What is Bolivarianism? This is a question that many analysts and investors are asking. Some people believe that it is a Marxist movement that seeks to change the economic landscape of Latin America. Some people believe that it is a movement to unify the region under a common command. