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Populism in Venezuela During the CHávez Era

How Populism Bloomed in Venezuela during the Chávez Era

Hugo Chávez, a charismatic leader of the populist movement in Venezuela, inspired by the ideas of Simon Bolivar, proclaimed himself “an interpreter of the Venezuelan peoples’ demands,” and in 1998 with his entry for the presidency, he started the Bolivarian Revolution, the purpose of which was the proclamation of “twenty-first-century socialism”. Came to power as a result of the support of the poor disappointed the liberal democracy, Chávez wanted to construct “a system that he calls participatory democracy” and an economy based less on the competition of the market, and more on relations of solidarity. (Pérez, 2013, p. 75).

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For this purpose, Chaves gradually dissolved the old government, wrote a new constitution, and established new institutions of the legislative branch. He strengthened state control over the most profitable spheres of Venezuela’s economy – the oil and gas industry – in order to increase the expenditures on the array of social programs. Hugo Chávez was re-elected three times: in 2000, 2006, and 2012, and after his death in 2013 Vice-President Nicolas Maduro became a new president. Despite the fact that some people believe that Chávez used populism to concentrate power in his hands, it is undeniable that the era of his populist presidency is marked by a significant improvement in the living conditions of the poor sectors of Venezuelan society.

The Concept of Populism

The concepts of populism and socialism occupy an important place in the detailed study of the political career of Hugo Chávez. The key to the concept of populism is the “antagonistic duality between a virtuous ‘people’ and an incorrigibly venal and elite” (Roberts, 2012, p. 136). Pérez defines populism as a “political regime” and outlines five major factors that characterize it. First, it rejects the traditional ways to participate in the political life of the country and occurs at a time when the influence of the existing parties weakens. Second, it uses communication with the masses to gain the support of the people. Third, populism searches for new means of social mobilization through new political institutions. Fourth, populism actively uses national symbols and a concept of a “common enemy” in order to distract people’s attention from the domestic problems of the country. Fifth and last, populism in its political promotion relies heavily on the charisma and personal appeal of its leader (Pérez, 2013, p. 60). From the very beginning of his political career, Chávez employed these populist means to gain support and govern the Venezuelan nation.

The Concept of Socialism

Socialism, by contrast, was only the result of the development of Chávez’s political thought, when in 2005 he first started talking about “socialism for the twenty-first-century”, noting its significant difference from the socialism of the 20th century (Gott, 2011, p. 296). Chávez’s idea of socialism lies in the nationalization of the most profitable oil and gas industries “to build a system of social programs aimed at providing basic services to the poorest sectors of Venezuelan society” (Pérez, 2013, p. 75). Such understanding of socialism defined the main goal of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution.

Advantages of Populism in Chávez Era

Due to Chávez’s populist policy, the economic and social conditions of Venezuela have improved significantly. In contrast to his political predecessors that “have squandered the country’s oil wealth through poor management and endemic corruption” (Sullivan, 2016, p. 4), Chávez employed all the favorable economic factors in order to improve the living conditions of the poor. The spike in oil prices between 2004 and 2008 fueled a high rate of economic growth in the country. Such economic boom contributed to the strengthening of state control over the oil industry that met the main goal of the Bolivarian Revolution, which consisted in the nationalization of the country’s resources for future investment of social programs. As a result, President Chávez implemented an array of approximately 25 social missions in spheres of education, healthcare, environment, culture, and housing, “as well as targeted programs for indigenous rights and services for street children, adolescents, and mothers at risk” (Pérez, 2013, p. 69). According to the statistics, as a result of the investment of oil resources in the social sphere, the poverty rate in Venezuela has decreased almost twice, from 48.6% in 2002 to 25.4% in 2012 (Sullivan, 2016, p. 22).

Hugo Chávez and the United States

However, the success of the Chávez regime in the social sphere could not fully compensate for some of the issues that concerned the opposition and the members of the international arena. Thus, political relations between Venezuela and the United States at the time of Chávez’s presidency can be characterized as strained because of the mutual claims. The United States officials were concerned with the growing control of Chávez over the oil industry, his decrees in certain areas that bypassed the legislature, and his “efforts to export his brand of populism to other Latin American countries” (Sullivan, 2016, p. 27). Chávez, in turn, accused the United States of imperialism and was rather critical of “the Unites States hegemony in Latin America”, expressing the belief that the United States should stop being the empire and be concerned about other countries (Hayden, 2013, p. 4).

Despite the fact that many people criticized Chávez’s “oil socialism” because of its monopoly in the petroleum sphere, it allowed improving economic and social conditions in the country, proving the populist orientation of Chávez’s policy. As for the decrees bypassing the legislature, one cannot blame Chávez that like any politician he knew that the pro-populist institutions determine how “the game of politics is played” (O’Neil, 2015, p. 6). These institutions were one of the means of achieving the goal of the Bolivarian revolution, which was aimed at providing basic services to the poorest sectors of Venezuelan society, as a result of which the rate of extreme poverty decreased from 22.2% in 2002 to 7.1% in 2012 (Sullivan, 2016, p. 22).

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Venezuela Nowadays

The current state of the economy and social sphere of Venezuela may serve as another proof of the positive impact of populism bloom during the Chaves era. The economic mismanagement of the current president Nicolas Maduro has led to “rising inflation, a decline in international reserves, and increasing poverty,” which, in turn, resulted in shortages of food and medicines (Sullivan, 2016, p. 22). In 2015 Venezuela opened a border with Colombia to help relieve the lack of food and other consumer products in the country. This shortage of basic goods has already led to social instability with incessant riots and protests and could have led to a social explosion. With the death of its populist leader Hugo Chávez, Venezuela has faced a political and economic crisis with poverty rates increased to 32.1% in 2013, as compared to 25.4% in 2012 under Chávez’s government (Sullivan, 2016, p. 24).


Hugo Chávez came to power, inspired by the ideas of populism, and throughout his career constantly developed his political thought, concluding that “the only way to save the world is through socialism”. Thus, he proclaimed the “twenty-first-century socialism”, in which Venezuela has nationalized oil and gas industries, strengthening the country’s economy, as well as improving the social sphere. Chávez was re-elected three times, and after his death, the economic mismanagement of the new government has led to an economic and political crisis. All these factors speak in favor of Chávez’s regime and justify the populist measures to which he resorted in order to achieve better living conditions for the poor.


Gott, R. (2011). Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution. London, England: Verso Books.

Hayden, C. (2013). Engaging technologies: A comparative study of US and Venezuelan strategies of influence and public diplomacy. International Journal of Communication, 7, 1-25.

O’Neil, P. H. (2015). Essentials of comparative politics: Fifth Edition. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.

Pérez, O. J. (2013). The basis of support for Hugo Chávez: Measuring the determinants of presidential job approval in Venezuela. The Latin Americanist, 57(2), 59-84.

Roberts, K. (2012). Populism and democracy in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez. In: C. Mudde & C. R. Kaltwasser (Eds.), Populism in Europe and the Americas Threat or Corrective for Democracy (pp. 136-160). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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Sullivan, M. P. (2016). Venezuela: Background and US relations. Current Politics and Economics of South and Central America, 7(2), 297-356.

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