Populist Candidate Wins in Venezuela

By GERRY FOLEY

The triumph in the Dec. 6 Venezuelan elections of populist army officer Hugo Chavez, leader of a military revolt against the neoliberal government of Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, prompted The New York Times to ring a preliminary alarm bell.

The Caracas daily El Universal immediately picked it up. In its Dec. 8 issue, El Universal summarized the position of the semiofficial voice of U.S. imperialism under the headline “Chavez could become a populist despot.”

Obviously, Venezuelan observers were worried about what the attitude of the United States would be. Any hint of a return to populist policies in the Third World gets an allergic reaction from Washington, which has been crowing for years about the final triumph of an uncontrolled world market.

One example is their condemnation of Mohammad Marathir, the strongman of Malaysia, who has revived populist language and even populist, or economic nationalist, measures, such as currency control. Marathir, of course, is a “despot.” There is no doubt about that. But Washington never worried about that until he started cocking a snoot at the “free market.”

Populism has generally been associated with dictatorial regimes because of the contradictions it represents. It balances between the masses and the capitalists and their imperialist big brothers. And only a strong state can do that.

But the Third World populist regimes, like Peron in Argentina after World War II or Cardenas in Mexico in the 1930s, have always offered material benefits to a least a section of the masses at the expense of imperialist capital.

El Universal reminded its readers that populism involves some sort of state largesse to a significant part of the population through the medium of a swollen state apparatus and economic protectionism. It warned Chavez to “avoid unproductive economic policies.”

However, Chavez’s victory represents the rebellion of the population against the mass impoverishment brought about by an uncontrolled free market. His military putsch in 1992 came against the background of an uprising against the price increases imposed by the International Monetary Fund. He is going to have to try to offer at least some of the people who voted for him something, and that can only come from the profits of the gods of the free market.

Venezuela has the second highest inflation rate in Latin America, 30 percent. Some 78 percent of the population is under the poverty line. Unemployment is at 15 percent.

The country’s foreign debt is 39 billion dollars, on which it pays 4.8 billion dollars a year in interest. Because of falling oil prices, its income from petroleum exports, 80 percent of its receipts, has fallen from 18.3 billion dollars in 1997 to 11 billion this year.

Chavez was quick to reassure the U.S. and the local capitalists that they had nothing to fear from his government. Following this, the local stock market soared. The Chavez regime is probably at least a mixed blessing for Venezuelan capitalists, since it is not anticapitalist per se and enjoys a certain credibility with the masses, which the old parliamentary parties had entirely lost.

But the question remains how the new populist hero is going to satisfy any of the aspirations of those who elected him without coming into conflict with a capitalist system that is sinking deeper and deeper into crisis. Whatever his intentions, Chavez’s electoral triumph itself is an indication that the social situation in the country is becoming explosive, and conditions are hardly better in Venezuela’s neighbors.