Human Rights and Radical Social Change: Liberalism, Marxism and Progressive Populism in Venezuela

By Tillman Clark
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 4/6 |

Limitations of Populism

Progressive populism’s strength lies in how it often ushers in a new mass democracy that transcends the old, traditional, and oligarchical politics, providing a new sense of dignity and self-respect for lower class sectors of society, who are encouraged to recognize that they possess both social and political rights. Populist leaders are often wildly popular and capable of winning any free and open democratic contest.

Because populists have no single doctrine (drawing from existing sociopolitical models such as socialism, corporatism or democratic capitalism) their ideas remain inconsistent and their ideas change frequently over time. The flexibility of these ideas allows them to appeal to the largest amount of voters at any given time.34 The electoral victories of populist leaders show a clearly expressed public discontent with the way things were and a desire for major political change. They give hope to the democratic principle that an alternation in power could bring about a change in policies and government and that had failed to articulate popular demands in the past and were viewed largely as corrupt.

But once in office they unfortunately tend to exhibit tendencies that show little respect for the rule of law, political pluralism, and democratic checks and balances. In this sense, they follow the ideology of Marxism in so far as the traditional system no longer holds legitimacy because it is being replaced with a new socio-economic model thus making it no longer necessary to follow its rules.

By definition, populist leaders are elected with large electoral majorities from unorganized masses and thus tend to view themselves, and are often viewed, as the embodiment of “the people” and the manifestation of the popular will. The image of the leader who had emerged from “the people” and would return power to them, displacing corrupt and elitist incumbents who had hijacked democracy for self-serving interests (alien elements) is reinforced through this process.

As “anti-establishment” or “revolutionary” political outsiders, they characterize the restrictions posed by existing institutions--such as an independent judiciary and congressional opposition--that limit their political autonomy, force them to make concessions with opponents, or constrict their efforts to implement the popular will, as unnecessary and in need of replacement or transcendence in the name of political change and/or a new socio-economic model. Populist leaders often view institutionalized structures as constraints on their political autonomy and vestiges of the traditional past, and see little need for such structures when they can communicate with the public and mobilize electoral support through the media.

Popular referendums are often used to justify institutional changes, allowing populist leaders to claim a democratic mandate. But when the underlying rules-of-the-game are so fluid that they can be rewritten at the whim of temporary and contingent electoral majorities, then there emerges a certain threatening pressure:

[T]here is in populism always something violent, threatening, for the liberal view: an open of latent pressure, a warning that, if elections are manipulated, the “will of the people” will have to find another way to impose itself; even if electoral legitimization of power is respected, it i made clear that elections play a secondary role, that they serve only to confirm a political process whose substantial weight lies elsewhere [...] This is what gives the thrill to populist regimes: the democratic rules are never fully endorsed, there is always an uncertainty that pertains to them, a possibility always looms that they will be redefined, “unfairly” changed in the middle of the game.35

It is not hard to see how such a situation could engender claims of human rights violations from a liberal theoretical perspective, and even in some way more threatening than a direct Marxist position because of its ambiguity. Moreover, under conditions of top-down relationships with the leader and the masses, a direct link of sorts, it can be argued that most citizens vote on the basis of loyalties rather than leadership qualities. This loyalty functions within party organizations’ control of access to public office, and their recruitment and socialization activities serve to channel and filter political ambitions.36 Even further, it can have an added component of danger when it is associated with the military and in any case can lead to corruption, nepotism and institutionalized favoritism.

Where populist leaders are associated with institutional support from the armed forces, rather than parties or other organizations, they usually expand the political role of the military and draw it into functions that are far removed from its normal responsibilities. This is dangerous for two reasons. One, it blurs the line between the role of the military and civilian institutions, usually to the detriment of the latter.

The military enjoys government support and funding based upon a long tradition while civilian institutions, especially under new governments, rely on secondary forms of funding and are delegated responsibilities based upon their abilities and capabilities as opposed to sort of “providence” which is the case when it comes to certain duties of the military such as defense. Second, making the military political is never a guarantee of loyalty. Latin America especially has a long history of military coups, even in cases of progressive populism in which members of the military find that they can do a “better job” than the democratically elected government.37

Anti-corruption rhetoric is a regular component of the legitimization of populist transcendence of traditional parties, but the cure is often worse than the disease. The lack of institutional accountability and the tendency towards opportunism and favoritism under populist governments presents an incentive (especially in poorer countries where government positions are not necessarily well paying) to corruption between public authorities and private agents. Additionally, promises to put an end to corruption are hard to take seriously in cases when populist leaders must fill the void presented by a lack of organized support and experienced associates and thus must simply do so by appointing inexperienced loyalists to government positions.

