In Venezuela, we couldn’t stop Chávez. Don’t make the same mistakes we did.
By Andrés Miguel Rondón
Jan 27 2017
Donald Trump is an avowed capitalist; Hugo Chávez was a socialist with communist dreams. One builds skyscrapers, the other expropriated them. But politics is only one-half policy: The other, darker half is rhetoric. Sometimes the rhetoric takes over. Such has been our lot in Venezuela for the past two decades — and such is yours now, Americans. Because in one regard, Trump and Chávez are identical. They are both masters of populism.
The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior. Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.
That’s how it becomes a movement. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question. The problem is now made simple.
The problem is you.
How do I know? Because I grew up as the “you” Trump is about to turn you into. In Venezuela, the urban middle class I come from was cast as the enemy in the political struggle that followed Chávez’s arrival in 1998. For years, I watched in frustration as the opposition failed to do anything about the catastrophe overtaking our nation. Only later did I realize that this failure was self-inflicted. So now, to my American friends, here is some advice on how to avoid Venezuela’s mistakes.
• Don’t forget who the enemy is.
Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely.
What makes you the enemy? It’s very simple to a populist: If you’re not a victim, you’re a culprit.
During the 2007 student-led protests against the government’s closure of RCTV , then the second-biggest TV channel in Venezuela, Chávez continually went on air to frame us students as “pups of the American Empire,” “supporters of the enemy of the country” — spoiled, unpatriotic babies who only wanted to watch soap operas. Using our socioeconomic background as his main accusation, he sought to frame us as the direct inheritors of the mostly imagined “oligarchs” of our fathers’ generation. The students who supported Chavismo were “children of the homeland,” “sons of the people,” “the future of the country.” Not for one moment did the government’s analysis go beyond such cartoons.