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.

It should come as no surprise that Maduro now confronts the biggest and most sustained outpouring of popular protests against the government since the Caracazo. Since the protests began in February 2014, at least 41 people have been killed -- the majority of them government opponents and students gunned down by state agents and members of armed civilian militias. Scores of protesters have been jailed, including prominent opposition leader Leopoldo López, the former mayor of a Caracas suburb, and two other mayors from opposition strongholds. The protests still show little sign of dimming and, despite a government-opposition dialogue brokered by representatives of neighboring countries and the Vatican, the potential for even greater violence is real. 

It’s tempting to conclude that the current street protests mark the beginning of the end of the Chávez-Maduro regime, and a return to the democratic path from which Venezuela began to drift 25 years ago. But that would be to misunderstand how exactly the Chávez regime rose in the first place, and which social forces it has relied on to sustain Chavismo for the past 16 years. Maduro and Chávez are both part of a long and controversial tradition of Latin American populism. In demanding greater democracy, the Venezuelan protesters have highlighted that their country, like much of Latin America, is divided over the very meaning of the term. 


Populism is a form of governance that fosters divisions between the people and an elite oligarchy. Central to Latin American populism is the role of a charismatic leader, someone who establishes a direct relationship with the masses and claims the right to override allegedly corrupt and out-of-touch political institutions, such as political parties or legislatures in the day-to-day functioning of government. These leaders tend to present politics primarily as an ethical struggle between good and evil, redemption and downfall, while characterizing their rivals -- whether on the left or right -- as enemies of the leader, the people, and, by extension, the nation.

In the 1930s and 1940s a generation of populist leaders came to power in Latin America, including Juan Domingo Perón and Eva Perón in Argentina, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre in Peru, and José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador. Once in power, they fought against electoral fraud, expanded the franchise, redistributed income, and were exalted as the embodiment of the nation’s true, uncorrupted traditions and values against those of foreign-oriented elites. At the same time, they also violated the rights of the opposition, fought bitterly with the privately owned media, and co-opted or repressed organizations of civil society.

Chávez fit perfectly into this history of populism. Under his leadership, Venezuela drafted a new constitution that established new political institutions under his direct control and served to pack existing ones with his supporters. (Until his diagnosis with cancer in mid-2011, he seemed ready to govern indefinitely, under provisions of a constitutional reform that did away with term limits.) He also used rhetoric and pursued policies that would be maximally polarizing within Venezuela and throughout the region. One of his most consistent targets was the United States: he claimed to be part of -- indeed, to lead -- a global movement against imperialism, in solidarity with the world’s oppressed peoples. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa soon followed Chávez’s example in their own countries. Despite differences among them, this new generation of populists represents a resurgence of Latin America’s populist past.

But it isn’t just a resurgence. It’s clear that these leaders also represent a new and distinct phase of populism in the region. First, these populist revolutions are carried out through elections, not armed struggle. Latin America’s contemporary populists wage permanent political campaigns, using frequent elections to rally supporters, consolidate their hegemony, and displace older elites. Second, these revolutions are carried out in the name of democracy, although the populist leaders demand that the concept be interpreted in substantive rather than proceduralterms. Correa, for example, claims that democratic citizenship is, essentially, an economic status, which obliges the state to pursue certain policies. Chávez and Maduro claim that advancing democracy depends on replacing the unresponsive institutions of liberal democracy with new forms of direct, participatory democracy. And Morales claims that democracy means replacing or complementing liberal institutions with enhanced grassroots, particularly indigenous, participation.

Third, contemporary populist leaders have sought to pass new constitutions that “re-found” the nation under a new political framework with new political institutions. The goal is to establish a new kind of democracy, based on elections but also on a constitutional order that concentrates power in the hands of the president and, more broadly, the executive branch. Checks and balances and an independent press are replaced by popular mobilization, frequent elections, referenda, and plebiscites. 

Fourth, these new populist regimes all rely onstate intervention in the economy in the name of redistributing wealth and reducing poverty and inequality. Although this aspect of populism is not new, the scale of redistribution is of a different magnitude. After the commodities boom of the 2000s, which sent oil and natural gas prices to record levels, the populist governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador used the windfall to fund ambitious social programs. Chávez and Maduro went the farthest in this regard, expropriating hundreds of domestic companies in sectors ranging from telecommunications to construction, agriculture, and retail. The resulting social programs have been haphazard and politicized, lacking in efficiency, transparency, and institutionalization. They have also all been tied to the persona of the president, who distributes benefits primarily to his or her political supporters rather than on the basis of universal, objective criteria.

Finally, in the foreign policy arena, Chávez, Maduro, Morales, and Correa view their governments as part of a continental or even worldwide movement aimed at the realignment of international politics. In Chávez’s words, “Latin America is at the vanguard of a new world.” Or, as Morales declared, “We want Bolivia . . . with its political, economic, programmatic, cultural and ecological proposals, to be a hope for the entire world.” Although earlier manifestations of Latin American populism involved heavy doses of nationalism, contemporary populists have anti-globalization, and to varying degrees, anti-U.S. postures at the core of their foreign policy rhetoric and behavior.


