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Revista Uruguaya de Ciencia Política

Print version ISSN 0797-9789On-line version ISSN 1688-499X

Rev. Urug. Cienc. Polít. vol.24 no.spe Montevideo July 2015


Populist Discourse and the Remaking of the Political Opposition in Venezuela1*

Discurso Populista y la Reconfiguración de la Oposición Política en Venezuela

Sahar Abi-Hassan2**


In recent years, two main political poles have consolidated in Venezuela, those in favor of the late President Hugo Chávez or Chavistas and those in opposition. Despite their divergent propositions and deep social polarization, the two camps share similarities, and in a way each camp has reinforced the existence of the other through its discursive practices. This paper investigates the role of the opposition in consolidating a populist discourse in Venezuela. Through a qualitative content analysis of online news articles, the paper shows that the ideas and discourse of the anti-Chávez movement between 2000 and 2012 consolidated the populist discourse of the Chavista government.

Keywords: Opposition, Chavismo, populist discourse, polarization, political identities


Recientemente se han consolidado en Venezuela dos polos políticos, los Chavistas que apoyan al gobierno del fallecido Hugo Chávez y la oposición. A pesar de la amplia divergencia en el contenido de sus proyectos políticos y la profunda polarización social que eso ha generado, los dos campos comparten similitudes, y de cierta manera se validan mutuamente a través de sus prácticas discursivas. En este trabajo se investiga el papel de la oposición en la consolidación de un discurso populista en Venezuela. A través de un análisis de contenido cualitativo de artículos de noticias en línea, este trabajo muestra que las ideas y el discurso de la oposición entre el 2000 y 2012 juega un papel importante en la consolidación del discurso populista del gobierno de Hugo Chávez.

Palabras Claves: Oposición, Chavismo, discurso populista, polarización, e identidades políticas.

Since the turn of the millennium, Venezuela has seen the emergence and consolidation of two political camps: Chavismo, and the opposition (la oposición). The first is an umbrella term for any group, party or individual supporting the late Hugo Chávez, and the latter for all those against him. While a political opposition in Venezuela is now consolidated under the Platform of Democratic Unity (MUD), this was not always the case. The opposition in Venezuelaas a political movement has its origins in the old establishment, including political parties, and business, labor and civic organizations.3 This incongruous and fragmented set of actors began to coalesce in the early 2000s around their dislike for the policies implemented by President Hugo Chávez. Hence, the process by which the opposition took shape is closely intertwined with the government of Hugo Chávez.

Chávezs landslide victory in 1998 allowed him ample space to set in motion and expand arevolutionaryproject beginning with the 1999 constitutional reform. Thereafter, even within the constraints of growing opposition, Chávezs mandate was ratified in the 2000 presidential election and the 2004 revocatory referendum, clearing the way for his political project (CNE 2000; CNE 2004). Capitalizing on the crisis of representative institutions and his soaring popularity, Chávez redrafted the political space to make it more inclusionary, specifically, to promote the participation and inclusion of the most neglected and disenfranchised sectors of the population (Roberts 2012). Creating a political space open to everyone, and constructing an alternative form of participatory democracy was accompanied by the displacement of the Punto Fijo system.4

Chávezs brand of populism crystalized from the beginning of his first presidential term. While the share of low-income supporters varied throughout Chávezs presidency (Lupu 2010), his political project served to consolidate the political and social interests of disenfranchised groups. By now it has been widely established in the literature how a populist logic emerged, and consolidated in Venezuela in the last 15 years. A discourse that framed society into theusversusthem”, an anti-status-quo mode of governance keen on replacing all political institutions associated with the old establishment, the presentation of his person as the central figure of a new inclusive nation-project, and a strong emphasis on turning the country into a participatory democracy (Brading 2013; De la Torre 2013; Ellner 2010; Hawkins 2010; Roberts 2012). However, the role of the opposition in this process remains understudied. Hence, to what extent did the opposition contribute to the consolidation of a populist logic in Venezuela?

The first signs of opposition in Venezuela originated with the old establishment reacting to its displacement by the late President. For instance, the constitutional reform, proposed by the Chávez government, and approved through a referendum, generated a strong pushback from the old establishment, as it was perceived to greatly expand executive power. Due to the variety of actors involved, the responses of the opposition were not always coordinated and continuously shifted depending on which faction predominated at the time. However, while the opposition has been composed of different groups at different times, and has used different approaches and means, it has consistently maintained a single purpose: to remove Chávez and his loyalists from political power (Brading 2013: 67-75; Cannon 2004; Coordinadora Democratica De Venezuela 2002, Art.1-6).

In pursuit of this single goal, the opposition in Venezuela has coordinated and communicated its message(s) and action(s) by consistently emphasizing its antagonism towards Chávez. While there were moments of dialogue, its outcomes were short lived. Hence, this paper suggests that the opposition in Venezuela has reinforced the same framework of populist ideas and discourse used by the Chávez regime. It shows that through its emphasis on antagonism, and the assertion that it representsthe people”, the discursive strategies of the opposition in Venezuela perpetuated, and eventually became constrained by a populist logic. Rather than just advancing its own goals, this has continuously reinforced a populist logic, and thus legitimized the position of power, or at least the perception of dominance of the government.