Populism is limited both as a political ideology and in theory. Since it emerges, in its progressive form, with the intention of overcoming a corrupt past or instituting a new socio-economic model, its relationship to human rights can be seen to emulate parts of Marxism. Additionally, its rejection of traditional systems of governance makes it an easy target for liberal human rights theory. Since its inviability lies in it ambiguity and reaction instead of systematic analysis, it cannot be endorsed as a state whose human rights violations can be justified.

Chávismo Populism

Latin American history has no shortage of Left-wing military coup attempts, but Chávez’ case is unique. Following a failed coup attempt in 1992 that he personally led, Chávez’ name was catapulted to political prominence and he was democratically elected on a ticket to transform the national constitution in 1998 with close to 60% of the vote. Using a discourse of nationalism, anti-imperialism and claiming to support a “Third way” that was not completely socialist/communist or completely capitalist, Chávez discredited the institutions associated with neoliberalism while employing a charismatic personality that marginalized masses associated with.

By instituting certain measures, such as re-nationalizing the national oil company (which had been previously nationalized but had more or less degenerated into a “state with in the state,” no longer answered to the government and was thus close to a private company), setting up subsidized medical services and food (through the much reported “Missions”), and generally supporting a larger role of the state in the economy, Venezuela began to move away from the type of economic orthodoxy associated with neoliberalism.

Following a U.S. supported coup attempt against Chavez, led largely by big business, in early 2002 and a strike, again led by big business, in late 2002, Chávez’ rhetoric and actions became increasingly progressive and radical. It was following these events that Chávez began to employ a heightened discourse of anti-capitalism and supported a new, yet largely ambiguous, vision of “21st Century Socialism.”38 Following his election and throughout his terms as president, Chávez has consistently, if we use the guidelines set above, used a populist discourse and created a movement with a similar political project and ideology.

Chavez’ rise to power must be seen through the lens of the historical conditions predating his election. As indicated above, an important element of the rise of populism is the failure of traditional models to incorporate popular demands and that large disaffected sectors of society are available for mobilization. In 1989, rioting throughout the country brought about by neoliberal reforms resulted in severe repression from the government and hundreds if not thousands of people were killed.39

It was following this event that the traditional model of political representation (marked by decades of representative alternation between to parties, Copei and Ación Democratica) was discredited in the eyes of many segments of the Venezuela population. Chávez’ attempted coup in 1992 was a reaction to this event and although it failed, its timely arrival was enough to place him as a courageous, anti-establishment revolutionary that was what was needed to change the country. This characterization is what propelled Chávez to victory and is part of what continues to sustain his legitimacy.

As indicated above, the key element that makes a discourse and movement populist is its tendency to use a logic and rhetoric of "alien" elements infecting the unified and potentially balanced social whole, and so suggesting a solution of finding and destroying the problem-causing invaders. This applied to Chávez more so in his earlier discourse than his latter, after the adoption of a “21st Century Socialism” program, but has held through his administration.

In terms of rhetoric, the Chávez presidency can be historically divided by two stages. The first stage was one of a moderate political and economic stance roughly corresponding to the period of 1999-2003. The second stage was one of a more radicalized discourse that adopted the rhetoric of Marxism and roughly corresponds to the period of 2004-present. It is important to differentiate between these two periods because the reference to alien elements that upset social unity has remained in both periods, but has largely changed in regards to context and terminology.

The first stage was marked by the use of a “third-way” nationalism, in which the state was seen as being hijacked by corrupt politicians who did not have the interests of the Venezuelan people at heart and that Chávez’ movement (which was made up of a variety of different ideology backgrounds, a telltale mark of populism, but more heavily leaning towards to left) was elected to overcome.

Additionally, Chávez employed an inconsistent (in terms of rhetoric vs. practice) anti-neoliberal position that rejected the principles of privatization and fiscal austerity, and was institutionalized on paper through the new 1999 Constitution, but nonetheless failed to substantially materialize initially as many neoliberal positions were continued, and even new ones put into practice.40 As opposed to traditional and radical discourse, this viewpoint saw capitalism as neither inherently stable or problematic but instead saw the results of neoliberalism as a negative outgrowth of poor political decisions marred by corruption and a failure to be adequately patriotic.

