Despite crisis, Venezuela no ‘populist failure’

Barrio Adentro provides free medical services and healthcare.

Venezuela is again grabbing headlines in the media, amid allegations of lack of democracy and exaggerated accounts of nonetheless very real economic problems.

Much commentary puts the problems facing the country down to the alleged “failed populism” of Venezuela’s pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution. Last month, the New York Times even compared Donald Trump to Venezuela’s late socialist president Hugo Chavez in an article titled “What Hugo Chavez can teach us about Donald Trump”.

Venezuela Analysis’s Lucas Koerner spoke to Steve Ellner, a Venezuelan-based politics professor and author of several books on Venezuela’s process of change, to discuss the current situation and the “populist” label. A much longer version of the interview can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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It’s no secret that one of the hallmarks of the Bolivarian process, led by late president Hugo Chavez until is 2013 death, has been democratising oil wealth to improve the living standards of the impoverished majority. However, this policy has been hysterically denounced by Western political, media, and academic elites as “populism”. Is Chavismo populist?

First of all, it should be kept in mind that the term populism has been defined in many different ways, even antithetically.

You have writers like Ernesto Laclau who views populism as the quintessence of politics, because the populist leader is someone who is able to unify distinct segments of the population on the basis of the same slogans.

When some people and the media accuse Chavez of being a populist, they’re referring to a different definition of populism. I would call it “crass populism” in order to avoid confusion around the term.

Social programs

The detractors of the Chavista governments, including academics who call Chavez a populist in the pejorative sense of the word, argue that the social programs of populist governments are inherently unsustainable.

Non-populist governments, on the other hand, implement social programs that are perhaps not as successful in the initial stages because they assign fewer resources, but in the long run, are sustainable. In contrast, the populist governments receive a lot of publicity, get a lot of popular support at first, but eventually their programs go under because they are untenable.

Applied specifically to the Venezuelan case, the argument is that many of the Chavista social programs involve the distribution of goods and services that are either free or else heavily subsidised. And that is true.

If you just leave it at that, you can easily reach the conclusion that these programs are populist in the pejorative sense of the word. That is, they are examples of crass populism.

Housing mission

Take the case of the housing program known as the “Great Venezuelan Housing Mission”.

Many of the recipients are chosen in the communities by assemblies of the communal councils (grassroots bodies enabling local communities democratic control over their neighbourhoods) and their selection is based on need. So women who are pregnant, older people, etc. are prioritised, as are, people who don’t have houses or whose houses are in deplorable condition. Victims of natural hazards are also given priority treatment.

The priority beneficiaries are for the most part provided free houses. For others, a social study is undertaken to determine economic capacity, and the terms of the mortgage are set accordingly.

You can imagine, though, in an inflationary situation, when inflation is 200% and the mortgage is 15 years, at best people are paying a fair amount in the first couple of years. But in time, their payment is significantly reduced. Other goods are also heavily subsidised.

But the situation is more complex than what detractors of the Chavista governments and those who talk about “leftist-style populism” claim.

Firstly, there is the concept of the “social debt”, which the Chavistas embraced, even before Chavez was elected president in 1998. The idea is that the marginalised sectors of the population should receive priority treatment. For decades, the oil-derived revenue of the nation passed them over and went mainly to those at the top.

Also, you can argue that there are certain commodities and services that should not be subject to the market economy at all. For example in the US, public education at the grade-school level is free, and in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin American state college education has long been free.

Under the Chavista governments, metro transportation in Caracas and elsewhere is heavily subsidised and is free for senior citizens, a policy which I believe is 100% justifiable and should be copied in the US.

Secondly, there is the social factor. Certain programs involve participation and represent a learning experience for non-privileged sectors of the population. This is particularly the marginalised sectors I mentioned before, who lack experiences of this sort.

The communal councils, for instance, are directly involved in public works projects, which is a learning experience for them. Now, you can argue that a private construction company­ — even a company that supports the right-wing opposition but has a good reputation and has experience, capital and technology — might do a better job. From a cost-benefit perspective, it makes sense to award them the contract.

But when the community is directly involved, there is more of a guarantee that the performance is going to be of a higher quality in the long run since the welfare of the community is at stake.

But even if this is not the case, community participation is important from a strategic viewpoint in terms of overcoming underdevelopment. You can’t separate social development and economic development, especially when you’re referring to marginalised sectors of the population that lack organisational capacity and experience. They also lack the organisational discipline that, for instance, workers and the middle class have.

Unions provide workers with organisational experience and work in the formal economy provides a sense of discipline. Those in the informal economy, such as street vendors and other members of the marginalised sectors, lack this kind of experience.

So this factor represents a plus for social programs that promote a sense of organisational know-how and discipline, even if they are not justified from a cost-benefit analysis viewpoint.


Also, the empowerment that is achieved — the sense that the formerly marginalised are able to successfully carry out important collective tasks and the resultant sense of self-confidence — has to be factored into the equation. These factors are imperatives for achieving national development.