To test this hypothesis, this paper follows the approach of discourse institutionalism (DI). Emerging from the old institutionalisms (rational, historical, and sociological), DI primarily makes an emphasis on the role of ideas and discourse in shaping institutions. According to its proponent, Vivien A. Schmidt (2008; 2010), discourse institutionalism provides us with the tools to research thesubstantive content of ideas”, as well asdiscourse or the interactive process of conveying ideas” (Schmidt 2008: 303). This greatly enhances our research capabilities by explaining how and why some ideas succeed while others fail within a specific contextual institutional setting. However, more specifically, by looking into frames and content analysis of ideas, and the communicative discourse of political leaders, DI is instrumental to understanding how ideas and discourse are shaped by the institutional context, while institutions are also shaped by discourse and ideas.

In order to understand the extent to which populist ideas have become embedded into the political space in Venezuela, first we need to have a clear understanding of the concept of populism. For this, the first section of the paper builds on the recent literature to generate a clear definition of populism, and how a populist discourse diffuses within a specific institutional context. The second provides an overview of the comparative literature on the emergence and consolidation of populism in Venezuela. The third section outlines the research design and methods, with special focus on the approach of discourse institutionalism. The fourth section provides the historic-institutional context in which a political opposition emerged in Venezuela, and its evolution until the 2012 presidential elections. This is used to frame the analysis of ideas and discourse of the opposition in support of the main hypothesis. As a way of concluding, the paper discusses the potential for future research into how ideas and discourse might play a role in the perpetuation of a populist logic in a post-Chávez era.

  1. Defining Populism

For decades now, populism has been one of the most debated concepts in political science. It has been applied to both left-wing leaders such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and right-wing parties such as the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) in Europe. It can be a politics of opposition or government, it is found in Europe as much as in Latin America, and can be an advocate for the underclass as much as it promotes the exclusion of minorities (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2013). For instance, an exclusionary right-wing populism has emerged in Europe in the last two decades characterized by xenophobic appeals and nationalistic claims (Art 2011; Betz 1994; Carter 2005; Koopmans and Muis 2009; Mudde 2007). While in Latin America, populism has been mainly characterized by an inclusionary version that promotes social security, and the integration of ethnic identities (Dornbusch and Edwards 1991; Madrid 2005; Weyland, Madrid, and Hunter 2010).

Definitional divergence in the study of populism has historically encompassed a wide range of incongruous and even opposite attributes that span the economic, political, social and discursive domains used to describe a wide variety of political movements, parties, ideologies, and leaders. According to Canovan (1982), the basis for the vagueness in the definition of populism is the intent of scholars to either cast a wide-ranging normative definition, or one empirically based. The first approach attempts to bring all possible cases under onetheoretical roof.” The second is morephenomenological”, collecting cases and following a descriptive mode to build a theory of populism (Canovan 1982: 545). The main challenge with these approaches has been atradeoff between comprehensiveness and clarity” (Canovan 1982: 548). The first is very diffuse to provide substantive information, and the latter is too narrow to be applicable to all cases.

More recently, scholars have converged on a definition of populism that is mainly based on political attributes, either institutional or ideational (Abts and Rummens 2007; Arditi 2004; Barr 2009; Brett 2013; De la Torre 2013; Hawkins 2010; Laclau 2005a; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2012; Panizza 2005; Weyland 2001). Within the institutional branch, Weyland (2001) makes an important contribution by unhinging the concept from its socioeconomic policies. Rather that establishing an a priori relation between the political and socioeconomic, Weyland (1999) leaves the latter open to empirical investigation. According to Weyland (2001: 11) populism can be best defined as apolitical strategy where a leader appeals to a heterogeneous mass of followers, reaching out to them in a direct quasi-personal manner that bypasses established intermediary organizations, especially political parties.” In this sense, the populist label is about how the leadershapes patterns of political rule and not the distribution of socioeconomic benefits or loses”, for which itespouses an anti-elite rhetoric and challenges the status-quo” (Weyland 2001: 11).

Nevertheless, this definition remains somehow problematic as it relegates populism to mainly a position of power, or in the least as a phenomenon that can always transcend to power. What about populism that fails to win office, and remains in the opposition, as is the case in some Western European countries? Moreover, the charismatic and strategic dimensions in Weylands (2001) definition are not necessarily unique to populism (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2012; 2013). Other mass movements have charismatic leaders, and low levels of organization, but they are not necessarily populist.

Within the ideational approach, Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2012: 8) define populism as a “thin-centered ideology, that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” This definition provides two important thresholds against which to measure populism. First, as a “thin-centered ideology”, the content of each movement is relative to the socio-political context in which populism takes place (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2011). And second, populism has one clear manifestation that remains constant regardless of socioeconomic structures or the power position it operates from: the moral distinction between the “the pure people” and the “corrupt elite” (Mudde 2004; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2013: 151).

