Reassessing the Chávez Regime

Friday, November 11, 2016 - 08:00

The Latin American left has experienced a steep decline in its fortunes in recent months.  Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Venezuela.  The precipitous drop in state oil revenues and the attendant decline in the government’s ability to fund social welfare programs, coupled with triple digit inflation and severe shortages of basic necessities, have led to increasing protests and a recall effort against President Nicolás Maduro. Many disenchanted Chavistas, and some social scientists too, argue that Venezuela’s troubles stem from Maduro’s failure to continue Chávez’s legacy of socialist reform.  However, a critical look at the Chávez regime’s legacy suggests otherwise.  Indeed, close examination of Chávez’s time in power reveals fundamental contradictions between his avowal of socialist principles and the manner in which he governed in practice. In short, the Chávez regime supplanted the Punto Fijo regime’s hierarchical forms of domination with its own form of control of the marginalized popular sectors.

The regime’s dominance of civil society was facilitated by its reliance on support from unorganized workers, particularly from the substantial informal sector, and its attendant capacity to minimize support from organized labor. In fact, evidence indicates that the Chávez regime impeded the labor movement’s autonomy, contravened essential labor rights such as free union elections, collective bargaining and the right to strike, engaged in reprisals against unions and workers it perceived as threats and promoted de facto labor flexibilization. To compensate for lack of support from organized labor, the regime cultivated support among informal and unemployed workers through the politically targeted distribution of social welfare benefits financed with rents generated from oil exports. Ultimately, the regime’s efforts to undermine organized labor coupled with its politically targeted distribution of social welfare benefits helped maintain its grip on power rather than advance a programmatic leftist agenda empowering the marginalized masses.  As such, the Chávez regime is best understood as populist rather than socialist.

Distinguishing between Populism and Leftism

The notion that the Chávez regime’s labor policy should be viewed through the lens of populism rather than socialism is by no means universally accepted among scholars of Latin American politics.  Indeed, the relationship between populism and socialism, or leftism more broadly, has been much debated in the literature. Some analysts tend to conflate populism and leftism (e.g. Castañeda and Morales 2008, Weyland, Madrid and Hunter 2010).  Others argue that conflating socialism and populism serves to delegitimize radical left alternatives that challenge the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy (French 2009, 352).  Still others reject the conflation of populism and leftism on grounds that it blurs the lines between two distinct phenomena: leftism, a programmatic orientation focused on promoting redistribution, social equality, and the autonomy and political participation of underprivileged groups, and populism, a top-down mode of political mobilization of mass constituencies by personalistic leaders against established elites on behalf of “the people” (Levitsky and Roberts 2011, 6). 

This analysis goes further, arguing that leftism and populism are not only distinct but also in tension with one another.  If as Levitsky and Roberts suggest, the left “seeks to enhance the participation of underprivileged groups and erode hierarchical forms of domination that marginalize popular sectors” (2011, 5), this project is fundamentally at odds with populism’s top-down mode of political mobilization.  Whatever rhetoric they may espouse, populist leaders seek to concentrate political, economic and social power in their hands.  This mode of governance is antithetical to a participatory form of democracy that promotes the autonomy and interests of historically marginalized segments of society. 

In order to avoid constraints on its exercise of power, the Chávez regime diverged from classical populism, as exemplified by the rule of Argentina’s Juan Perón, by eschewing reliance on support from organized labor.  Instead, it sought to build its political base among the unorganized masses.  This project was facilitated by labor market changes – substantially increased informality and a related decline in unionization – precipitated by economic crisis and the adoption of neoliberal reforms under Punto Fijo. These significant labor market changes help to explain the regime’s antagonism toward organized labor and its pursuit of the urban informal sector as its primary base of support.

To generate and maintain mass political support, the regime coupled Chávez’s charismatic appeal with top-down control of popular organizations. This top-down control of popular organizations was, in turn, facilitated by the politically targeted distribution of material benefits to subaltern groups, financed with expanded state oil revenues.  Thus, while the regime promoted a high level of mass mobilization, it did so in a manner that enhanced its control over the previously unorganized masses and facilitated favorable electoral outcomes.  These features of the Chávez regime’s social welfare policies are evident in the regime’s manipulation of workers’ cooperatives and missions.

Worker Cooperatives and Missions

Labor cooperatives are small groups of workers (with a minimum membership of five) who form an association to share business costs and profits. The Chávez regime promoted cooperatives as part of an explicit effort to avoid the shortcomings of “vertical socialism” associated with the former Soviet Union (Ellner 2008, 186). In practice, however, the cooperatives facilitate top-down, centralized government control and reinforce participating workers’ economic precariousness and exclusion from the benefits, protections and security of formal sector employment. 