There is a third issue that needs to be brought out. The critics of the Chavista governments, both political activists and politicians belonging to the opposition as well as academics, exaggerate when they claim that the social programs have been complete failures.

This is what some say about Barrio Adentro and other educational missions that provide free education at all levels to those previously excluded, and the communal councils. They allege that these programs have been nothing but chaotic.

You can go to the majority of the bookstores in Venezuela and you’ll find books making his claim. There is hardly a balanced sample of books in favour and against Chavismo, as I have entered many bookstores with 15 or so anti-Chavista books and not a single one in favour of the government.

They claim poor people are allegedly no better off now and are basically at the same level as they were 15 years ago. This is not to deny the organisational deficiency of such programs, which is the result of their makeshift character. Nonetheless, an objective evaluation of these programs is in order.


I say that programs such as the educational missions (that have eradicated illiteracy among other gains) are makeshift because they are parallel structures to the traditional structures run by the ministries.

You can’t expect the educational missions to be particularly efficient given their limited budget. The professors get paid very little and they work out of the public schools at night. They don’t have libraries or any other kind of infrastructure.

I would imagine that for every bolivar that is spent on the Sucre Mission, the public universities get 100 or 200 bolivars. Having taught in the Sucre Mission (providing university education to those previously excluded) over a period of time, I can tell you that there’s very little expense on the part of the government.

You could argue, as opposition people have, that the degree that is granted students should not be a university degree — it should be a different, lesser degree because the education that is provided is not on par with the established universities. But I don’t agree.

I’ve taught in the Sucre Mission and I have a different opinion with regard to quality. In short, some critics exaggerate when they disparage the quality of the Sucre Mission. Also, granting a regular university degree to the graduates is a calculated decision, taking into consideration the importance of incorporating formerly excluded sectors of the population.

The concept of the “social debt” is applicable here. In a nutshell, the government emphasises quantity over quality. You might disagree with these priorities, but there are cogent arguments that underpin them. Those arguments are not addressed by those who disparage the missions and other social programs.

The fact that these programs have lasted as long as they have speaks well for their relative success. Take the cooperatives that were established in the first years of the Chavez government. They petered out after the first couple of years.

But compare the cooperatives with the performance of the communal councils, of which the ministry of communes says there are more than 45,000. These councils have been around for 10 years now.

In these 10 years, the attendance at what are called “citizens’ assemblies” has generally been robust. A large number of people show up at these meetings in part in order to be informed about programs that benefit them.

Part of this success is due to the fact that the government has implemented a number of initiatives in which the communal councils play a role. You could say that this represents a degree of creativity on the part of the government.

In the CLAPs (Local Production and Provisioning Committees) involving the distribution of food, for instance, the communal councils undertake a census of the community to determine how many people will be receiving the food combos, how many families live in each house, etc.

People show up at meetings because they announce when the “food combo” will be delivered and how much it’s going to cost. If they aren’t at home the day of the distribution, they are not going to get the combo. Nor will they receive the food if they don’t have the money at hand, because it’s handled in cash.

So they show up to the meeting in order to be informed of these important details. Similarly, the selection of the people for the “Barrio Nuevo Barrio Tricolor” mission — involving materials such as doors, roofs, and other items for renovating houses — takes place in the communal council assemblies.

The fact is that people in the barrios — at least this has been my experience — in general speak positively of these programs. For instance, in the case of Barrio Adentro (which provides free health care in poor neighbourhoods), I hear very few people say what you often hear from people in the opposition and in middle class areas: that the program doesn’t work, that it is a fraud, that the Cuban doctors aren’t qualified, that the Venezuelan doctors who are now staffing these clinics aren’t adequately trained, etc. But you speak to people who live in the barrios and they generally speak highly of the treatment they receive.

So to sum up: The use of the term “crass-populism” for the Venezuelan experience over the past 17 or 18 years is misleading, if not deceptive.

The opposition argues: “Look, the Chavistas implemented these programs without anticipating that the price of oil could drop, and that naive on their part because international oil prices have always fluctuated — the Chavistas weren’t thinking of the future.”

There is an element of truth in that argument, but it doesn’t take into consideration the various factors I have discussed.

First, free and heavily subsidised prices mainly for the marginalised sectors are justifiable on various grounds including the concept of the “social debt”.

Second, the programs have enhanced the sense of empowerment and participation of the non-privileged — particularly those belonging to the marginalised sectors of the population.

Third, the programs have been effective to an important degree, even while they are not as efficiently run as some of their counterparts that rely on greater resources.

A fourth point needs to be added. The Chavista emphasis from the outset on social programs over economic productivity obeyed a political imperative.

Had the government downplayed the social programs in favour of developmental plans, the political mobilisation needed to defend the government in the face of insurgent activity from the coup and general strike of 2002–2003 to the opposition promoted urban violence known as the “guarimba” may not have been forthcoming.