Left-Wing Populism: Inclusion and Authoritarianism in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador

By de la Torre, Carlos | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Left-Wing Populism: Inclusion and Authoritarianism in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador


de la Torre, Carlos, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


This article disentangles the democratizing promises that left-wing populists make while seeking office from their autocratic practices once in power. Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa, major populist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador respectively, each rose to power with platforms that promised to wipe out corrupt politicians, experiment with participatory forms of democracy, strengthen the role of the state in the economy, and redistribute wealth. Their inclusionary populist appeal, grounded in giving power back to the people and democratizing their societies, was compelling to many citizens. In Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, political parties and institutions controlled by traditional parties were perceived as instruments of local and foreign elites, who implemented neoliberal policies and thereby increased social inequality. Citizens staged widespread rebellions against neoliberalism, for instance the Caracazo in Venezuela in 1989 and the Gas War in Bolivia in October 2003.1 They also protested the surrendering of national sovereignty to institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the U.S. government.

In this environment, left-wing populist candidates resurrected the leftist utopias of revolution and socialism, offering new meanings to these ideals along with new strategies of political transformation. They advocated for twenty-first century socialism, understood as a third way between capitalism and Soviet-style socialism. They appealed to the revolutionary force of constituents' power and convened participatory assemblies tasked with writing new constitutions that aimed to reinvent political, social, and cultural institutions.

Instead of following the old leftist strategy of using bullets to overthrow bourgeois liberal institutions, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa used ballots to displace political elites. Venezuelans voted in 16 elections between 1999 and 2012, Bolivians in seven between 2006 and 2014, and Ecuadorians in six between 2006 and 2013. In all these elections, the moment of voting was clean, the elections took place without accompanying violence or corruption, and international observers did not report major irregularities.2 Yet incumbents in these three nations used the state to create unequal electoral fields. For example, they used state resources in their campaigns, regulated how the private media reported elections, and in Venezuela, intimidated and harassed the opposition.

Once in power, as this article discusses, Chávez, Correa, and to a lesser extent Morales used the state to regulate what the private media could publish. These presidents regulated NGOs and created new laws to criminalize antigovernment protest. In Venezuela and Ecuador, loyal social movements were created by the state. By controlling civil society and the public sphere, these populist governments strangled pluralism as their leaders attempted to create the image of the people in "whose name they had been speaking all along."3 Those who did not conform to this autocratic construction were branded as enemies of the authentic people, their leaders, and the nation.

In order to explain the democratizing promises and autocratic practices of these left-wing populists, I critically build on Ernesto Laclau's theory of populism. In Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, Laclau defines populism as a discourse that articulates popular democratic interpellations as antagonistic to the dominant ideology.4 According to Laclau, these types of discourses are not theoretically predetermined and do not pertain exclusively to the leftor to the right sides of the political scale; they can lead to ruptures as well as engender fascism, socialism, or to Perón's Bonapartism. In his book On Populist Reason, Laclau contrasted everyday, mundane, and administrative politics with those exceptional moments of a populist rupture. He argued that the division of society into two antagonistic camps was required to put an end to exclusionary institutional systems and to forge an alternative order. …

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