Similarly, in the discourse theory tradition, Laclau (2005a) argues that the identification of a regime as populist followsa particular logic of articulation” […] of social demands andtheir peculiar relation with the established order” (Laclau 2005a: ix). Hence, populism operates as a logic or mode of identification that constitutesthe peoplein a relation of opposition to the dominant structures or the status quo (Laclau 2005b; Panizza 2008). However, these two groups are not necessarily homogenous, in fact they are usually the product of a process of aggregation of a set of heterogeneous demands. So, if this social divide is the sine-qua-non of populism, how can it be differentiated from other political regimes, and how does populism move from opposition to a position of power?

Addressing this gap in the literature, Laclau (2005b, 39) argues thatthe construction of an enemyor opposition to the status-quo is not enough to stabilize these disparate and heterogeneous demands. The articulation of a populist logic requires the identification of an anchor or agents (empty signifier) that embodies the homogenization of these disparate demands; a concept or name that without losing its own specificity, stands as a universal representation for all other demands to which it is seen as equivalent (Laclau 2005a; 2005b; Panizza 2005). By weakening and overriding the countrys political institutions, a special relation of representation is established between the leader and his followers; therefore, people identify directly with the leader. This is what differentiates populism as amode of identificationfrom other political logics (Panizza 2005).

Building upon these conceptualizations, in this paper populism is defined as a political logic of identification where an agent embodies heterogeneous disparate social demands and constitutes them into a homogenouspeople”, in an antagonistic relation tothe other”, within a context specific ideological framework. This definition follows closely the empirically based ideational approach of Hawkins (2010), and Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2012), and the more normative definition of Laclau (2005a; 2005b), and Panizza (2005).

Defining populism through the ideational approach has important implications for the way in which a study of populist politics should be carried on. This directs our attention to the content of ideas and discourse of populist leaders, and the institutional context in which these operate (Gidron and Bonikowski 2013; Mudde 2007; Rooduijn, de Lange, and Van Der Brug 2012). Hence, the next logical step would be to establish what ideas and discourse make the Chávez regime a populist one, and how this has affected the political landscape in Venezuela.

  1. Populism in Venezuela

The recent emergence of populist leaders in Latin America and Europe has proven that populism is not a thing of the past, but a recurrent phenomenon compatible with multiple economic models, social bases, and political ideologies (Panizza 2008; Weyland 1999). So far, Chávezs regime stands as one of the most influential cases. So what makes Chávez and his government populist? According to Panizza and Miorelli (2009: 42), “the appeal of populism in the region (Latin America) has to be understood with reference to past and present political dislocations. Unmet social needs and heightened economic insecurities, for instance, provide raw material for the articulation of political grievances.”

Socioeconomic factors have been cited as the primary explanation for the rise of populist leaders in Latin America (Brading 2013; De la Torre 2013; Hawkins 2010; Laclau 2005b; Panizza and Miorelli 2009). It is argued that decades of exclusionary policies led to the accumulation of disenfranchised groups looking for a change in their political system. Indeed, Chávez himself was shaped within these sectors of the population, and his political project would be oriented towards changing what was considered a pervasive status quo.

Following a period of political and economic stability between 1958 and the late 1970s, Venezuelas economy began to rapidly deteriorate, converging into the first strike to the countrys political institutions. Socioeconomic dislocations triggered mass popular protests in Caracas on February 27, 1989 in what became known as El Caracazo. As a sequel to this crisis and in opposition to President Carlos A. Perezs neoliberal reforms, on February 4, 1992, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez and his MBR-200 movement carried out a failed coup détat. Despite being undemocratic and unsuccessful, this act of insurgencysignified radical change to a discredited and repressive institutional system” (Brading 2013: 2). By then, the prevailing institutional arrangement began to crumble as opposition towards the Punto Fijo system consolidated; Venezuelans were ready for a radical change.

After his release from prison in 1994, Chávez began working towards the presidential election of 1998, where he won with the highest vote to date, 56.2% (CNE 1998). Aided by high popular support, Chávez was set to lead the country towards a more inclusionary and participatory political system. However, materializing his promises as a candidate required the dismantling of institutional structures that had prevailed for the last 40 years. Key institutions such as the legislative, state and local governments, trade unions, business organizations, and the oil industry were still primarily under the leadership of the Punto Fijo loyalists. Chávez would turn to the people in order to overcome this challenge.

Following the positive outcome of the consultative national electoral referendum in April 1999, the National Constituent Assembly was established with the purpose of drafting the new constitution (CNE 1999b). By the end of the year the new Bolivarian Constitution establishing the Fifth Republic was approved with overwhelming support; 72% of the popular vote; although turnout was only 44% (CNE 1999a). The approval of the new Constitution set in motion institutional and programmatic changes, as put by Chávez himself, intended to free thepeoplefrom the exclusion and exploitation suffered at the hands of the previous governments (Valero 2007: 54).

