In Conversation

Hugo Chavez and Latin American Populism: STEVE STEIN with NIKOLAS KOZLOFF

Nikolas Kozloff, author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin's Press, 2006), recently sat down with Steve Stein, a leading expert on Peruvian history and author of Populism in Peru (1982), a classic in the field. Professor Stein is also the director of the Latin American Studies department at the University of Miami. The two discussed the rise of Hugo Chavez and his relationship to Latin American populism.

Nikolas Kozloff (Rail): Do you see any parallels between Chavez and other populist leaders in Latin America?

Steve Stein: I think there are parallels and differences. When you look at Latin American populism, there are three broad types. The first type we can call classic populism, and the best example was Perón in Argentina. The second type would be neo-populism and I think the best example of that would be Fujimori in Peru. And the third type is Chavez, I’m not sure what to call it, it’s his own brand.

In classic populism, the distribution, or redistribution, of material goods and services is a very important part of the populist movement. In the case of Peronismo there was a major redistribution of income during the first four years of the government, towards working and lower middle classes. Their real income, their material existence, was measurably, significantly, better. And it’s part of an ideology or at least a platform which clearly states that this is the major goal of the populist government.

Now, it’s not revolutionary because redistribution goes up to a certain point, in other words it doesn’t really attempt against the capitalist system. Perón didn’t do a land reform, and the basis of political and economic power in Argentina prior to Perón was the landed aristocracy, or the big estancieros. He certainly challenged them in other ways in terms of controlling prices for products, but he didn’t contest their basic right to property, control, and ultimately, wealth. So, it was not revolutionary but it was redistributive.

What’s interesting about the neo-populists is that their discourse doesn’t really talk much about distribution or redistribution, and in fact, because they’re using neoliberal economic policies, the policies and the discourse is almost anti-redistributive. In other words, it’s not that we want to keep you poor, but you have to be poor until some time in the future, until the benefits of the market economy trickle down to you, which they eventually will because that’s the way things work. And clearly everyone who’s a politician talks to the people. But the talk is very vague and not very promising.

So the question then becomes, how can we call these people populists? What the neo-populists did, and Fujimori is a good example, is that they didn’t back redistribution; they had what you could call targeted redistribution. Fujimori would go to a very poor area in the countryside and he would inaugurate a school building there. Or, he would bring a computer to the school, and have a big ceremony. But the problem was that oftentimes the local residents didn’t have any electricity so they couldn’t plug in the computer; nevertheless, the symbolism was there. Or, Fujimori would go to a squatter settlement and shantytowns around Lima and he would bring gas stoves and distribute them. So again, very high visibility, a lot of press, and indeed some level of distribution of services, but nothing structural at all, and in the context of an economic policy which increased poverty rather than decreasing it.

Chavez would seem to follow more the peronista model. What’s interesting is that when he was initially in power, and oil prices were relatively low, distribution or redistribution towards working class groups was relatively limited. And perhaps there was some degree of unhappiness towards him on the part of his constituents because he wasn’t coming through on his promises, but now he is coming through in a fairly big way. There are specific increases in real income, and also health services, education, a minimal land reform.

What happened with the Perón regime (1946-1955) is that up until 1952 the amount of income for working class people went up pretty rapidly. In ’52, prices for Argentine raw materials went down, beef and wheat for example. So, the economy went in the tank. By 1954, the curve that was going up had gone down. And Perón, who was very involved in the labor movement, would go and settle strikes in favor of the workers. That happened until 1952, after that he did the opposite: he went in and stopped strikes.

What’s interesting is that in spite of all that, he lost some working class support by 1955 but not all of it. When he was thrown out of power in 1955 it wasn’t because the workers turned against him but because there were significant parts of the military that were determined to get him out, the Catholic Church, etc. Perón saw the possibility of civil war and he said—and I think to some extent he was correct—that the country needed to avoid a bloodbath.

One can also say that he left to avoid the failure of his regime; this way he could go out as a martyr. Once he was in exile, people continued to be peronist and took on a kind of martyr mentality. Actually, Perón’s exile for 16 years strengthened the movement because his followers had no responsibility for any of the negatives and they were solidified around the figure of Perón.

In the case of Chavez, it would appear that at least part of his current appeal is based on distribution. What would happen if oil prices went down? Would he experience a similar fate to that of Perón? Would he lose support (although Perón didn’t lose full support)? How much would he lose? I think that question goes back to the parallels between these figures, i.e. what is it that makes them populists? I think the parallels have much to do with political style.

Populists generally gain power or support in periods of crisis or perceived crisis. In other words, each of them is perceived as a savior from crisis. In Argentina there was a political crisis. Civilian governments had been fraudulent through the 1930s; the country was undergoing industrialization and the labor movement was not an effective responder to industrialization to defend workers’ rights; a growing and strong industrial labor movement lacked institutional representation; there was chaos during the Second World War.

