On Populist Appeals & the Failures and Successes of Institutionalization in Venezuela

Over at Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have a piece up on the “Paradoxes of Chavismo.” In it, they do an excellent job concisely explaining why the rhetoric of Chávez (and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales) has resonated so strongly among their respective electorates.

Chávez, like Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia, gained support because his proposed political platform stroke a chord with the average voter. These politicians’ diagnosis of the problems on Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia is that the economic ills their countries face stem from the fact that society has been captured by an elite.

How to change this situation? They argued that measures needed to be taken to break the grip on power of elites. The approach of Chávez, and of Correa and Morales, is to strengthen the president and the removal of checks and balances which in the past have been tools for the elites to block reformist agendas, for example that of Carlos Andrés Perez. It is almost as if one needs “fire to fight fire”: institutions have been captured by elites, so we need to break down these institutions in order to build a different society.

Drawing equivalencies between Latin American leaders just because they are from “the” (not always clearly-defined) left is often problematic, but I think this comparison is legitimate. While the national contexts for each vary, historically, elites have maintained control over institutional power through both the colonial and national eras. This control played no small part in perpetuating socioeconomic differences even while hiding behind of thin veneer of so-called “democracy,” a veneer through which the population saw and with which it grew increasingly disillusioned. While the policies, goals, and contexts of Morales, Correa, and Chávez (to say nothing of their individual responses) have important distinctions between nation-states, this shared history of abuses of power and elite domination is a useful comparison, and helps explain while all three men have (or had) resonated with a majority of their populations as they campaigned. Put simply, they spoke not so much to a populism defined by personalism (though there are certainly elements of that as well, particularly in the figure of Chávez); rather, they spoke to a populism that sought to finally incorporate those who had effectively been marginalized from political processes or from the benefits that the state can provide to its citizens. In that regard, Chávez, Correa, and Morales are not so original, as their rhetoric echoes that of populists who came to power by incorporating previously-marginalized groups, including urban and rural workers and women, between the 1930s-1950s, be it in the APRA in Peru, Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, or Juan Perón in Argentina.

Speaking of Perón, Acemoglu and Robinson close with the following:

An interesting comparison here is to Argentina. The attack in the 1940s by Perón on the traditional elites created a political machine, and an associated band of political elites, which have dominated politics and run the country ever since, with far more disastrous economic consequences than the previous regime in Argentina. Chavismo, by its un-institutionalized nature, seems not to have created such a machine, which is possibly his greatest legacy and the only cause for hope for the future of Venezuelan democracy.

This is a fascinating point. I’ve commented before that Chávez’s slowness to institutionalize his reforms in state institutions rather than in himself could be an obstacle in ensuring that the reforms are stronger and more enduring than an individual leader (in this case, Chávez himself). By contrast, Acemoglu and Robinson suggest that the lack of institutionalization of chavismo as a political movement may help maintain peace and democracy in Venezuela by precluding machine politics bound in the cult of personality of the party’s leader, a la Peronism in Argentina. Certainly, there are some important differences between the two cases; in particular, regarding party politics, Perón was alive until 1974, more than 25 years after arriving in the presidency in 1946. From 1955 to 1973, he was in exile, meaning his metaphysical presence/physical absence created a far more ambivalent and uncertain path for Peronism, with more radical and more conservative forces fighting over the party’s legacy even while it’s founder was still alive. This obviously would not be  the case for Chávez, even had he created a party bound in his own leadership before his death.  Nonetheless, the suggestion that Chávez’s failure to institutionalize his ideology in a party is a fascinating one that sees the failure to institutionalize Chavismo in one regard as a success.

To be clear, I don’t think those two views on institutionalization as a shortcoming or as a success are in direct conflict; Acemoglu and Robinson are discussing party politics, whereas I was focused more on institutional reform. Thus, it’s not so much a matter of conflicting views as it is a question of differing institutions. I think the reforms need to be embodied in Venezuela’s juridical and legal institutions, while Acemoglu and Robinson are arguing the lack of political institutions [i.e., parties] with Chávez may be central in sowing an even stronger democratic system in Venezuela going forward. In that regard, they may be right.


About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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