Following the 2002 coup attempt, Chávez attempted to reduce the tension caused by the event by employing an even more moderate rhetoric and offering compromises to the coup plotters. This was obviously an attempt to stem the virulent opposition to his anti-neoliberal policy prescriptions, which will be discussed below. This conciliatory gesture obviously did not work as intended, for from late 2002 to 2003 an eight-week long strike headed by commercial and business interests practically shut down the oil industry and crippled the country’s economy. Chávez, speaking on this development, noted; “[T]he oil belongs to the entire nation, not just an elite.”41 This confrontation marked the beginning of the second stage of the Chávez presidency and a new contextual populist terminology displayed by the aforementioned quote on “elites.”

Following a recall election in 2004, which he won in a landslide, Chávez began to declare his government “anti-imperialist” and began calling for a rejection of capitalism and a new “Socialism for the 21st Century.”42 While this transition can be characterized as a qualitative change,43 it is obvious that the massive opposition to his initially moderate changes by business and old political interests were the main catalyst of Chávez’ radicalization and that the ideological coordinates and long term goals still remained intensely ambiguous.

That is to say, Chávez was not necessarily radicalized by a theoretical shift in consciousness, but instead by a recognition that his goals could only be met by taking a different path. Earlier, a part of the nature of populism was identified as the lack of a single, unitary narrative and the ability to change positions depending on the conditions that are most “popular.” Additionally, Chávez initially said the he “is not a Marxist” and that the working class is not a privileged agent of revolution, 44 but has since then taken many stances of an opposite nature. While things are always changing in populist discourse depending on convenience, it is enough to say that this was a key element discussed earlier on populism. This stage in the presidency marked a new policy direction in which structural changes in the economy were to be mitigated by larger state intervention and an introduction of parallel political organization (such as the community councils) was to be implemented.

Again, it is important to recognize the populist nature of these changes especially given that the new economic policies of redistribution and state intervention were accompanied by a gigantic spike in world oil prices that swelled state revenue. Furthermore, the frequent reference to the “oligarchy,” the influences of imperialism, and the Venezuelan “elites” continued alongside this new rejection of capitalism and thus, even under this more radical context, we see the rhetoric of “alien elements” that infect social unity still being employed.45

The economic policies of the Chávez government are very reminiscent of previous populist governments in the sense that it involves a larger role for the state , especially in regards to redistribution and regulations, and a new form of import substitution titled “endogenous development.”46 Large scale nationalization of certain key industries such as key electric companies and construction oriented industries increased the centralization of the economy under the state, as these “strategic” areas of the economy were made exempt from the experiments of workplace democracy going on in other sectors.47 This centralization of the economy is not necessarily an element of populism, but when one looks at the corresponding political situation, things become different. For instance, the states use of large oil revenues is largely a mixed blessing. Zizek, for instance, sees Chávez’ limitation lying in

the very factor that enables him to play his role: oil money. It is as if oil is always a mixed blessing, if not an outright curse. Because of this supply he can go on making populist gestures without paying the full price for them, without really inventing something new at the socioeconomic level. Money makes it possible for him to practice inconsistent politics (to enforce populist anticapitalist measures and leave the capitalist ediļ¬ce basically untouched), of not acting but postponing the act, the radical change.48

The traditional “bottleneck” situation mentioned earlier, in which the demands of the popular mobilization cannot be met by the real social and economic conditions, was somewhat, if not entirely, alleviated by this oil revenue windfall. Additional socioeconomic policies, such as the government “missions,” which include food subsidization, free medical care and educational services, and the role of the state in regulating private business, are suggestive of populism for two specific reasons, respectively.

First, most of the “mission” programs are not state institutions, but instead operate in a form of “outsourcing” through a direct relationship with PDVSA.49 Because they are not institutionalized, they can either be eliminated by a leader down the road who sees no need for them or can simply evaporate when oil revenue does. Second, the regulation of private business, through price controls and calls to ethical or social production, is a distinct representation of seeing the “alien elements” failing to act sufficiently ethical and thus being the sole bearer of responsibility for the malaise of certain economic conditions.

Recently, calls to create “Social Production Enterprises” in which businesses must fulfill a set of “ethical” requirements and invest in parts of their profits in their communities in order to gain special privileged financing, state purchasing and other preferential benefits from the state employ such a logic.50 Even more recently, nationalizations of, and calls to criminal prosecution against, private enterprises that are failing to institute government price controls is even more revelatory of the populist logic of the Venezuelan state’s discourse.51 Thus, it is hard to tell if any of the economic policies put into place are, a.) sustainable (given the nature of fluctuating oil prices), b.) legitimately institutionalized forms that are not dependent only upon those same oil prices, and, c.) viable models and not just experiments or idealistic models put into place by the impulse and hopes of a single charismatic authority.