Starting with the constitutional reform of 1999, Chávez initiated a process to dismantle the countrys institutions, which were considered exclusionary, elitist and against the interests of the Venezuelan people. As eloquently put by Roberts (2012: 147), “participation, then, was both an end and a means for Chavismo... it helped Chávez refound the constitutional order, sideline the political establishment, and deliver social and economic benefits to a broad range of political supporters.” As such, through the aggregation of unmet social needs, those disenfranchised by the older regime were constituted as thepeople”, and the old order (Punto Fijo system) was constructed as theother”, dividing the social camp into anusversusthem” (Brading 2013).

Within a Manichean ideology, Chávezs political project was presented as aworldview or discourse about the nature of politics, one revolving around the struggle between «good», and «evil»; where good encompasses the «will of the people», and evil the «elite attempting to subvert the common interest of the people»” (Hawkins 2010: 5). Mapping onto this discourse, Chávezs government implemented innovative social programs ormisiones” (Venezuelas social programs in areas of food, health, education, and housing), which provided many with a sense of inclusion and empowerment by extending access to resources to segments of the population that were previously neglected. Nevertheless, despite the positive outcomes generated by these massive redistribution efforts (Ellner 2010), the political discussion about policies or programmatic plans inevitably spilled over into a moral struggle.

Moreover, following the participatory model enshrined in the 1999 constitution, Chávez encouraged the formation of grass roots movements for the promotion of revolutionary processes and the organization of excluded sectors of the population, such as the Bolivarian Circles, the Urban Land Committees, and communal councils (De la Torre 2013). While some considered the formation of these groups a step towards greater citizenship and social responsibility (Machado, 2008 cited in De la Torre 2013: 32), others have argued that since they are created and regulated by the leader himself, they only serve to consolidate the presidents populist discourse. As such, they are the organizational manifestation of populist politics (Hawkins 2010).

While Chávezs political project set in motion a new inclusionary and participatory system, some scholars contend that the fact that this is centered in his person has taken the country closer towards authoritarianism. Corrales and Penfold (2011), and Brewer-Carías (2010)a former official in the pre-Chávez era argue that the same bold political and economic reforms that support Chávezs inclusionary project have also facilitated the consolidation of crony and clientelist practices, as well as the centralization of government functions, providing the president with substantial advantage over his political challengers (Brewer-Carías 2010; Corrales and Penfold 2011).

Although the literature about the achievements and shortcomings of the Chávez regime is mixed, there is no doubt that for the last 15 years the political space in Venezuela has been dominated by a populist logic. Chávezs brand of populism is evident through a discourse that frames society into theusversusthem”, an anti-status-quo mode of governance that has consistently worked to override all political institutions associated with the old establishment, the presentation of his person as the central figure of a new inclusive nation-project, and a strong emphasis on ruling through participatory democracy (Brading 2013; De la Torre 2013; Hawkins 2010; Roberts 2012). So, if a populist logic has been dominant in Venezuelan politics, did the opposition operate within this same logic? And to what extent did it contribute to the consolidation of a populist logic?

  1. Research Design and Methods

The main hypothesis of this paper is that populist discourse has come to define the terms of the political conversation and contestation in Venezuela for the last 15 years. Subsequently, this suggests that the opposition also operates within, and has reinforced a populist logic. To test this hypothesis, the author focuses on the ideas and discourse of the opposition in the period between 2000 and 2012. This period was selected as it aligns with the first signs of opposition to the government of Hugo Chávez and the 2012 presidential election.

    1. Populism and Interactive Discourse

Although populist politics is measured through the discursive strategies of the opposition, exploring how it reinforced a populist logic in Venezuela requires that ideas and discourses be embedded within a specific institutional context. For this, the paper follows a discourse institutionalism approach which focuses on how thesubstantive content of ideas”, andthe interactive processes that shape ideas”[…] transform and are transformed by political institutions (Schmidt 2008: 305).

As argued by several scholars, populism cannot be exclusively associated with a particular economic policy, socioeconomic structure, or political system, and it does not subscribe to any specific ideology, although it can attach to one (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2012; 2013: 151; Weyland 2001). As such, populist politics is primarily contingent upon the context in which it operates (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2011). This makes discourse institutionalism extremely relevant for the study of populism for two reasons.

On one hand, as argued by Schmidt (2008) the use of discourse institutionalism is justified by the following. First, it compels us totake discourse seriously.” Second, itset ideas and discourse in institutional context.” Third, itplaces ideas into their meaning context, while discourse follows a logic of communication despite difference in what may be communicated, how and where.” And last, it allows for a more dynamic approach towards institutional change and continuity (Schmidt 2008: 304).

On the other hand, discourse institutionalism departs from the old institutionalisms: rational institutionalism where institutions are considered to be in stable equilibrium with rationalist preferences; historical institutionalism where institutions follow a self-reinforcing historically path-dependent trajectory; and sociological institutionalism, where institutions are defined primarily by cultural norm. In this sense, discourse institutionalism takes into consideration historical, sociological, and rational aspects of political institutions without losing sight of the importance of ideas and the interactive processes that shape them, hence its ability to focus on both change and continuity.