Perón came out of that moment and was seen as a strong, sympathetic, and decisive leader who essentially moved into this political vacuum and filled it with a very effective leadership style. Of course he started as Minister of Labor, and walked into these strike situations and favored them on behalf of labor. His symbol is the descamisado and in his speeches even before he became president he would take his jacket and tie off and say, I’m a descamisado just like you are, “I’m a shirtless one.” So he played this rhetorical game of power, knowledge, somewhat benevolent and understanding. He sought to give the impression that he empathized with the masses, but also that he was better, stronger, and tougher than them. Therefore, he could lead them in a fatherly way.

In Peru, when Fujimori took over there was also an enormous crisis. Political parties and institutions were delegitimized because of disastrous economic policies. The 1980s was called the Lost Decade in Latin America and Peru was probably the worst place that got hit. There was a crisis in material existence, in income, in employment, in health, in infant mortality, in services, you name it.

Part of that economic decline in the later part of the 1980s produced hyperinflation. Peru had the highest inflation rate perhaps in the history of Latin America. There was also the Shining Path guerrilla movement, which by the late 1980s was very powerful and very threatening. And so there was a sense that the whole system was under threat.

Fujimori came in during this process of crisis. He had a lot of the features that Perón had. He wasn’t as good a speaker, but his whole political persona was based on authority, toughness, technocratic ability, and honesty (because there was a lot of corruption).

I remember watching a presidential debate between Fujimori and Vargas Llosa in 1990. Vargas Llosa was brilliant, he ran circles around Fujimori. All my friends said, “Vargas Llosa killed him in the debate.”

And I said, wrong!

Fujimori won the debate. He didn’t win because of debating points or because of his better answers; he won because he would talk three minutes instead of 15 minutes. He said things quickly, he said things toughly, he said things simply. And people were tired of highly educated, elite white politicians who had all the rhetoric but wound up destroying things. Perhaps it was simplistic but he had appeal.

Rail: Chavez also came in during a period of crisis and, like Perón, had a military background.

Stein: Absolutely. If we look at the crisis of Punto Fijo in Venezuela [a power sharing agreement between the two main corrupt political parties], it was very similar to both Argentina and Peru where you had the delegitimization of traditional political parties. There were also high levels of corruption, and a drop in oil prices which caused tremendous economic hardship for people.

So, he’s able to move into a political vacuum just as Fujimori and Perón did. He’s Mr. Tough Guy with his military background, similar to Perón. Chavez says “I’m a man of the people”; Perón wasn’t but he played the game; Fujimori wasn’t but he said “I’m an outsider like all the outsiders, I’m not from the white elite, I’m “El Chino” as he called himself.

For Chavez, it was the same thing: “I’m the epitome of Venezuela, socially, racially, ethnically.” And Chavez also has a very direct discourse, in other words: don’t go around in circles, say what you mean or appear to say what you mean. So, Fujimori, Chavez, and Perón have similar political styles. All three emphasize leadership as the glue which holds their movements together, a leadership which serves to gloss over the contradictions, problems, and failures.

Rail: How important is the rhetorical style? Do you see any similarities between the three?

Stein: I think style is extremely important. Chavez speaks in a colloquial manner understandable to rural people. That gives an authenticity to him that someone else might not have. Certainly he doesn’t come off as an urban intellectual.

What’s interesting is that if you talk to Peruvians, they don’t like the way Chavez talks. They find his way of speaking weird and pretentious. And I think in part it’s just that they don’t like him. But, in part it’s also that Chavez’s style is very Venezuelan, or his style is from a particular area of Venezuela. His style has what you might call its own cultural characteristics which are favorable to him there but perhaps not so favorable in another environment.

The other similarity between Chavez and other populist leaders has to do with media. Chavez’s TV and radio show Alo, Presidente!, is almost an exact copy, a 21st century copy, of Lazaro Cardenas’s media program. Cardenas [president of Mexico from 1932-1938] would have telegraphs sent to him from people all over the country once a week. He opened up the telegraph system so people could essentially complain, or ask questions, and he would answer them on the radio. So he had the same concept of making himself accessible to the people, a very symbolic strategy.

For populists it’s very important to create a sense of accessibility. What you have are these kinds of vertical ties that are formed between the masses of people and the leader. In order for those ties to work, the masses have to believe that they have some access. In the case of Perón, the access was through Evita, through the foundation, through Perón going to the factory. With Fujimori, he’d go out dressed as an Indian and head to the highlands and the villages. Chavez does that too, he’s all over the country. But I think Alo, Presidente!, too, is a fantastic political weapon for him to build and maintain support.

Rail: Do you think there may be a ceiling on Chavez’s populist appeal throughout the hemisphere?

