It's the Populism, Stupid!

It's the debate that won't go away: what is it about chavismo that so thoroughly wrecked Venezuela? Is it Marxism? Crime? Incompetence? It's none of those. It's the populism

Of all the words Hugo Chávez mangled during his countless hours on TV, the one that always made me smirk was pueblo. The people. He would turn the “u” into an “o”, so it sounded like poeblo. During campaign speeches, he would lean on that “o,” all he cared about was the pooeblo, he was—in his words, especially towards the end—not Hugo Chávez anymore. He was pooeblo.

To this day, it’s the word that defines Chávez better than any other. Because the ism that goes with pueblo is… populism.

After 20 years of chavismo, have we Venezuelans learned anything about what brought us here? Judging by opinion polls and results of the last election the opposition contested fully, most of us have learned not to vote for some specific parties and politicians. I can’t see any member of the ruling clique winning a minimally fair presidential election.

But learning—truly internalizing the lessons of these years—means more than knowing which parties to reject. Avoiding in the future the mistakes of the past requires understanding both of the deep and shallow forces that lead to 20 years of pain. And, in my opinion, populism should top the list of culprits.

Learning—truly internalizing the lessons of these years—means more than knowing which parties to reject.

In Venezuela we have come to understand by populism what’s actually clientelism: “buying” support through profligate policies and plain gifts; paying for votes, giving away washing machines, food and even houses in exchange for political support. But while chavistas—and more than a few in the opposition—regularly engage in clientelism, populism is something different, if sometimes related.

For this post, I’m following Mudde and Rovira’s definition: populism entails framing politics as “us against them,” where “us” means the people—the pure people, you know, El Pueblo—and “them” is the corrupt elites. Populism then includes an appeal and adulation of the people, and an attack against the establishment and elites. The stated goal of the populist, their promise, is that, through them, politics will be the expression of the people’s will.

See, not Chávez anymore, but el pueblo.

Populism is as powerful as it is shallow. It can feed on fear, resentment, disenchantment, anger, disappointment and xenofobia, and put wind into the sails of dangerous political movements from both the left and the right. The “them” can be anyone that fits a given place or time: oligarchs, the establishment, immigrants, elites, whites or blacks or latinos, landowners, right-wingers, left-wingers, businesses or labor unions, Jews or Muslims, and so on.

Populism can also adapt to any real or perceived enemy and, in turn, can be used by anyone. There are right-wing and left-wing populists, differing only —and not always—on the enemies they choose. It worked—or works—for Hugo Chávez, Viktor Orbán, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Beppe Grillo, Marine Le Pen, Evo Morales, Alberto Fujimori, Rafael Lacava, Donald Trump and, yes, Jair Bolsonaro. Populism fits marxists and fascists just as well.

In Venezuela we have come to understand by populism what’s actually clientelism.

As Venezuela implodes, there’s no shortage of takes on what the hell happened. Was it socialism, or was it unchecked corruption at the highest levels of government? I’m sure both have a sizeable part of the blame, but I believe that what ultimately lifted Hugo Chávez from the bottom of opinion polls into Miraflores wasn’t voters’ sudden appetite for leftist policies—those had been offered for decades—but rather his brand of charismatic and cathartic populism, tailor-made for late-90s Venezuelans that had had enough.

That he was a marxist and corrupt is true, but that was secondary. Chávez was first and foremost a textbook populist. It was populism what supercharged marxism and corruption into a red-beretted bulldozer.

Winning as a populist was just the start; Chávez ruled like a populist, just as Nicolás Maduro after him. The model populist won’t be satisfied with winning an election. Once in power, they attack the institutions curtailing their power. From their point of view, it makes perfect sense: how can you fight against the enemies of the people without dismantling the checks and balances that protect them?

Populists will say that institutions and the rule of law are an obstacle to solving problems and defeating the enemy; they’re dumb, unfair or too strict. Sometimes they’ll agree, a given law makes sense. But surely there ought to be exceptions for dealing with emergencies, right? The Central Bank has all that money sitting there doing nothing. One billion, just one millardito, that’s all we need to build houses for the poor. Sure, separation of powers makes sense, but what if the country is under attack? People should not be arrested without a warrant, but these are not really politicians, they’re terrorists! And of course, thou shalt not kill. But these criminals are not really people, they’re animals, right?

When populists go after institutions and the rule of law, they’re going after arrangements put in place to protect us from others and, more importantly, protect us from power. A couple of populists ended the rule of law in Venezuela, and we’re now utterly vulnerable to power. And they usually don’t stop there.

In some cases, their challenge against conventions will include stubbornly going against the opinion of experts and common practices. It’s the sort of approach that leads to economies wrecked by overspending, protectionist trade policies, and all kinds of economic controls. The perpetual challenge of the past leads populists to fight against everything and anything—parties, institutions, policies—that were not of their own creation. It’s inevitable that the disdain for rules and their constant erosion will also open the door for wholesale corruption.

When applauding populists for ignoring the law to fight “them,” remember that the only thing saving you from abuse is that you are not one of “them”, yet.

History is filled with marxist and corrupt rulers that harmed their countries, but few to the extent that chavismo did in Venezuela. In Malaysia, the Prime Minister took $700 million straight from the country’s development fund into his bank account. Vladimir Putin and his billionaire cronies likely regard Venezuelan officials as nouveau riche chumps. Even in Greece a marxism-infused party managed to avoid economic armageddon. Neither Malaysia, Russia nor Greece are doing as bad as Venezuela.

Had Chávez been just marxist and corrupt, I’m sure today Venezuela would be in a very different place. Chávez’s years would have no doubt been lost years, but not as destructive as they were. Instead, we got a populist regime that exceeded its expiration date by squandering a once-in-a-generation oil boom.

Populism, whether from the Left or Right, is a destructive force that’s not selective nor has pinpoint accuracy. Chávez and Maduro destroyed Venezuela for everyone, not only for their opponents.

Bear that in mind, particularly those Venezuelans that today applaud the rise of populists like Bolsonaro simply because he, too, dislikes socialists. When applauding populists for ignoring the law to fight “them,” remember that the only thing saving you from abuse is that you are not one of “them”, yet: the definition of “them” is malleable. And if you’re lucky enough to never be seen as the enemy, the populist you like will wreck institutions for you, too.

After 20 years under the boot of populists, I hope we have learned to reject them. Rejecting populism means it can’t be tolerated, not even when it comes from someone with some narrow common goals. We should stand for something and do so without exceptions, or we’ll be taking politics as a transaction—supporting the person that can give you whatever you want at some give time—with no place for ethics nor principles. The kind of transaction that makes us pueblo—a word so abused, it has lost meaning—instead of citizens.