The novelty of discourse institutionalism is that once we recognize that political actors are internal to institutions, tracing their discursive processes gives us a better understanding of why some ideas fail while others succeed. As reasoned by Schmidt (2010: 4), “the institutionalism in DI suggests that this approach is not only about the communication of ideas ortextbut also about the institutional context in which, and through which ideas are communicated via discourse.” As such, institutions serve as bothconstraining structures”, andenabling constructs of meaningwhere an agentsbackground ideational abilitiesandforeground communicative abilitiesdetermine the change (or continuity) of the political system.

To do this, Schmidt (2008: 305-6) suggests it is important to look into ideas both in terms of their levels of generality: policies, programs, and philosophies; and type of content: cognitive, given bywhat is and what to do”, and normative, orwhat is good or bad about what is in light of what one ought to do.” These different levels of generality and types of content are manifested into two types of discourse. The first, coordinative, which occurs at the level of policymakers and political actors when debating withinepistemic communities.” The second is the communicative discourse between political actors and the general public (Schmidt 2008).

Another important contribution of discourse institutionalism is that it allows for the use of a wide variety of theoretical or methodologically specific approaches, either focused on the analysis of ideas or the dynamics of epistemic communities, and the communication of ideas by the leader or political elite to the public. For this paper, we will restrict the use of discourse institutionalism to two of its specific approaches: content analysis of ideas, and the communicative discourse of political leaders.

    1. Categories of Analysis

To measure populist ideas and discourse of the opposition the author conducted a qualitative content analysis of 240 online news articles from a variety of national and international sources. The process of selecting the sample of news articles was based on a search with keywords that are usually associated with the opposition in Venezuela: opposition, anti-Chávez movement, Coordinadora Democrática, Mesa de Unidad Democrática, Primero Justicia, AD, and COPEI. This was carried-on in Spanish and English to allow for a broader sample.

Measuring discourse that reinforced a populist logic in Venezuela consisted of claims that fell under either one or more of the following categories: 1) reinforcing theusversusthem”, 2) fighting the status-quo with emotional appeals, and 3) creating a direct connection between the leader and thepeople.” The first category maps onto the definition of populism formulated in the theoretical section of the paper, where individuals are compelled to think about their political allegiance in dualistic terms.

The second category contains all ideas and discourses that frame the oppositions disagreement with Chávezs political project in emotional terms. This category is intended to capture instances where the opposition formulated its political platform mainly on its desire to remove Chávez from power or their assessment of the erosion of democracy in Venezuela, and not based on actual programmatic policies.

And the third category captures instances where the opposition places greater emphasis on the leader as the solution to what they consider an ongoing crisis of governability in Venezuela. While the leader-“peoplerelationship is something characteristic of Chávezs populist style, this category is intended to measure the extent to which the opposition remained trapped in a populist logic as it united behind single candidates.

All the news articles were individually read and analyzed by the author. Any phrases that were considered to fall within one or more of these categories were coded as such using the numbers assigned to each category. Thereafter this was compiled into frequencies for each category, and graphed under a normalized scale to address the variation in the number of articles found for each period.

The dependent variable in this case is the extent to which the opposition reinforced a populist logic through the articulation of ideas and discourse, within the current political and socioeconomic context. Through a qualitative content analysis of opposition discourses, this study focuses on the characteristics of language as communication with special attention to the contextual meaning of the text (Schmidt 2008). As such the analysis is organized around important events that provide the politico-institutional context in which the two main political poles develop, consolidate and interact.5

  1. Political Opposition and the Consolidation of a Populist Discourse in Venezuela

In most studies about populism in Venezuela the opposition is presented as theother”, only relevant as a complement to the narrative about why Chávez or Chavismo is populist. But, to what extent has the opposition played a role in consolidating a populist logic in Venezuela?

The political opposition started out as disparate set of factions united by their antagonism towards the government of Hugo Chávez, and its policies. Joined by a common purpose, but separated by the means in which they pursued it, the political opposition can be divided into two primary factions: radicals, and moderates.6 The variety of factions operating within these two factions can be classified as political elites from the old establishment, new political leaders, labor and business leaders, the student movement, and Chavismo detractors. Through ideas and discourse, this section traces the context within which a political opposition emerged and consolidated, and how it contributed to the consolidation of populist politics in Venezuela. For this, the analysis is divided into three phases circumscribed by important events.

    1. Phase I: Opposition in its early stages, 2000-2004

The populist project emerges in Venezuela by crystallizing the divisions that had been forming in previous administrations. Fighting established institutions, and breaking with the status quo was instrumental for the constitution of a Chavista identity. However, the analysis shows that in the first few years of the Chávez government, the anti-Chávez movement greatly contributed to the crystallization of these divisions. Starting with inoffensive protests, and condemnation of Chávezs policies, followed by the failed coup of 2002, and the general strike of 2002-2003, the opposition created a crisis environment where people were compelled to think about their political allegiance.

