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The Crooked Line: From Populist Mobilization to Participatory Democracy in Chávez-Era Venezuela

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This article challenges the widely held view that populist mobilization and participatory democracy are incompatible. Ethnographic data from Chávez-era Venezuela show that while populist mobilization cannot directly generate participatory democracy, it can set in motion a process that indirectly leads to this result: By creating but failing to fulfill expectations for participatory democracy and falling short in other ways, a poorly performing local populist regime can precipitate a grassroots backlash that, under certain circumstances, can lead to the election of a post-populist regime with the interest and ability to successfully implement participatory reform. My data show that this can occur in municipalities led by the Left or Center-Right, complicating the idea that successful participatory democracy requires a Left party.

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  1. I focus on populist mobilization to (1) highlight the dynamic character of the phenomena I analyze and (2) avoid the conceptual morass associated with the term populism, which as Ruth Berins Collier (2001) notes has been taken to mean everything from “authentic reform movements from below” to “demagoguery.”

  2. As Jansen (2011) notes, populist mobilization and clientelism—a politically discretionary form of resource distribution whereby “patrons” provide their “clients” privileged access to state resources in exchange for political allegiance—are analytically distinct, though often found together in practice.

  3. This centrality can be seen in numerous ways: the 1999 constitution’s promotion of “participatory and protagonistic democracy;” laws establishing nationwide participatory democracy and other forms of direct democracy; and Chávez’s, and other Chavista officials’, constant use of participatory rhetoric.

  4. There are numerous examples of this, including the PSUV (2007) and, on the civic front, Bolivarian circles (2001), local public planning councils (2002), urban land and health committees (2003), communal councils (2006), and communes (2009). The state has given these organizations massive resources; Torres officials say communal councils received four times the resources going to the municipal budget by 2010.

  5. This was a nationwide uprising provoked by IMF austerity policies imposed by a president who had campaigned against austerity months before. The spark was a rise in bus fares linked to a gas price hike.

  6. Rafael Caldera was one of the founders of COPEI but left the party to win the December 1993 election.

  7. This section draws on Margarita López Maya (forthcoming).

  8. But see García-Guadilla 2011 and López Maya and Lander 2011.

  9. Other scholarship on participation challenges this assumption: e.g. Baiocchi 2005; Baiocchi et al. 2011.

  10. Handlin 2013 makes a similar argument about how Chavismo links resource distribution to mobilization.

  11. This is likelier when voters have shown a willingness to punish parties lacking institutional coherence.

  12. Population figures come from Venezuela’s 2011 census, available at

  13. This is according to 2012 World Bank data:

  14. The INE’s 2011 census lists 600,351 inhabitants in Sucre. A government official in Sucre told me there were 1.5 million residents as of 2010–11. Wilpert (2007, 57) cites a figure of 1.2 million residents. Sucre’s population is 99.83 % urban ( Manufacturing is important in Sucre, and the greater Caracas area, which is seen as being “the country’s primary urban manufacturing center”: (9).

  15. The literature on deliberative democracy is voluminous. Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989) is a key work. Fung and Wright (2003, 17) write, “The essential feature of genuine deliberation is that participants find reasons they can accept in collective actions, not necessarily ones they completely endorse or find maximally advantageous.” Fung and Wright also discuss non-deliberative decision-making forms (18–20). See also Cohen and Fung (2004).

  16. As Przeworski and Teune (1970,35) discuss, this design treats ‘systemic’ factors as largely irrelevant if a relationship between a given independent-dependent variable is found to hold in quite different contexts. Becker (1998,252) discusses this issue as well using different language. My research design could also be understood as an example of Mill’s method of difference.

  17. Communal councils are civic associations that include 200–400 families in urban areas and 20–40 families in rural areas.

  18. Journalists play an important political role in Torres since local opposition parties are weakly organized.

  19. Literally “battle rooms,” the Salas are Chavista spaces bringing together multiple communal councils.

  20. Roughly half of these interviews were informal, and most are not cited due to space constraints.

  21. This leads me to characterize the Oropeza regime as an example of participatory populist mobilization.

  22. The relationship between the PPT and MVR/PSUV has been on-again-off-again in Torres and nationally. Chávez faced hostility from the MVR in his first 2 years as Torres’ mayor, but things then improved. In 2007, most of the PPT’s leadership, including Chávez, joined the PSUV. In 2010, the PPT adopted a “third way” position between the PSUV and opposition. Later a sector of the PPT went to the opposition and the PPT was internally divided for a time. Currently the “official” PPT seems to again be allied with the PSUV.

