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THE RADICAL POPULISM OF CHAVISMO

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1THE RADICAL POPULISM OF CHAVISMO IN VENEZUELA: A THROWBACK TO THE TRIENIO OF ROMULO BETANCOURT? by Steve Ellner The circumstances surrounding Hugo Chávez’s quest for power and the strategy he has adopted for achieving far-reaching change in Venezuela are in many ways without parallel in Latin American politics. While many generals have been elected president throughout the years, Chávez’s electoral triumph was unique in that he was a middle-level officer with radical ideas who had previously led a coup attempt. Furthermore, few Latin American presidents have attacked with such fervor existing democratic institutions while swearing allegiance to the democratic system (Myers and O’Connor, 1998: 193). From the beginning of his political career, Chávez embraced an aggressively anti-party discourse. He denounced the hegemony of vertically based political parties, specifically their domination of Congress, the judicial system, the labor and peasant movements and civil society in general. Upon election in December 1998, he followed through on his proposed campaign slogan to use the Constituent Assembly as a vehicle to overhaul the nation’s neocorporatist political system. He offered to replace this model with one of direct popular participation in decision making at the local level. His actions and rhetoric, however, also pointed in the direction of a powerful executive whose authority would be largely unchecked by other state institutions. Indeed, the vacuum left by the weakening of the legislative and judicial branches as well as government at the state level, and the loss of autonomy of such public entities as the state oil company, could well be filled by executive-based authoritarianism. From the outset of the presidential campaign in mid-1997, Chávez’s rivals harped on the threat his candidacy posed to the nation’s liberal democracy as part of a scare campaign without parallel in modern Venezuelan electoral politics. This negative characterization was reflected in articles published in the foreign press both before and after the elections. The president’s adversaries exploited his cordial relations with the Argentinian Norberto Ceresole, a self-proclaimed “advisor” and author of over a dozen books on politics. Declaring that democracy in Latin America had failed, Ceresole traveled to Venezuela following the 1998 elections in order to propagate the model of a strongman-led government underpinned by the armed forces, in the tradition of Egypt’s Gamal Abdal Nasser. In many ways, Chavismo resembles the radical populism of the 1930s and 1940s which was represented in Venezuela by Rómulo Betancourt’s Acción Democrática. The radical populists opened up political institutions to non-privileged sectors, first promoting the formation of labor unions and then creating a neocorporatist structure in which worker leaders had a regular input in decision making. Similarly, Chavismo attempted to broaden participation under the slogan “participatory democracy,” which was a major goal of the constituent assembly, and it also reached out to non-privileged sectors. A few scholars and prominent Venezuelan political analysts of distinct ideological orientations have argued that Chávez’s assumption of power forms part of a process of the weakening of democratic institutions throughout the continent. (1) Guillermo O’Donnell (1994) has labeled the recent strengthening of executive power in Latin America, at the expense of traditional democratic forms of interest aggregation and input in decision making, “delegative democracy.” Its salient features are “hyper-presidentialism,” charismatic presidential leadership (sometimes pejoratively referred to as “neopopulism”), reliance on executive decrees, use of plebiscites to legitimize authority, employment of anti-party rhetoric, and a discourse with messianic overtones. The scholarly literature written in this vein attempts to explain why, so2much time after the establishment and apparent consolidation of democracies in the 1980s, undemocratic features persist. The authoritarian thrust of these democratically elected governments is especially disquieting given the consistency of the U.S. commitment to democracy during the period, in accordance with global imperatives. At first glance, Chávez’s rise to power is consistant with the trend toward the weakening of traditional political institutions in Latin America noted by O’Donnell. Chávez’s charisma is imbued with a messianic content, as put in evidence by his call for the “refounding of the republic.” In addition, his anti-party discourse is translated into attacks on existing political institutions, at the same time that he calls for direct citizen participation in the form of referenda, popular assemblies, and voluntary work in civilian-military programs. He attacks neocorporatist arrangements such as the Tripartite Commission of employee, employer and state representation and questions the legitimacy of the main labor confederation, the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV). In doing so, Chávez may be undermining the capacity of workers to resist IMF-style austerity measures. If this is his intention, then Chávez can be considered more adroit than his two elected predecessors, Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989-1993) and Rafael Caldera (1994-1999), who failed to generate the necessary political support for the pro-IMF policies they implemented, with disastrous political consequences for their respective parties. Some of Chávez’s detractors and supporters point to a second future scenario, which contrasts sharply with the model of delegative democracy underpinned by powerful economic interests. According to these political analysts, Chávez’s movement is promoting far-reaching socio-economic changes, and in general a sharp break with the past. The Washington Post, for instance, called Chávez a “leftist agitator” while the New York Times characterized the measures taken by his followers in the Constituent Assembly as “Jacobin.” In the way of substantiating claims that Chávez is a leftwinger at heart, political commentators have drawn attention to Chávez’s trip to Cuba shortly after his release from prison in 1994 and again in 1999, where he spoke in public with Fidel Castro. More typically, political analysts label Chavez a “radical populist” and emphasize his pledges of sweeping reforms for nonprivileged


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