The first serious point of contention between the new government and the old establishment came after Chávezs party took control of the National Assembly (AN), allowing him to obtain a special constitutional power to rule by decree on matters of economic and social policy.7 The most vociferous opposition actors at the time were the Venezuelan Confederation of Workers (CTV), and the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce (FEDECAMARAS), which immediately condemned this as government overreach. Under aunified protest strategy”, the two organizations, along with the traditional political parties began encouraging protests and strikes across the country.

In a climate of growing discontent, the opposition called for a national strike in April of 2002, which culminated in clashes with Chávez supporters. While the circumstances remain unclear, the protests ended with several people dead, and many more wounded, leading to Chávezs short-lived resignation on April 11, followed by his return to office two days later. While both sides attempted some form of conciliation after the failed coup,8 the opposition followed the set course by calling for a strike at the national oil company (PDVSA) (EFE 2002). This was intended to weaken Chávezs base and force him to resign; instead it served to strengthen his political project. First by handing him full control of the oil company and its massive amounts of revenues, and second by further consolidating the governments antagonistic discourse (Brading, 2013: 74-5). This left the opposition with no other recourse but to wait for the presidential mid-term to request a referendum, which after a failed first attempt, and several subsequent delays, it lost to a 58% vote for the NO option (Wall Street Journal 2004). Despite verification by OAS, and the Carter Center, the opposition rejected these results, and continued to call for protests, and even civil disobedience during the 2004 regional elections (Noticias Financieras 2004; Notimex 2004).

Beside the detrimental consequences of these eventsfailed coup, strikes, protests, and referendum for the economy, and the stability of the country, they created an environment that required people to take a position. As shown in Figure 1, between the enactment of the enabling laws in 2000 and the 2004 regional elections, the oppositions discourse mainly fell under categories 1 and 2. For instance, during the national strike in December 2002, the oppositions discursive strategies politicized individual decisions on whether to go to work or to keep businesses open (Córdova 2000). In addition, although the massive rallies were intended to protest against Chávezs policies, they also served to reinforce social divisions. Through the communicative discourse of the opposition, Venezuelans, knowingly or not, were compelled to think about the place they occupied in the political arena, reinforcing theusversusthemdivide.

Consistent with category 1, the dichotomous nature of the oppositions discourse did not allow for a third alternative. Perhaps, this was the only possible strategy in a divided and non-cohesive political movement. During this phase, the opposition had a weak communicative discourse when it came to any specific policies or programmatic agenda for the future. As such, its communicative strategy was suspended in a philosophical level of generality, where the only discourse possible was that the measures being implemented by the current government were not consistent with their worldview of what a democratic system should look like (Coordinadora Democratica De Venezuela 2002).

Under category 2, phrases likeMr. Chávez is trying to create a Cuban-style authoritarian regime” (this was a recurrent theme in the articles surveyed, eg. Moffett and Lifsher (2002)), andChávez must be substituted by capable leaders if we are to reach an understanding” (Córdova 2000), show how the opposition mainly relied on emotional appeals, in its attempt to recruit supporters. From its beginnings in 2000 until the outcome of the revocatory referendum in 2004 the anti-Chávez movement consistently communicated that the only viable solution was for Chávez and his loyalists to be removed from power (Brading 2013, 67–75; Cannon 2004; Coordinadora Democratica De Venezuela 2002). The difference was in the means advocated; the moderates advocated for a constitutional exit, and the radicals called for removal through any means necessary.

From this it becomes evident that the oppositions communicative discourse was mainly framed in normative terms. The effect of this is that a public debate about the countys political institutions was necessarily pushed into the moral terrain. The political discussion was not about what was best for the country considering the current political or economic conditions. It was about what the opposition or the government considered it best based on their respective position within the current institutional framework.

    1. Phase II: An Opposition in Limbo, 2005-2008

While not abandoning their emphasis on removing Chávez, in the aftermath of the revocatory referendum, the oppositions communicative discourse turns to disqualifying the electoral system, and hence attempts to delegitimize the government, especially in the eyes of the international community. The logic was that as the position of Chávez was consistently reassured through the rule of the majority, if the opposition could show that the system was fraudulent the government would lose its legitimacy. Citing lack of freedom, and fairness in the electoral process, opposition parties withdrew from the legislative elections of 2005 (LANS 2005). In this period, the oppositions discursive strategies continued to operate within categories 1 and 2, although in a much more toned down manner. Soon after, the opposition realized the ill conceived nature of their attempt to boycott the elections, as it only served to provide Chávezs coalition with a two-thirds majority (supermajority) in the AN.