Latin America’s contemporary populists have managed to fulfill some of their promises. By distributing rents from the commodity and hydrocarbons sectors, they have helped millions of impoverished people gain a foothold in the economy. The sheer magnitude of state spending in Venezuela, for example, has benefited the poor in ways that partially offset the macroeconomic distortions which have produced inflation, shortages of basic goods (including energy), and the weakening of the manufacturing sector.

In Bolivia, especially, populism has helped foster ethnic inclusion. Morales, elected as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, represents the symbolic and actual empowerment of the country’s non-whites, restoring the dignity of indigenous peoples who have suffered discrimination and marginalization in Bolivia for centuries. In the words of Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera, “Now an indigenous person can be anything from president to a construction worker.” For its part, the Chávez-Maduro regime in Venezuela has fostered grassroots political organizations among the underprivileged at the local and neighborhood level, including community water committees, land committees, and community councils.

At the same time, however, Chávez, Maduro, Morales, and Correa have dramatically undermined liberal democracy in their countries. Even if some leaders continue to enjoy strong popular support and convene and win elections that are technically carried out without fraud, they have systematically eroded the institutions and legal frameworks capable of constraining their unfettered exercise of power. They have pushed constitutional reforms that do away with limits on presidential terms; they have packed institutions such as the judiciary and electoral councils to weaken or eliminate checks and balances. In Venezuela and Ecuador in particular, the state places explicit pressure on independent media, including through policies designed to punish critics of the government and limit the free flow of information. The public sphere and civil society have become less civil, impeding democratic dialogue and exchange. Maduro’s recent disqualification in public speeches of opposition politicians as “fascists,” coup-mongers, terrorists, and murderers is a case in point.

In speculating about the future of populist regimes, it is important to consider the fragility of some of their sources of popular support and legitimacy. Chávez’s support among the poor didn’t just depend on the many government social programs he passed; his legitimacy was not merely a transaction that consisted of exchanging political loyalty for material redistribution. Chávez also relied on his ability to leverage personal charisma to establish profound emotional connections with diverse segments of the electorate.

In that sense, the death of Chávez posed a very clear problem in Venezuela. Although Chávez designated Maduro as his successor, he could not transfer to him the power of his own charisma. Despite Maduro’s attempts to invoke Chávez’s legacy, he has lacked the authority he would need to unite and dominate the various factions in Chávez’s populist movement -- a fact amply demonstrated by his razor-thin electoral victory in 2013. Making matters worse, Maduro also inherited the economic and security crises of the Chávez era. He was hurt, in fact, by the massive increase in government spending prior to the 2012 elections, which led to two sharp devaluations of the bolívar currency several months later on Maduro’s watch.

Like Chávez, Morales has managed to forge new a sense of unity and empowerment among Bolivia’s underprivileged. And the basis for it is stronger than it was in Venezuela and Ecuador. The indigenous and poor mestizos organized by Morales have genuine interests in common that exceed their personal devotion to him; their political organizations will not be easily deactivated in the event that he loses legitimacy in the eyes of his followers.


Whether Venezuela’s ongoing protest movement marks the beginning of the end of the populist regime or simply the beginning of its most repressive phase remains to be seen. Maduro has responded to the ongoing protests -- and to some acts of violence by the protestors themselves -- by increasing repression, mobilizing his followers, and blaming imperialism and local fascists for sponsoring chaos and attempting to destroy the “Bolivarian revolution.” He has counted on the loyalty of the military, which has been purged of anti-Chávez leaders over time, as well as the National Guard and armed militias loyal to the regime, to physically attack and kill protesters and regain control of the streets.

Members of the international community have shown some initial success in brokering a dialogue between the Maduro government and some opposition leaders. But after 16 years of Chavismo, Venezuela has been polarized into starkly antagonistic camps that make democratic dialogue difficult. For too long, Venezuela’s political struggles have been presented as epic confrontations between good and evil, between the representatives of the people and their enemies, the “squalid ones,” the pitiyankis (little Yankees). The opposition, which has managed to unite at times of national elections, remains divided over how to confront the regime. Some leaders -- along with the student movement -- have refused to join the current talks with the government. Underneath it all, the government and the opposition have radically different visions of political as well as economic organization, with little common vocabulary as to what democracy means or represents. How dialogue can succeed in such an environment is difficult to imagine.

Over time, it is unlikely that Maduro will be able to arrest Venezuela’s downward economic spiral and the multiple inefficiencies spawned by the economy’s overreliance on oil. Optimists see in the country’s continued economic decline an opportunity for a less fractured opposition to build majority support. Yet democratic alternation by means of the popular vote is of dubious interest to the regime’s most ardent defenders in and out of government. In such an environment, increased radicalization of both sides is likely, along with further outbreaks of violence. Whether and how cracks in the regime emerge -- especially in the armed forces -- may well define the country’s future.

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  • 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.
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