The Atlantic

How Populism Helped Wreck Venezuela

The story of how the country went from cheap fridges to no food is about more than socialism and corruption.
Source: Miraflores Palace / Reuters

What’s the problem with populism? Why, in some circles, has the term acquired such a negative connotation? After all, you could argue that populism is simply the promotion of popular ideas with which elites disagree. You could think of it as a movement to uproot a political establishment that has become unresponsive to the public. But populism can also be described as a political logic by which politicians claim to exclusively represent the righteous people in a struggle against the corrupt elite. And the hazards of adhering to that logic are on display right now in Venezuela.

Hugo Chavez, the late leader of Venezuela’s socialist revolution, once provided his people with subsidized refrigerators from China, appearing on television in a mock kitchen to personally cross out the “capitalist” price tag on a fridge and write in a “Chavez discount.” Now his successor’s people have little to refrigerate. Three-fourths of Venezuelans reported involuntarily losing an average of 19 pounds in 2016 because of rampant food shortages and runaway inflation, which is making basic goods unaffordable. A third of Venezuelans reported eating two or fewer meals a day last year—triple the number recorded a year earlier. Child malnutrition has reached crisis levels.

From a spiraling health emergency to creeping political anarchy, Venezuela is in the

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