By mid-2006 the opposition reverted back to a constitutional solution, this time in preparation for the presidential election at the end of the year. However, despite the oppositions best organizational effortsthrough Sumate9 to select a unity candidate, Chávez won again with 63% of the popular vote. Consistent with category 3, agreeing to back a unity candidate (Manuel Rosales) was considered the best available strategy to run against a president that reinforced a personalistic style, and maintained a high level of popularity. However, it also reinforced the notion that the course set by Chávez could only be reverted by changing the president. In any other political scenario this would have been inconsequential. In a country where a populist logic pervades every aspect of society, the representation of the opposition in a single figure further reinforced the idea that politics is just about the leader. This shows the extent to which the opposition was already trapped in a populist logic.

Following the 2006 presidential election, the opposition lost much of its momentum, which opened the space for new movements to emerge. The formation of a student movement, sparked by the announcement of the government to discontinue the license of one of the countys leading television networks (Radio Caracas Television, RCTV) momentarily filled the void. This would be the first time that a group not associated with a political party, or the old establishment becomes the face of the anti-Chávez movement. This also represented a shift from the anti-Chávez discourse to one in support of freedom of expression, at least for some time.

Not long after, the student movement combined efforts with traditional opposition actors to campaign against the 2007 constitutional amendment, and the 2008 regional elections. On one hand, the increasing salience of the student movement provided the opposition with an alternative way to show its discontent with the governments policies (Brading 2013: 81-2). On the other hand, its association with the old political elites meant a return to the same anti-Chávez rhetoric.

In this phase, the oppositions communicative strategies continued to reinforce theusversusthem”, and the validity of emotional appeals. However, greater cohesion allowed it to stand behind single candidates, and to formulate a more programmatic platform. While to an extent this is a mild shift away from a populist logic, the emphasis placed on being represented by a single leader keeps it operating within populist politics.

    1. Phase III: Towards a Programmatic-based Approach, 2009-2012

The oppositions participation and acknowledgment of the results of the 2009 constitutional amendments represented the beginning of a new anti-Chávez movement willing to play by Chávezs rules, and to legitimize the countrys electoral system. By then, the ideological affiliation of political institutions such as the legislative, the judicial, and the electoral board was more defined than at the beginning of the Chávez regime. Although clearly tilted in favor of the government, it did create a more predictable institutional framework.

By mid-2009, the opposition had already organized around the MUD as the main representative of its political and electoral platform in the upcoming 2010 legislative elections (La Verdad 2009).10 Within this new institutional framework, a more organized anti-Chávez movement entered what the 2012/2013 presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski calleda new era of hope, without fights with Chávezs government,[...] working towards the objective of providing people a better living standard” (El Pais 2008).

Leading up to the legislative elections of 2010, the opposition was in a better position due to the declining state of the economy, and internal struggles within Chávezs coalition. But more importantly, it had learned from past mistakes, and reoriented its efforts towards crafting a programmatic platform that the people could understand and vote for, beyond just emphasizing an anti-Chávez rhetoric. While its purpose had not changedit still wanted to remove Chávez from power, its communicative discourse became more conciliatory and inclusive. Evidence of this can be found in the words of former Caracas mayor Leopoldo Lopez: “Chávez, king of the poor versus the rich opposition is an old story to me. Law and order, infrastructure and development, and respect for human rights, these are the main plank of the new opposition” (Morales 2009). Or as put by Julio Borges, leader of Primero Justicia party: “portraying the fight for Venezuela as a personalized battle to stop Chávez instead of offering a vision for a better country has been our biggest mistake” (Asia News Monitor 2010).

Within this newfound political consensus, in 2011 the opposition began formulating its plans for the selection of unity candidate for the 2012 presidential election. As shown in Figure 1, all the extremist unconstitutional methods, the personality-based conflicts within the parties, and the aggressive anti-Chávez rhetoric contained within categories 1 and 2 seemed to have become a thing of the past. The new platform promoted by the MUD was intent on reconnecting with voters, and presenting an alternative solution to the countrys most pressing problems such as crime, inflation and a diminishing quality of life. Leading up to the elections of 2012, the opposition focused on promoting its new vision for the country through its unity presidential candidate (Mesa de Unidad Democratica 2012).

A new programmatic-based approach allowed the opposition to target not only Chávez the leader, but also the institutions he had helped create and the government he commanded, a government and a set of institutions the opposition also played a role in shaping. However, the leading strategy of the opposition was still its focus on the single leader. Through its emphasis on creating a representational space that could be occupied by a single name, and its claim to embodythe people” (Laclau 2005a; Panizza 2008) the opposition continued to reinforce the validity of a populist logic as a viable political project.

In time the opposition transformed into a formal political base that transcended its anti-Chávez origins; it rejected populist politics through moderation, and a more conciliatory discursive strategy. Yet, the meaning context in which it operated remained populist. Its emphasis on unity, and the selection of a single candidate is evidence that it remained trapped within a populist logic. As such, while the oppositions ideas and discourses helped reinforce a populist logic in its early stages, later on, its programmatic approach is constrained by a set of institutions that operate within populist politics.

