Waylaid Dialectic

March 20, 2013

A More Succinct Theory of Chavez’s Popularity

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:40 pm

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson continue their examination of Chavez, offering some interesting political theorising on Latin American politics.

Interesting – yet, I think they get it wrong, missing a much more plausible explanation of Chavez’s success. In particular they go wrong right at the beginning of the piece when they wonder why “many Venezuelans continue to support Chávez even after 15 years of disastrous economic management in the midst of a huge oil boom from which Venezuela should have benefited much more?”

Yet there’s no mystery here, just mistaken beliefs about Venezuelan economic performance. This CEPR report on Venezuela’s economic performance provides all the numbers we need  — growth ok, poverty down, inequality down, human development way up.

Poor Venezuelan’s not voting for Chavez under these circumstances – now that would be a mystery.

In noting this I am not making an unqualified defence of Chavez. I agree that economic management could have been better. But the key question is: would it have been under under any likely political alternatives? I doubt it; and my guess is most Venezuelan voters shared my doubts. More than that though, at least as far as I understand research in this area, voters evaluations (not just in Venezuela) are based with respect to experienced history, not ideal world alternatives.

Life got better for them under Chavez and this, along with an impressive (if also somewhat repressive and clientelistic) electoral machine is why Chavez kept winning.

[Update: A&R write in a new post:

In our last two posts (here and here), we tried to articulate some ways of understanding the origins of Hugo Chávez’s rise to power, and his continued popularity despite the damage he caused to Venezuelan economy and politics.

We may have gotten it wrong of course. But probably not as wrong as the French minister of overseas affairs Victorin Lurel who eulogized Chávez by saying:

The world would benefit from having many dictators like Chávez.

Quite. Chavez was a lot of things, some of them bad, but he was not a dictator. As Greg Grandin writes: “Over the last fourteen years, Chávez has submitted himself and his agenda to fourteen national votes, winning thirteen of them by large margins, in polling deemed by Jimmy Carter to be “best in the world”…”


Something of an autocrat? Sure.

Bad leader? Maybe.

Dictator? Not a chance.]


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