  23. All vote totals cited herein come from Venezuela’s Consejo Nacional Electoral (

  24. Chávez says one of his first acts in office was to rescind the lifetime pension provided to the head of the local Church. According to Chávez, his administration instead “gave this money to destitute old men.”

  25. Chávez says, “Things were undoubtedly rough during the first two years” of his term. He sees this as connected to the fact that, “We didn’t just defeat the opposition; we also defeated the President’s party.”

  26. I have been unable to get data on Torres’ project execution rate (i.e. the percentage of approved projects that have been completed). But residents appeared satisfied that projects approved via PB (i.e. all projects in Torres) had been, were being, or would be executed. For the 2009–2012 period Torres’ Alcaldía reports 1,204 projects executed, 76 % directly by communal councils. See

  27. The 100 % claim was repeatedly made in Torres; see also

  28. The USD amount listed was converted at the official rate of 2,150 bolivares:1 USD. At the black market rate of 2,700:1 this figure would be $5,416,876.

  29. According to Torres’ Alcaldía there are “over 560 active communal councils” in Torres (Alcaldía de Torres 2011, 48).

  30. Chávez told a 2007 student delegation, that I was on, ‘The mayor can’t even veto these decisions.’ Chávez and Zoila Vasquez both told me 10 % of projects in Torres’ first PB were for churches. Both of them did not like this but could not change it.

  31. This estimate comes from multiplying the number of communal councils by the number of people likely to have attended a PB community assembly in a given year. Using conservative estimates of 500 communal councils and 30 participants/assembly = 15,000. The actual figure is likely higher since (1) in the many non-PB communal council meetings I attended the minimum number of attendees was 30 and the max was 200–300, (2) attendance at PB-related community assemblies, which are likely seen as more important than “normal” meetings, was likely >30; and (3) Torres’ Alcaldía reports 560 (>500) active communal councils.

  32. This assembly, one of twelve I attended, was far from exceptional and chosen for illustrative purposes.

  33. Gimenez had a tense relationship with Julio Chávez, partly because she worked for Javier Oropeza. The similarity of her and the Alcaldía’s portrayal of Torres’ clientelistic past is therefore significant.

  34. I heard similar views in all the parish assemblies I attended and also from other Torres residents.

  35. Chávez and Carrasco’s success within the PSUV illustrate the party’s non-monolithic character. The PSUV’s radical Left current pursues policies that go far beyond (participatory) populist mobilization.

  36. Avalos’ father is Jose Vicente Rangel, a famous journalist and Venezuela’s vice president from 2002 to 2007.

  37. Griselda, a resident active in the CDCs, gives a similar account: “The goal was to work with communities and eliminate neighbors’ associations [seen as vertical/clientelistic], to put something that was horizontal.” Griselda says the CDCs were very inclusive, with “no distinction made on the basis of political colors.”

  38. For another account of the CDCs see

  39. I spent several weeks tracking down several Public Works officials who worked under Avalos (and then Ocariz) and had detailed knowledge of the department’s workings. These officials said none of the demands the department handled during Avalos’ time in office had come from a PB process.

  40. For information on this allegation see

  41. Term limits (removed in Venezuela in 2009) prevented Avalos from running for re-election in 2008.


  43. A report lists 965 tech assistance sessions and 30 community encounters in 2011:

  44. Ocariz’s economic development director has a planning PhD from MIT, several staff went to Columbia University, and other staff attended the UCV and other well-regarded Venezuelan universities.


  46. CNE results show that support for Primero Justicia doubled in some popular barrios during this period, and in many other barrios, Ocariz substantially increased his support from 2008 to 2013. A look at electoral results from these elections shows, however, that the PSUV received over 60 % of the vote in many popular barrios, with Ocariz winning in just a few barrios, while taking 80–90 % of the vote in wealthier areas of Sucre. For unclear reasons, Ocariz’s support amongst elites appears to have dropped in December 2013.