  1. Conclusions

Through this preliminary analysis of the ideas and discourse of the anti-Chávez movement in Venezuela, this paper shows that the opposition was instrumental for the consolidation of a populist logic in Venezuela in the earlier stages of the Chávez regime. A populist logic emerged with Chávezs antagonistic discourse that framed all things associated with the old regime as theother.” However, the opposition reinforced this antagonistic relation not only through its communicative discourse, but also through coordinated actions. Through protests, strikes, a coup and a revocatory referendum the opposition created a crisis environment, which compelled people to decide on their political allegiance.

Moreover, through the formulation of a rather emotional appeal, the opposition communicated that the problems of the county could be reduced to Chávezs presidency. Most likely this is because the only thing that the opposition could agree on was its desire to see Chávez removed from the presidency. While in another political context this would be inconsequential, in this case it reduced the discussion to a moral dichotomy ofChávez equals bad”, “opposition equals good.” At this point, the potential for a discussion about the appropriateness of current policies or why the oppositions programs could have been more adequate to solve the countrys problems was lost in an individual-centered conversation devoid of any real contribution or possibility of change.

And last, the new cohesive opposition was instrumental in making important political gains. However, its unification behind a single candidate, in this case, makes it about the leader and not the institutions. Once more, telling the people that their faith is tied to a single individual (the leader) reinforces the populist logic. It is important to note that this does not make the opposition populist per se, because the movement has yet to find representation in a single agent. Yet, its emphasis on the significance of project unity and support behind one candidate reinforces the validity of a populist logic as a sustainable political project.

Notwithstanding the preliminary nature of this inquiry into the role of theother” (in this case the opposition) –as an active agent in consolidating a populist logic, it served as a conversation starter on a topic that has not received much attention in the literature. This study has provided an analysis of the role of the opposition in consolidating a populist logic in Venezuela. However, it has been limited to the period where Chávez occupied the presidency, and by the number and sources of text analyzed. Therefore, the results obtained do not provide a complete picture of the role of the opposition in further consolidating a populist logic, or the extent to which a populist logic continues to shape or constrain the opposition in Venezuela in a post-Chávez era.

Following Chávezs death, on one hand, his successor Nicolas Maduro has maintained the same course set by his predecessor. On the other hand, the opposition has been able to remain a partially united front. This prompts many questions for future research such as: has it undergone any more significant changes in terms of ideas and its logic of communication? And to what extent it continues or not to perpetuate a populist discourse in a post-Chávez era? Also, now that a populist logic has been consolidated, is it possible for the opposition to revert it through a more programmatically oriented approach? Will it be able to operate outside a populist logic? Looking into a greater number of printed and audiovisual materials would certainly provide a more complete picture of the discursive interactions between the opposition and the Chavistas. This has broader implications, not only as an inquiry into the role of theother”, but also for understanding change and continuity within a populist logic.


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1* This paper was prepared for presentation at the XXXIII International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, San Juan, PR 2015. I would like to thank Vivien A. Schmidt, Tony Spanakos, David Scott Palmer, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this paper. The author did all translations from Spanish to English, unless stated otherwise.

2** Doctoral Student in Political Science, Boston University,

3 The opposition in Venezuela emerges from the cooperation of political parties such as Democratic Action (AD), the Social Christian party (COPEI), Causa R, and Primero Justicia, in addition to important organizations such as the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce (FEDECAMARAS), and the Confederation of Workers of Venezuela (CTV). Later on the configuration of the opposition would shift and change adding and removing actors as it continued to antagonize Chávez and his policies.

4 This was a formal pact or political project, following the fall of Marcos Perez Jimenezs dictatorship, between Venezuelas three main parties, Acción Democrática, COPEI and Union Republicana Democrática to accept the result of the 1958 elections and to safeguard the democratic regime being inaugurated with it.

5 The enactment of 49 enabling laws by presidential decree in 2001, the failed coup of 2002, the general strike of 2003, the presidential referendum of 2004, the boycott of the legislative elections in 2005, the presidential election of 2006, the failed constitutional amendment of 2007, the successful constitutional amendment of 2009, the unification of all opposition factions under the MUD party in 2010, and the presidential election of 2012.

6 Although, the idea of an opposition ranges from hardcore opponents to those who remain undecided (ni-nis), the papers focus is limited to those factions that have actively participated in opposing Chávezs government.

7 Making use of this parliamentary authorization, in 2000 Chávez introduced a package containing 49 laws that covered six critical areas: economy, transport, service, infrastructure, science and technology, crime, and reorganization of his cabinet.

8 Mediated by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS), the Forum for Negotiation and Agreement was established in 2002 to attempt an agreement between the government of Venezuela and its supporters, and the Coordinadora Democrática and civil society. The parties agreed in May 2003 to call for a revocatory referendum.

9 Sumate is a non-profit civic organization created in 2002, which works to facilitate citizens participation, mainly in electoral processes. Sumate played a major role in collecting signatures for the referendum in 2004, and continued to organize, and participate electoral processes for the opposition until the present (Sumate, n.d.).

10 The MUD was instrumental in selecting single candidates for the upcoming legislative elections, as well as the organization of primary elections in preparation for the 2012 presidential elections.

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