From a spiraling health emergency to creeping political anarchy, Venezuela is in the throes of “the kind of implosion that hardly ever occurs in a middle-income country like it outside of war,” as Moises Naim and Francisco Toro wrote in The Atlantic. While this implosion was accelerated by the 2013 death of Chavez and the 2014 drop in the price of oil, which accounts for nearly all Venezuela’s export revenue, it can be traced in part to the Venezuelan government’s failed socialist policies—price and currency controls, farm and factory nationalizations, government control of food distribution, and the like. It is also the product of government corruption, cronyism, and plain incompetence; by one measure, corruption is more widespread in Venezuela than in any other country in the Americas.
But Chavez and his shadow of a successor, Nicolas Maduro, are also textbook populists. “We are confronting the devil himself”—the American imperialists and their Venezuelan lackeys—“at the ballot box,” Chavez declared ahead of the country’s 2006 election. “You are not going to reelect Chavez really, you are going to reelect yourselves. The people will reelect the people. Chavez is nothing but an instrument of the people.”
And this populism has compounded the Venezuelan crisis in subtle ways that illustrate the downsides of one of the most potent political forces in the world today. Venezuela isn’t collapsing because of populism. But when populism turns sour, the result can look a lot like what’s happening in Venezuela.
Populism is “just one of the possible factors that could influence which way a country heads economically or politically. I think Venezuela shows pretty well that it’s not the only thing,” said Kirk Hawkins, an expert on Latin American populism at Brigham Young University.
“If we had a right[-wing] populist—if this were [former Peruvian President] Alberto Fujimori or even a … Donald Trump or a Marine Le Pen, the [Venezuelan] economy wouldn’t look like it does right now,” Hawkins told me. “Populism interacts with other features of the political environment to give you certain kinds of tendencies.” And in Venezuela, where most people are not property owners, many people work in the informal sector, and economic inequality has historically been high, populists are apt to gravitate toward socialism rather than, say, right-wing nationalism.
Chavez’s brand of populism has contributed to the collapse of Venezuela in at least three ways.
In an oft-cited 1991 study with Rudiger Dornbusch, the economist Sebastian Edwards noted a pattern: In several Latin American countries—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and Nicaragua—economic populists had come to power amid profound dissatisfaction with the performance of the economy and therefore widespread receptiveness to populists’ anti-elite messages. As a result, the populists had pursued transformative economic change with abandon, focusing on swiftly stimulating growth, generating employment, and redistributing income rather than curbing inflation or balancing government budgets. They tended to succeed in the short term but fail in the long term, when these risky fiscal and monetary policies caught up with them. Many eventually lost power amid rising inflation and economic crisis.