  47. I attended a standing-room only PB assembly in a middle-class apartment building in Fall 2010, an indication that some middle-class sectors are willing to participate in “popular power” experiments.

  48. The seemingly disparate elements of Ocariz’s worldview (e.g., reducing the state, promoting private enterprise, fostering citizenship participation) indicate that his ideology is best described as “revisionist neoliberalism,” which differs from orthodox neoliberalism in the importance given to participation and empowerment, alongside a concern with free markets and economic efficiency (Mohan and Stokke 2000).

  49. All of these municipalities (and many others in Venezuela) have PB, but research is needed to assess (1) how seriously PB has been pursued and (2) if this has led to popular control over political decision-making.

  50. This phrase appeared on PSUV posters throughout Sucre during the 2010 National Assembly election.

  51. In this period, the PSUV won by 10–60 % in the parishes of Caucaguita, La Dolorita and Filas de Mariches. The PSUV won in Petare, Sucre’s largest parish, in some years and lost by a relatively low margin in other years (e.g. 8 % in December 2013).

  52. Primero Justicia’s statutes: On ties to US see

  53. The reason Primero Justicia has adopted a counterhegemonic strategy is likely due, in part, to the relative youth of its leadership. As a result the party is (1) less bound to, and more able to critique, the pre-Chávez past, (2) more willing to use opportunities provided by Chavismo, and (3) more willing and able to adapt in the face of the failed opposition strategy, of intransigent rejection of Chavismo, pursued from 2002 to 2005.

  54. These figures come from a 2010 Transparencia Venezuela report (, which gives a good overall description of Sucre’s PB process. In 2010 4.3 VEF were equal to 1 USD (at the official rate).

  55. In a make-up assembly I attended there was only 1 official, but usually 10 or more officials were present.

  56. A few Technical Assistance sessions I attended had less officials and/or participants.

  57. These figures are provided in the Transparencia Venezuela report cited above.

  58. Ocariz likely meant annual, not cumulative, turnout, though this is not clear.

  59. This assessment is based on conversations with and observations of Oscar during several PB events.

  60. Maribel and Oscar represent the extremes of Fundasucre’s PB team. Of the 20-odd officials I met most had more interest in, and sometimes more experience with, participation than Oscar but less than Maribel.

  61. Sucre may be more polarized than Venezuela overall due to its importance to the PSUV and opposition.

  62. Fundasucre officials showed me a video in which Chavista activists disrupted a PB assembly in 2009.

  63. I met some Chavistas at 2010 PB events. Fundasucre officials also say Chavistas participated in 2010.

  64. I counted the number of Chavistas in the three assemblies I attended. A Fundasucre staffer provided counts from three additional assemblies. These assemblies did not seem noteworthy in any way, making it likely this trend of greater Chavista participation continued through 2011 (a non-election year with less polarization).

  65. Two officials from Fundasucre told me they would deny resources to communal councils participating in Sucre’s PB. Chavistas mentioned this, as did Sucre officials. But Chavista activists said they had participated in Sucre’s PB without encountering any problems, and some cited President Chávez’s comments that they should seek resources in opposition-controlled governments since “it’s our money.”

  66. Fundasucre leaders were very interested in fostering Chavista participation. In Sucre (and Torres) some low-level staff favored exclusion, but conversations with staff in both cities suggest this was rare and something higher-level officials sought to fix. Of the dozen zonal coordinators I spoke with in Sucre (out of 38), about a third favored excluding Chavistas. Fundascure leaders said they knew and wanted to stop this.

  67. I learned this by examining precinct results with the gleeful head of Sucre’s Office of Community Affairs a few days after the election. It is unlikely this increase was due solely to PB. But PB definitely helped Primero Justicia reach Chavista voters, which Ocariz/Primero Justicia officials knew and were happy about.

  68. Past elections can be categorized as competitive if (1) the incumbent party lost and/or (2) the margin of victory was <10 %. Both criteria hold for Torres’ 2004 election; the first holds for Sucre’s 2008 election.