As such, Chávismo’s major limitation is in the role of Hugo Chávez himself. Charismatic leadership is a key component of populism and it is in this area that Chávez has made his fame. The adoration of Chávez is both a product of the nature of the movement and a concerted effort by Chávez and the government to reinforce his indispensability. Campaign slogans such as; “With Chávez the people rule,” “With Chávez everything, without Chávez nothing” or “With Chávez we all govern,” are constitutive of this orientation.52 While this leads to more obvious problems such as dependence and divisiveness (either you are with Chávez or against him and thus with or against Venezuela), the real issue is the sense that Chávez is the embodiment of “the people” and thus an almost “divine providence” to rule through the direct link with them. It is from this relationship that a top down form of management is employed.

As indicated earlier, populism’s penchant for charismatic leaders creates a condition in which the leader tends to exert autocratic methods of management. Chávez seems to exhibit such proneness:

Chávez’s management style seems to be completely top-down, rather than bottom-up or team-oriented. He seems to consider it perfectly normal and acceptable to issue orders, much like a general in the battlefield, to his ministers in the spur of the moment, with little regard for their existing work-plans or duties.53

This top-down method of management is populist for two reasons. First, it is premised on the authority of a single charismatic leader and, especially in Chávez’ case, his ever changing, ambiguous goals and plans. Second, it pays into the logic of the “alien element” of society that can seemingly be corrected through the will towards efficiency and anti-corruption instead of a systematic, structural analysis of the problem. Moreover, this second characteristic is mitigated by the fact that top-down management tends to produce inefficiency and a state of affairs that stifles necessary criticism. Orders are constantly being changed without regard to re-existing plans, organizational improvements are impossible and all this happens under the rhetorical demand to improve the functioning of government and to eliminate corruption. As such, in the realm of corruption, as noted earlier, populism has played a specifically inefficient role in Venezuela.

Like populist leaders in the past, Chávez was elected under the pretenses of a vastly corrupt and delegitimized government. Speaking from a patriotic, nationalist platform Chávez ran on an electoral candidacy of anti-corruption (among other things). Although corruption is not a new circumstance brought into being by Chávez, there is no doubt that the populist discourse has contributed to very little change, if not a worsening, in the types of corruption most associated with the clientelism and patronage inherent in populism.

The logic of populism that alludes to the alien element, or enemy, that is attacking the social unity of the whole creates a condition which those associated with Chávismo must band together, thus reinforcing patronage, in order to keep the “alien enemy” out. Moreover, as is the case with Chávez following the coup attempt of 2002 and the subsequent strike of 2003, the professional, experienced class of workers and managers were mostly associated with the opposition to Chávez.54 This created a situation in which individuals were appointed to positions of extreme importance based not on their ability, but their loyalty to the Bolivarian project and to Chávez.55 This is especially the case with role of the military:

When asked why it is that his government has such a high presence of military officers, Chávez responds that the main reason is that he lacks qualified citizens who support his project. That is, there are plenty of qualified citizens and plenty of civilians who support Chávez, but all too often most of the civilians who support Chávez have no experience in running large complicated state bureaucracies.56

As with past populist governments, the inclusion of the military into the sphere of politicization and patronage is not a unique feature.57

By appointing officers to key government positions, Chávez has blurred the distinction between the role of civil society and the military. Putting the military in such a position can have the benefit of bringing it closer to the people it represents, making the military more civilian and thus bringing about a feeling of solidarity between the people and an institution that has most notably be linked to repression in Latin America. While it has yet to be seen if there are any long term negative effects of this move, it is apparent that certain policy changes are not conducive to helping alleviate possible problems.

For instance, following the new Constitution of 1999, it no longer became the role of the legislature to approve military promotions but instead was delegated to the military itself. Because Chávez wields enormous influence in the military, it is seen as a way for him to exert influence over those promotions. Additionally, the placing of over 200 active duty officers at different levels of government institutions following the new constitution certainly blurs the distinction between authoritarianism and democracy.58 Critics have gone as far as saying that Venezuela is under military rule, not under the rule of Chávez. While this is a significant stretch, it is not hard to see what might happen in the future given this blurred distinction and politicization of the military. The true disaster in this area would be if something happened to Chávez and the military, given its politicization, would see itself as the true “heir to the Revolution” instead of looking to civil institutions to find an alternative.

This section has looked at some of the key aspects of the Chávismo movement that makes it essentially populist. Since it was mentioned earlier that this is the political ideology and project of any movement or state is the key in analyzing the human rights discourse surrounding it, an appropriate background has been placed in order to examine the actual claims and counterclaims of the opposing sides of the discourse. The following part of the paper will look at these claims.

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