Interview #8 with Kirk Hawkins. Caracas Burns: Post-Chavismo and Populism  

You the people are the giant that awoke, I your humble soldier will only do what you say. I am at your orders to continue clearing the way to the greater Fatherland. Because you are not going to reelect Chávez really, you are going to reelect yourselves; the people will reelect the people. Chávez is nothing but an instrument of the people.

Hugo Chávez

Kirk Hawkins

Kirk Hawkins

POP interviews prof. Kirk Hawkins. He is the coordinator of Team Populism, a cross-regional scholarly network that studies the causes of populism. He published Venezuela’s Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective (2010, Cambridge University Press). He is currently editing a volume that presents Team Populism’s latest work. 

In this interview prof. Hawkins analyses the Venezuelan case from a ‘populist perspective’, answering questions about the links between Maduro and Chavez, their populist discourses, and the future of Venezuelan democracy.

1) Before trying to understand how Venezuela arrived to this point, let’s start from the end. In Caracas people wait for hours to buy bread, hospitals are often without medicines, citizen form committees to guarantee their own safety while the army distributes food. The recall referendum asked by the opposition at this point looks like the most pacific and democratic option before the situation further deteriorates and the army “decides for everybody”. Or is there any other exit strategy?

I suppose there are always other exit strategies—Chavismo continues to defy the odds—but right now the prospect of a democratic solution seems dim. The problem is that the Maduro government doesn’t want to allow the recall referendum to happen until the government reaches the 4-year mark; at that point, if Maduro were recalled, his current vice-president would take charge and the movement would remain in power. The government is using every tool at its disposal to delay the process, and the opposition and most Venezuelans are becoming very impatient. Venezuela represents an extreme case of what happens when a committed populist wins control of the government and remains in office for a while. The result is a competitive authoritarian regime or worse.

2) The president Nicolas Maduro is playing the typical cards of old-style Chavismo: on the one hand the situation of chaos is depicted as the result of a US attempt to intervene in the country, on the other hand serious threats are supposed to come from internal dissent. With Chavez this strategy always paid off, is it working with Maduro as well?

No, it isn’t. Maduro lacks two resources that Chavez had: charisma and oil revenue. For most of his time in office, Chavez enjoyed windfall oil revenues because of high global prices, and he used this to finance a vast array of social spending; when oil revenues were low in the first part of his term, Chavez actually had low approval ratings and nearly lost office twice, first in an aborted coup in 2002 and again when the first recall referendum was proposed. Also, Chavez was clearly a more effective and appealing leader who knew when to fight with his opponents and when to back down. When Chavez claimed to speak in the name of the people, he sounded credible.

3) In this scenario there is a lot of potential for a populist rhetoric: a President defending his own people from the imperialist – external – threat, and from the conspiring – internal – opposition. How often is the populist worldview actually articulated in Maduro’s discourses?

A great deal, in fact. We studied his discourse during the 2013 by-election after Chavez died and found that he was essentially as populist as his predecessor. The rhetoric hasn’t abated.

4) Is Maduro’s discourse similar to the one that Chavez used to articulate?

Yes, Chavez saw the people in largely economic terms as the poor and dispossessed, with occasional racial overtones. The elite consisted of a domestic one, the wealthy allies of the traditional parties and the members of the new opposition; and an international one, the United States and the defenders of global capitalism. For Maduro these categories remain largely unchanged. Partly this is because he is trying to appear to be Chavez’s successor; the one new element that he adds is the veneration of Chavez.

5) Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), recently accused Maduro of being a dictator since he refuses to approve a referendum about his resignation, for which the opposition collected two million signatures. How can a politician continue to articulate a populist discourse wile negating to the people the right to express their opinion?

It is surprisingly easy. Chavez occasionally confronted this same rhetorical dilemma, since on a few occasions he had low popularity or even lost an election (a 2007 constitutional referendum). But these moments were brief, and he rode them out by displaying a conciliatory tone towards the opposition. He believed in the idea of a tactical retreat, and throughout these difficulties he retained his faith that he represented the good side of history; the elite could sometimes fool the people, but in the end the people would become aware of itself and win. Maduro seems to use similar reasoning, but he is far less willing to engage in tactical retreats.

6) Nowadays conditions are similar to those that characterized the so-called Caracazo in 1989. Also in in that occasion, social unrest was a response to the government’s economic reforms causing worsening living conditions. The outcome was a massacre of unprecedented violence. From that horrible scenario the figure of Chavez emerged, and ten years later he took the power. Do you think history will repeat itself and yet another populist politician will take control of the Venezuelan political system?

This is a real concern for a number of Venezuelans. The cost in human life would be terrible, and there is no reason why the outcome would be democratic. I think at least two things mitigate against it. First, many in the opposition want to avoid it because they fear its consequences and because they believe it would only play into Chavismo’s hand. Second, Maduro has been much more careful about cultivating the support of the armed forces and snuffing out smaller incidents of violence, such as recent food riots. But the situation right now is tense.

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