  69. Both of these conditions were present in Torres’ 2004 and Sucre’s 2008 mayoral elections.

  70. This estimate is based on a random sample of CNE results from around 150 mayoral races in these years.

  71. For 2004 and 2008 see For 2013 see

  72. A google search of “Cocchiola presupuesto participativo”, and an examination of the Valencia Alcaldía’s website and other sites (an admittedly crude research strategy), turned up nothing participation-related for Cocchiola. For Ramos see Ramos’ use of a counterhegemonic strategy is almost surely linked to his political association with Henri Falcon, a Chavista-turned-opposition politician who, like Primero Justicia leaders, has long been a proponent of a counterhegemonic strategy. This suggests that a promising research strategy, to see if the PM-to-PD path can occur more widely, is to focus on municipalities that have switched from the MVR/PSUV to opposition parties that have embraced counterhegemonic strategies, such as Primero Justicia, Avanzada Progresista (Falcon’s party), and the PPT.

  73. This is analogous to what occurred in Brazil following the success of Porto Alegre’s PB, which was copied (often literally) in hundreds of cities in Brazil and across the globe (Baiocchi and Ganuza 2014:30).

  74. See

  75. On the constituent assembly see: On PB in Yare see:

  76. In 2006, Torres’ Julio Chávez became the only mayor named to Hugo Chávez’s Presidential Commission on Popular Power. In 2008 Marta Harnecker, a leftist writer prominent within/outside Venezuela, wrote a book on Torres. Chávez was praised by national Chavista leaders following the success of Torres’ PB. In 2007 then-vice president Jorge Rodriguez called Chávez a “deluxe mayor” ( Finally, radical Left activists I met traveling throughout Venezuela during my research, including some in Sucre, told me they knew of and admired Julio Chávez for his work in Torres.

  77. Sucre’s PB is prominently featured in a local government strategy document of the Mesa de Unidad (the united opposition political body), which argues that other opposition-run municipalities should follow Sucre: Opposition activists in Torres also told me they were impressed with what was happening in Sucre.

  78. A Correa official told Harnecker (2011, 157), “Itinerant cabinets [allow the government to] achieve a much closer dialogue with [local] authorities…[and] establish a political dialogue with the citizenry.”

  79. See, e.g. Ellner 2008; Fernandes 2010; Smilde 2011; Goldfrank 2011b; García-Guadilla 2011; López Maya and Lander 2011; Ciccariello-Maher 2013; Handlin 2013.

  80. The question of whether such reforms have succeeded has rarely been addressed. Amongst the few exceptions are Wampler (2009, 586), who finds that participatory budgeting failed when implemented by centrist and conservative parties in Recife, Brazil, and McNulty (2011, 128), who, to my knowledge, is the only scholar who has documented a case of successful participation implemented by a “right-leaning party” in Cusco, Peru. McNulty argues, however, that “political party” has “no explanatory power” (139), and refers to the politician who oversaw this successful participation as an “ex-leftist” (131).

  81. Heller (2001, 133) comes close to explicitly saying a Left party is needed for successful participation. Heller and many of these authors argue that an autonomous and mobilized social base is also critical.

  82. My comparison of Torres and Sucre suggests, however, that participatory reform is likely to be most successful in a relatively narrow and uncommon set of circumstances, where a non-populist Left party controls the municipal executive and is closely linked to a mobilized popular class base.


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This article has benefitted from the generous feedback of Michael Burawoy, Peter Evans, Laura Enriquez, Dylan Riley, Adam Reich, Laleh Behbehanian, Marcel Paret, Emily Brisette, Lina Hu, Siri Colom, Abigail Andrews, Kendra Fehrer, Dan Buch, Simon Morfit, Erik Olin Wright, David Smilde, Archon Fung, Fred Block, David Ost, the UC Berkeley Sociology Department Latin America Working Group and three anonymous reviewers for Qualitative Sociology. The National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the UC Berkeley Department of Sociology provided financial assistance for this research.

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Hetland, G. The Crooked Line: From Populist Mobilization to Participatory Democracy in Chávez-Era Venezuela. Qual Sociol 37, 373–401 (2014).

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