Too poor to dissent, but not poor enough to revolt

A shocking, but not really all that shocking revelation yesterday from Venezuelan education minister Hector Rodríguez that chavismo does not want its supporters to become too wealthy because then they might turn into escuálidos—a common pejorative term used by chavistas to describe its middle- and upper-class opponents. Over at Caracas Chronicles Gustavo Hernández Acevedo has a good post exploring it from the perspective of the fundamental dissonance between preaching socialism while giving away free washing machines and how the movement now lacks the same charisma as Chávez to rhetorically paper over that problem. Hernández Acevedo is certainly correct but I think he gives chavismo too much credit for its actual devotion to socialism and misses how important the power dynamic Rodríguez is describing is, and the challenge that dynamic poses to chavismo going forward.

However devoted to the socialist cause Hugo Chávez may have been at some point in his life, he and his movement long abandoned any real pretense of building socialism in Venezuela in favor of more traditional Latin American-style corporatist populism. This populism is built on the premise of power and whatever rhetorical justifications it gives itself are little more than window dressings. Populism’s power is built and maintained through cooptation of certain groups—typically large but economically and politically marginalized groups—through policies designed essentially to buy that group’s loyalty. In Venezuela it started in a defensible fashion, with the early misiones at least ostensibly providing services that would improve the long-term productivity of the country, like improving healthcare access and eliminating illiteracy. Over time these morphed into crude giveaways like the washing machines Hernández Acevdo alludes to, but the basic principle behind them was always the same; buy loyalty through small, material improvements to people’s lives, all draped in the rhetoric of socialism.

What Rodríguez’s comments show, beyond a clear contempt for both free choice and the people his movement claims to be helping, is that chavismo is running up against the limit of its own sustainability. From a power perspective, Rodríguez is probably right. Corporatist structures tend to break down as societies become more middle class because middle class interests become more diverse and because middle class citizens tend to care more about transparency and accountability of government rather than just results in their own lives alone. At the same time, however, corporatist structures also tend to break down once the populist government loses its ability to continue improving the lives of its support base.

In Argentina, peronismo had the fortune of being removed from power before it fully ran up against that barrier in the 50s and then was out of power during both the hyperinflation crisis of the 80s and the meltdown of the early 2000s, allowing it to cast blame elsewhere. In Venezuela, however, chavismo remains in power and sits stuck between a metaphorical rock and hard place. It doesn’t want to improve people’s lives too much lest it lose their unwavering support as in Rodríguez’s formulation. But it also has to continue improving their lives on the margin to maintain their continued support a difficult. This balancing act has become all the more difficult now that the state is running out of money to shower on its base and the economy grinds to a halt.

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