University of California, Los Angeles

UNDER THE GUISE OF DEMOCRACY: Chavez’s Populism to Maduro’s Authoritarianism by Uma Vaingankar @ University of California, Los Angeles


Hugo Chavez rose to power in Venezuela almost two decades ago in the midst of public distrust and discontentment with the Venezuelan government and judiciary.  In 1992, Presidente Carlos Andrés Pérez Rodríguez survived two coup attempts led by then Lieutenant-Colonel Chavez. Rodríguez was later impeached on grounds of embezzlement from the Venezuelan government.

After Chavez’s charges (from the coups) were dismissed in 1994, he traveled all over Latin America, building his network of allies, including Fidel Castro and the Patria Para Todos, Partido Comunista Venezolano, and Movimiento al Socialismo parties.  Subsequently, he secured an electoral win and was elected president in 1999.  He campaigned on a platform of improving economic prospects for the disenchanted middle-class and eradicating government corruption.  Chavez’s populist appeal to the poor and middle classes was guised as an attempt to restore democracy to the hands of all people rather than exclusively the economic and political elite. 


According to many political scientists, populism often appears to be a democratic initiative, but in reality contributes to democratic backsliding and serves as a breeding ground for potential authoritarianism.  Immediately after being sworn into office, Chavez capitalized on his wave of support and proposed a referendum to draft a new constitution—, which was overwhelmingly approved by his many supporters.

Despite the large number of opposition candidates, allies of Chavez won sweeping victories into the constitutional assembly that was elected to redraft the Constitution. The new constitution was comprised of rules that enabled executive aggrandizement by eliminating checks and balances and replacing multiple institutions.

The assembly granted itself the power to abolish institutions like the judicial system and the discretion to terminate officials who were deemed corrupt.  On the other hand, the assembly also granted the military the power to ensure and restore public order, foreshadowing a dark path to be forged by the new regime. The new constitution appealed to the general public because it expanded government benefits and protections for indigenous groups. However, it also inflated the powers and stipulations of presidential power in Venezuela. Prior to Chavez’s rule, presidential terms were limited to five years and presidents were prevented from seeking re-election for at least 10 years after their term.  Under the new constitution, Chavez was given the authority to run for a second consecutive term, and the terms were increased to six years.


The new constitution mandated “mega-elections” for all levels of government representatives.  And despite opposition, Chavez secured a second term as president at the hands of a strong base of support from the impoverished groups of Venezuela.

He intensified ties with Castro’s Cuba when he signed an agreement that supplied oil from Venezuela to Cuba at favorable prices but simultaneously strained ties with the United states when he openly condemned their military action in Iraq following the September 11 attacks.  The fortified relationship with Cuba and weakened relationship with the United States would prove detrimental to the hopes of Venezuela maintaining democracy.

A coup ensued as opposition banded together in an effort to disempower Chavez.  However, Chavez’s power to maintain stronghold of the oil industry was quickly restored and he terminated nearly 20,000 employees for their involvement in strikes and protests.  In the midst of this turmoil (pun intended), Chavez withstood a referendum recall, again, thanks to the support of the lower classes of Venezuelan society.


With another victory in his pocket, Chavez sought an “expansion of the revolution”, and seemingly attempted this by creating the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) during his third term.  He sought to unite the different interests of his supporters under one umbrella party.  Though Chavez maintained support from the poor Venezuelans, his opposition was growing, and many felt coerced and pressured into joining the party.  Referendums that would further expand Chavez’s power with longer proposed terms and centralization were rejected in 2007, but another that granted him permission to run yet again was passed.

Chavez won his fourth election to the presidency with smaller margins than before; turnout was high and the seat for the president was hotly contested.  However, Chavez’s originally scheduled inauguration was cut short when he fell ill and died.  His vice president, Nicolas Maduro, succeeded him.


After Chavez’s death in 2013 and Maduro’s subsequent rise to power, opposition has further organized and attempted to regain control of the government.  However, in more recent news, multiple political opponents of Maduro have been arrested based on claims of corruption and desires to incite violence against the interests of the country. This comes at the same time as Venezuelans have called for early elections as well.

One such martyr was former minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who was detained on the grounds that he was planning violent attacks in Venezuela. He argued that “protesting is a right”, but was silenced by the censorship of the Maduro regime.  Former attorney general Luisa Ortega fled the country after also being wrongfully accused of criminal offenses when she tried to botch Maduro’s plan to prosecute protestors in military courts.

Chavez’s populist approach was looming under the facade of championing democracy.  He rose to power by making vague appeals to the middle and poor classes in Venezuela.  In reality, he vastly expanded his power through a new constitution by exploiting the popular support he obtained.

In Chavez’s first term, the granted power to dismiss government officials has clearly translated into the current arrests of people like Torres and Ortega.  The ambiguity of the dismissals leaves much room for Maduro and his allies to oust anyone seen as a threat to his power expansion now.  Going hand in hand with this is the expanded scope of military influence to ensure pubic order.  Again, this mandate is quite vague and Maduro’s current military court prosecution of protestors can be justified under it.

Evidently, Chavez proved successful in his initial rise to power based on his platform as a champion of the working class.  He promised improved socioeconomic conditions and elimination of corrupt government institutions.  In reality, his regime paved the way for an essentially authoritarian grapple for power at the expense of those who put him there.

Today, Maduro utilizes the expanded executive power to censor the opposition, but will likely succumb to the pressures as opposition continues to revitalize and reorganize. He may soon be ostracized as the Venezuelan people are continually subjected to poverty, skyrocketing crime rates, sanctions from democracies, and an economic downturn.


*Photo by Wendys Olivo, “marcha”, (Ceasefire).

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