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Hugo Chávez and the Death of Populism

- March 6, 2013

The following guest post is by Diego von Vacano, a political theorist at Texas A&M and a specialist in Latin American political thought.


One of the greatest failings of the Obama administration has been the absence of a concerted effort to better understand our neighbors to the South. Not only is US foreign policy towards Latin America now almost the same as that under President GW Bush, but there is no apparent interest in learning about the ideas and intellectual trends that lead to particular forms of governing in the rest of the Americas.

The death of Hugo Chávez should give us pause to think about this lacuna in American foreign policy and in mainstream culture in general. Why is there so much ignorance about the history of ideas in Latin America, at a time when the percentage of Hispanics in the overall US population has surpassed that of African Americans, and when globalization has made the Western Hemisphere more tight-kit? The answer is that ideas from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking areas of the continent are simply not taught and disseminated in the US. The US does this at its own peril, for this creates a cultural gulf between the two Americas, and it generates misleading policy choices that are based on simplistic, caricaturist versions of reality.

The chief conceptual culprit here is the idea of “populism.” It is the term of choice for practically all academic and policy experts on Latin America. The problem is that it is an impoverished and fundamentally erroneous term. It is broadly used in scholarly, media, and public affairs circles despite the fact that it has no widely accepted theoretical meaning. In recent times, both academic and foreign policy elites have thrown the term about when discussing the governments of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Fidel and Raúl Castro in Cuba, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Lula da Silva in Brazil, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, among others. But it has also been used for neo-liberal leaders and those with no discernible ideology, such as Carlos Menem, Abdalá Bucaram, Fernando Collor de Mello, and Carlos Andrés Pérez. Policy elites often conflate these leaders, despite deep historical differences between their countries and also varying degrees of democratic legitimacy. Moreover, the classical case of populism, that of Perón in Argentina, was a clientelist political movement with a congeries of ideas from the right and the left, whereas all of the so-called populist regimes of the present owe their existence to the legacies of various brands of Marxism, to which Peronismo was deeply opposed. To make matters worse, the term is generally used for right-wing ethno-racial and nationalist movements in Europe. In essence, while its intellectual heritage is bankrupt, it continues to be bandied about willy-nilly whenever the terms “Latin America” and “politics” are discussed.

The reality is that, far from being a ‘populist,’ Hugo Chávez came from a different intellectual trajectory: that of ‘democratic Caesarism.’ This tradition, with deep roots in Venezuela, is quite different from the common but vague definition of populism as a doctrine that defends the rights and powers of average people against elite interests. Neither does it conform with populism as defined by Kurt Weyland, an eminent scholar of Latin American politics, for example. He argues that populist leaders seek “government power based on support from large numbers of followers.” Not only does this definition seem to describe any politician in a democratic multi-party state (isn’t that what elections are for?), but it is also linked to Max Weber’s notion of charismatic authority as rule based on the personal character of an individual. To be sure, Chávez relied on his vast rhetorical and histrionic gifts to exercise the art of power, but he also read widely and deeply in political theory. He quoted Machiavelli, Rousseau, Marx, Eduardo Galeano and other thinkers, but most of all Simón Bolívar. It is in Bolívar and his Venezuelan compatriot the early 20th-century sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz where we can find the intellectual armature of the leader of the Venezuelan Revolution.

In Bolívar and Vallenilla Lanz we see the practice and doctrine, respectively, of ‘democratic Caesarism,’ which is the most adequate term for understanding the mind of Chávez . This term, unlike ‘populism,’ describes a regime that seeks to use constitutional, juridical, and legal procedures to institutionalize reforms aimed at ameliorating the plight of poor and working-class citizens. While populist regimes such as that of Perón and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil relied on demagoguery to stay in power, democratic-Caesarist regimes rely on constitutional and public-law mechanisms to legitimate the authority of a form of republicanism with a strong executive that possesses a martial, anti-imperial component. Simón Bolívar, a great general and statesman, was deeply influenced by the warlike republicanism of Machiavelli, which advocated a strong single ruler under the rubric of constitutional government. The sociologist Vallenilla Lanz recognized this in the early decades of the last century, and believed that it was the best form of rule for a racially-divided, poor country like Venezuela. The echoes of Bolívar and Vallenilla Lanz can be heard in most speeches delivered by the now-defunct Chávez.

Rather than keep repeating the same tired labels ad nauseam, we need to better understand the particular ideas of the past that shape today’s political choices in Latin America. This will inevitably lead to better relations between the two Americas. It is time to discard worn clichés and pick up books on Latin American intellectual history by the likes of Leopoldo Zea, Alejandro Korn, Enrique Krauze, and Anthony Pagden. We must learn not to lump all nations together; despite key commonalities, each country has its own rich theoretical lineage. In Venezuela, Chávez has died, but it also ought to be the time for the death of “populism” in analyses of Latin America.

Diego von Vacano was born in Bolivia and is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University. He is the author of The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity, and Latin American/Hispanic Political Thought (Oxford) and The Art of Power: Machiavelli, Nietzsche and the Making of Aesthetic Political Theory (Lexington).