These problems stem in part from the legal classification under which cooperative workers fall.  Instead of considering cooperative workers as dependent or salaried workers, the state classifies them as self-employed “associates.”  As such, they are not covered by Venezuelan labor law relevant to “workers,” which means that they receive no social security coverage and have no legal protections against unjust dismissal, making them vulnerable to reprisals if they attempt to engage in collective bargaining or strikes (Hernández Alvarez and Romero Milano 2008, 403). Companies, particularly in the public sector, exploit these negative features of cooperatives to weaken or supplant unions.  By replacing permanent employees with cooperative employees, companies such as the state oil, electric and telephone companies are able to replace workers who possess collective bargaining rights with workers who do not.

The Chávez regime’s primary social welfare programs, the so-called missions, reinforce the top-down control evident in the worker cooperatives.  As with worker cooperatives, participation in the missions does not provide for social security coverage, the right to collective bargaining or union organization.  Nonetheless, the government counts the beneficiaries of assistance through the missions as employed, though like many persons involved in worker cooperatives they contribute little to economic productivity (Hernández and Romero 2008, 403).  While missions provide needed social welfare resources to Venezuela’s poor and disadvantaged, they also serve as means of political and economic control over marginalized workers that the regime can exploit to its advantage.

The origins of the missions reflect this intent. The regime designed and adopted the missions in 2003 in response to growing political pressure from a mobilized opposition manifested in the 2002 coup and 2004 recall referendum (Penfold-Becerra 2007, 79).  Evidence indicates that the Chávez regime distributed social welfare resources in a politically targeted manner, intended to build loyalty among followers and to attract swing voters. The database that the government compiled from information from recall petitions signed against Chávez and certain opposition deputies facilitated this effort. It contained data on the ideological orientation and turnout histories of more than 12 million individuals, all registered voters who as of July 10, 2004, were eligible to vote in the August 15th referendum (Stokes et al. 2013, 44).

After the failed recall vote, the Chávez regime continued its politically targeted distribution of social welfare resources through mission programs such as Misión Robinson (adult literacy) and Misión Ribas (high school equivalency).  Stokes et al. observe that the distribution of scholarships in these programs was not closely tied to attendance or scholastic achievement; “instead, they served mainly as cash transfers to recipients” (2013, 46).    These findings reflect a general pattern in the distribution of targeted social welfare benefits: voters loyal to Chávez had a significantly higher probability of participating in targeted social programs than swing voters or opposition voters, while swing voters had a substantially higher probability of receiving targeted benefits than opposition voters (Stokes et al. 2013, 48-50; see also Handlin 2016).

Thus creation of the missions allowed the Chávez regime to build support among poor voters previously excluded from politics and state economic assistance.  This new constituency of poor voters has become a key element in its social coalition and strengthened its political support (Penfold-Becerra 2007, 65). Accordingly, missions – like worker cooperatives – reproduce inferior labor conditions and reinforced the Chávez regime’s top-down control of Venezuelan society, particularly of its most disadvantaged citizens.

Electoral Control and Institutional Fragmentation of the Labor Movement

In conjunction with its efforts to control unorganized, non-unionized workers through missions and worker cooperatives, the Chávez regime employed institutional means to control and fragment the organized labor movement. For example, in contravention of international labor standards, the regime interfered in union elections and denied unions that do not receive state approval of election results the right to bargain collectively. Reinforcing the negative impact of these policies on labor movement autonomy, the Chávez regime promoted and negotiated with new, pro-government unions that are exempt from electoral restrictions when first formed.  This strategy has weakened established unions associated with the opposition Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) and further fragmented the labor movement by creating strong incentives for workers to abandon established labor organizations to join new organizations controlled by the government. 

However, it would be incorrect to conclude that the adoption of this strategy facilitated the autonomy and efficacy of labor organizations controlled by the government and committed to the Bolivarian Revolution.  Rather, the regime sought to utilize both the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT) and the more recently created Central Socialista de Trabajadores (Socialist Workers’ Central, or CST) to control and fragment the incipient labor movement. In fact, the Chávez regime promoted the creation of the CST in response to efforts by factions within the UNT to remain autonomous from state and party control. As a result, the labor movement is now divided between those groups or factions that support working class autonomy and those that accept the labor movement’s subordination to the vanguard Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) and the state.  In this fashion, the Chávez regime effectively impeded the labor movement’s ability to represent workers’ interests or to challenge its hegemony.