Stein: Well, in the case of Peru, yes. But there may be reasons that Chavez would have problems even beyond that sole country. If you look at the Mar del Plata summit, Chavez was the main figure—the Argentines loved him. So if the Argentines love him, why do the Peruvians hate him? I think Chavez’s anti-U.S. discourse is something that people can relate to all over the hemisphere; I’m not sure about his persona.

Chavez has a problem in Peru which goes beyond the mere controversy over his backing of Ollanta Humala [a recent presidential candidate in Peru, who lost to Alan Garcia]. In 2000-2001 Chavez harbored Vladimiro Montesinos [the hated and feared former intelligence chief under Alberto Fujimori]. The Peruvians hated him for that because they wanted Montesinos back. Chavez got on television and had this big four-hour speech insulting Peru. If that hadn’t happened, maybe things would have been different between the two countries.

I was asked by Jorge Ramos [network presenter on Univision news] what were the wellsprings of Chavez’s popularity and power? And I said, Chavez has a political agent, who is extraordinarily successful at PR, and that person is George W. Bush. I sincerely believe that Chavez’s popularity throughout the hemisphere is not a reflection of his persona outside of Venezuela, but a reflection of people’s antipathy towards Bush. I think Chavez came around at the right time; if he’d been doing the same discourse in 1995 no one would have listened to him because Clinton was pretty popular.

Rail: What’s your view of the Chavista murals, which have been proliferating throughout Caracas?

Stein: I think they’re extremely powerful and they’re very upfront: there’s not a lot of subtlety there. I think the quality is a little less than the Mexicans or Cubans or Nicaraguans, artistically speaking. But I think the question becomes: What is their ultimate impact? Are they elements of political socialization? In other words, when people see this stuff in the street, do they internalize these ideological, political messages?

If we look back on the Mexican Revolution, which was probably the beginning of this kind of political mural art, there was not a lot of subtlety in the great Diego Rivera or Orozco murals either. Did they actually indoctrinate people towards a certain ideology? And the answer is probably not. My sense is that after a while, you don’t even see them anymore. You and I see them, but for the people who walk on the street every day, do the murals simply become part of the landscape? Is the murals’ effect greater than the products of an international, globalized consumer society? Am I more interested in anti-imperialism or Colgate toothpaste? I don’t know if I have the answer to that question.

Rail: What about the color red (the Chavista color)?

Stein: Well, the Sandinistas had red and black and they really used those colors a lot. In the nineteenth century political parties had colors in Argentina; the liberal and conservatives had light blue and red. Under Rosas’s authoritarian regime in Argentina you had to wear something red. So, color as a means of political identification has been a longtime fixture of Latin American politics.

Rail: Chavez has created the Bolivarian Circles and says he wants to create more participatory democracy as opposed to representative democracy. He says he wants to integrate people so that they can speak for their rights, not in a vertical but horizontal way. But others might see it as an attempt to tie groups to the state in a paternalistic fashion. Do you think this is egalitarian, or classically populist?

Stein: We don’t know what the end result will be. The extent to which people have these kinds of civil society organizations, through which they can express their concerns and through which they can respond to the state, and through which the state can respond to them, is definitely what Chavez says it is. I mean, this is a form of participatory democracy. To the extent to which they work in that way, and there is a flow back and forth between civil society and the state, I think they create a more democratic system. On the other hand, there is a great temptation on the part of the state, but the temptation is also greatly accepted by those in the groups, to simply make these tribalistic arms. The question is: Where is power in terms of decision-making and economics? If power is concentrated in the state, and it seems that way, then the organizations have literally no power except the power to ask for things, and maybe get them because they are perceived as loyal.

If that’s the case, then I think the mechanisms become anti-democratic, because they create a kind of vertical dependence around the figure of Chavez and the state itself, and this attitude tends to destroy democracy and the possibility for true representative or participatory democracy, and replace it with institutionalized charity. And I think we see both tendencies in the Bolivarian Circles.

Rail: Is there a distinction to be made between revolutionary and populist?

Stein: Well, I think Chavez is very pro-business. Both domestic and international businessmen have not necessarily been harmed by his policies. And, it appears that a good deal of the distribution has to do with the cushion of oil revenue. In the case of Perón, he came into power in 1945 and had a tremendous amount of money. In World War II, Argentina supplied beef and wheat to both the allied and axis powers; Argentina was neutral. And they couldn’t buy any industrial goods with the extra cash because the war was going on. So, they had all this money just sitting there and all the largesse that Perón was able to distribute came from those accumulated resources.

In that sense, there is a parallel in that Chavez is able to do a lot of the things that he does because of the resource moment. That is not revolutionary. Fidel came into power and he didn’t have those resources, and he really did change the structures of society.

More Articles by the Author

Nikolas Kozloff

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2008).