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Are Caudillism* and Populism synonymous?

By Aleksander Boyd

The emergence of populist leaders in South America is a phenomena worth analyzing. The huge level of social unrest and inequalities characteristic of those societies have exacerbated the need -deeply held in the public psyche- to support candidates who use such political platforms to ascend to power. The last example being Kirchner in Argentina. Populism has become the most widely used catapult by individuals who otherwise would have seen their opportunities skewed. Any moderately intelligent person know that there is actually no difference between populism, marxism or socialism. Indeed, it is only an euphemism utilized by bent leaders to masquerade a perverse ideology which has proven inefficient and truly damaging for countries all around the globe. In a Kafkaesque manner, the sentiments and hopes of the people are relegated and undermined for the advancement of personal agendas that have nothing to do with palliating social problems.

Take Chavez as an example, he was elected on the premises of tackling corruption, crime, poverty and unemployment. A large chunk of the population felt identified with him and thought "he is one of us, he will help us overcome all these problems". A true populist. Evidently, populism is something to be used not to be implemented. Citing a definition of the term; " a political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite". One can easily see a struggle against the privileged elite in Venezuela although not between the people and the elites but between the new elite -namely Chavez and cronies- and the old establishment. Alas supporting the rights and power of the people do not make part of Chavez' policies and one should think that everyone could agree on that. His determination to destroy the opposition and seize control of absolutely everything does not say much about his populist intentions but rather of his caudillo streaks.

Caudillos are defined as " a leader or chief, especially a military dictator or a political boss; an overlord". Therefore, Caudillism* can be described as the system whereby a caudillo governs. The unprecedented powers bestowed upon Chavez, which grants total control of decisions, is in effect the system that describe more acutely the present Venezuelan admin. Nothing escapes the scrutiny of Hugo Chavez nowadays, the political, judicial, financial, legislative branches of government being totally subdued to his whimsy attitude. Can we then rightly assume that Hugo Chavez is a populist leader? In light of his appalling record of coup d'etats, human rights violations, disrespect for democratic values and lax stance towards guerrilla movements and terrorism, his government can be seldom characterized as populist. The social factor has been completely ignored during his tenure. Victims of 1999 floods in Vargas continue to wander around without known bearing, his fatuous "land titles" and street markets with subsidized prices being mechanisms to sugar-coat the utterly sad reality.

Public speeches and TV presentations are not enough to qualify as a populist. Policies geared towards the benefit of the people should be implemented. With respect to the Venezuelan case, which are such policies and where have they been put into action? The apologetic nature of Chavez and his myrmidons regarding their performance is simply unacceptable and fuels the general discontent. A good simile would be "ohh! I have killed because someone else was killing before me or I have ransacked the country's wealth because Accion Democratica and Copei were doing it for 50 years". For those who oppose this irrational perspective, Hugo Chavez' crimes are as despicable as those committed by his predecessors. He is neither populist nor a plain "adeco or copeyano" crook. True to South American tradition, he epitomizes a caudillo. Mean, deceitful, irreverent, vindictive, cruel, fiend are some of his attributes, certainly benefactor is not one of them.

Caudillism* can be described as the system whereby a caudillo governs


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