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Viva el Populismo?
The Tense Future of Latin American Politics
CYNTHIA J. ARNSON is director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. CARLOS DE LA TORRE is director of international studies and professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. They are the editors of Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), upon which this essay draws.See more by Cynthia J. ArnsonSee more by Carlos de la Torre
March 2014 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Venezuela’s Caracazo, the name given to the 1989 nationwide riots in response to austerity measures announced by then President Carlos Andrés Pérez. To quell the street protests and end widespread looting, Pérez declared a state of emergency and unleashed the army, which killed hundreds of civilians. Venezuela is still suffering the consequences. Venezuelan social scientist Margarita López Maya notes that “after ordering the repression, neither [the Pérez] government nor democracy itself was able to regain legitimacy.”
Three years after Caracazo, a faction of the army attempted a coup. Although it failed, it helped launch the political career of Hugo Chávez, one of the officers involved. In 1998, Chávez made a successful bid for the presidency, a position he held for 14 years. At the end of his presidency and facing terminal cancer, he named as his successor Nicolás Maduro. Following Chávez’s death in March 2013, Maduro won a special election by a mere 1.5 percent of the vote. He remains president today.
Chávez redistributed wealth and created new mechanisms of grassroots democracy. He also fostered a nationalist and “anti-imperialist” foreign policy, and grossly mismanaged the economy. Venezuela’s current inflation rate is 57 percent, third-highest in the world, after Belarus and South Sudan. Shortages of basic consumer goods are rampant and cities are plagued by frequent outages of electricity and water. In addition to its crumbling economy, Venezuela’s murder rate has more than doubled since Chávez first took office in 1998. Today, it has the highest rate of homicide in all of South America. While compiling this record, the Chávez-Maduro regime packed institutions with their supporters and placed restrictions on press and other freedoms.