power until 2031. In the second referendum, which took place on February 15, 2009, Chávez finally got the constitutional amendments he needed to run for office indefinitely. However, by mid-2011, people started to get confused and worried because something was missing. Chávez was away from his usual ‘fiery star’ stage appearance at home and abroad and his popular ‘live’ extravaganza ‘Alo Presidente’ soap opera television show (in all channels) that many enjoyed. On June 30, 2011, things became clear when he announced to his ‘beloved people’ that a cancerous tumour was removed in Cuba. Chávez lost weight and was calmly reading a speech. Yet, a month later, as he was celebrating his 57th birthday with his die-hard supporters from the ‘balcony of the people’ in the presidential palace, he sang joropo and promised to rule Venezuela until 2031. El Comandante was back in business! His popularity increased by 10 percent.
New social programmes were introduced and the annual national budget for 2012 increased by 45 percent. The lack of information regarding Chávez’s cancer and recovery fuelled widespread confusion and speculation; nonetheless, in spite of his health problems, it was obvious that the government was getting together the platform for Chávez to run for the October 2012 presidential elections. Chávez’s ‘Cult of Personality’ was flourishing and during a campaign rally on July 1, 2012, Chávez said: ¡Chávez es Pueblo! ¡Chávez somos millones, tú también eres Chávez! (Chávez is the people! Chávez are millions! you are also Chávez!). This was used for Chávez’s campaign ad. This powerful message immortalised Chávez. On several occasions Chávez said he was free of cancer. Many believed him. On October 7, 2012, Chávez was re-elected for the fourth time with 55 percent of the vote. The elections were not rigged, though the state drew on its money and privileged access to the media to good effect.
My concern about democracy in Venezuela is the insistence by Chavistas to remain in power indefinitely. Claude Lefort (1986) rightly stressed that in a democratic system ‘the legitimacy of power is based on the people’. This is an ‘empty place, impossible to occupy, such that those who exercise public authority can never claim to appropriate it’. As Lefort notes, ‘democracy combines these two apparently contradictory principles: on the one hand, power emanates from the people; on the other, it is the power of nobody. And democracy thrives on this contradiction’. However, ‘whenever the latter risks being resolved or already resolved, democracy is either close to destruction or already destroyed’. The opposition in Venezuela is competing against a ruling party that uses (in the name of the people) the ‘state’ for its own political interests. This is unfortunately replacing democratic practices with methods used in totalitarian regimes.
The question is: does Chavismo have a future without Chávez? I describe Chavismo as an ideology and a faith: the voice of Venezuela’s ‘previously excluded’ population. The strategy is to galvanise Chávez’s ‘Cult of Personality’, which is the mythification of the leader — immune of errors — glorified as an impeccable hero who died in the battle, fighting for the emancipation of those who previously had no voice. This will be the core of the party machine — working for the stability and expansion of Chavismo. Radical populist discourse, undermining those with different political views, who ask for dialogue, reconciliation, respect, unity and so on, will continue. The Chávez frenzy seen during the funeral, gives us a glimpse of the popular support Chavismo enjoys. Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s chosen successor, will doubtless benefit from a certain sympathy vote but that effect may be outweighed by the fact that Chavez is no longer there in person to work his electoral magic. Nonetheless, the success of radical Chavismo in the ballot box depends a great deal on the easy access it currently has to the abundant oil revenues to keep itself in power. Without the state’s money, Chavismo as a mode of opposition will be forced to reconsider its ‘Us versus Them’ frontier to regain political approval with people from popular sectors that have decided to abstain from voting.