Restriction of Labor Rights and Repression of Labor Leaders

Finally, the Chávez regime employed extra-institutional and juridical means to control the organized labor movement. These efforts went well beyond its efforts to control union elections and organization as described above.  The most egregious of these efforts involve the failure to honor collective contracts and to support collective contract negotiations, the severe circumscription of the right to strike and the right to engage in union activities, punitive legal measures against labor leaders and workers who engage in strike or boycott activity, and the failure to investigate or bring to justice those who have engaged in assassination of workers and union leaders.

Union leaders and workers who attempted to compel the regime to negotiate collective contracts or to honor those contracts in force confronted severe judicial actions and punitive measures to restrict their activity, particularly with regard to the right to strike. Indeed, through the adoption of various penal code measures the regime increasingly criminalized the right to strike.  In this regard, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) observed that the Chávez regime frequently invoked a crime called “obstruction of work” against persons who engage in strike activity (2011, 108). Judges have exacerbated the deleterious impact of these criminal prosecutions against labor leaders by forbidding the accused from calling meetings or coming within a specified distance of companies where strike activity has been threatened or carried out (IACHR 2011, 32). According to the CTV, the government brought over 2,000 workers and labor leaders before the criminal courts under a “probationary system.”  Rather than being jailed, they were released but required to report regularly to judicial authorities and barred from engaging in any protest activities (ILO 2010, 136).  Through this type of action, the Chávez regime clearly intended to inhibit the willingness and ability of union leaders and rank and file members to challenge government labor policy.

The regime’s failure to protect workers and union leaders from violence and assassination compounds the impact of this type of judicial action.  The source of this violence originates from the nature of Venezuelan labor contracts.  Labor contracts give unions the right to provide workers to enterprises. This contract stipulation gives corrupt union leaders incentives to sell jobs to workers for as much as $1000 per position.  The lucrativeness of this practice has led to competition among unions for contracts, which in turn has led to the practice among union leaders of hiring body guards to protect them from threats from competing unions.  Over time these body guards (or more precisely, hit men) began to eliminate union leaders in order to control for themselves the lucrative business of selling positions to workers (Concheso 2011).  Between 1997 and 2009, there were 240 union leaders and workers assassinated as a consequence of this competition for the sale of employment positions (IACHR 2009, 284).  In 2012, there were 77 workers and labor leaders assassinated (PROVEA 2012, 143).  The Chávez government prosecuted almost none of these crimes, leading to an environment of impunity for their perpetrators (IACHR 2009, 286; ILO 2010, 136).


Despite its socialist rhetoric, the Chávez regime did little to strengthen the political and economic clout of Venezuelan workers.  Instead, it pursued policies that fragment and weaken organized labor, impede labor’s autonomy, undermine collective bargaining, and exploit vulnerable workers in cooperatives.  Compounding the anti-labor impact of its divisive institutional strategies, the Chávez regime utilized the penal code and judicial intervention and intimidation as means of thwarting collective action and bargaining on the part of union leaders and workers.  Moreover, it failed to investigate and prosecute those responsible for violence against union leaders and workers, thereby allowing the perpetrators of these crimes to act with impunity.   Finally, it utilized the politically targeted distribution of social welfare resources financed with oil rents to build support from the marginalized, unorganized masses and to thus compensate for its lack of support from organized labor.

When taken together, these various aspects of labor politics in contemporary Venezuela reveal the manner in which a charismatic leader like Chávez can utilize populist strategies to enhance his power while failing to promote avowed socialist goals of solidarity, equality and autonomous popular participation. Such contradictions have grown under President Maduro, given the steep decline in oil prices in recent months and thus the drastic decline in rents and social welfare resources his government can utilize to its political advantage.  The opposition’s substantial victory in the December 6, 2015 legislative elections appears to reflect these new circumstances.  The Maduro government’s declining political fortunes have led it to resort to increasingly undemocratic means to maintain power, exacerbating further the already substantial contradictions between its socialist rhetoric and practice.

Ultimately, these contradictions suggest that, given the pronounced discrepancy between the Chávez regime’s socialist rhetoric and its actual political economy, it should not be held up as evidence of the incompatibility between “radical” leftism and democracy in Latin America.  Instead, whether a leftist government that eschews neoliberalism in favor of a more equitable distribution of economic and political power can succeed without compromising core democratic principles remains an open question awaiting future research. 


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About Author(s)

Dr. Paul W. Posner's current research focuses on democratization and political participation in Latin America. In particular, he is interested in the impact of economic globalization and related state reforms on social organization and collective action in Latin America. Current recent projects examine labor politics, the politics of social welfare resource distribution, the New Left and populism in Latin America, with specific focus on Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela. He teaches courses on Latin American politics, U.S. – Latin American relations, comparative environmental politics, and democratic theory.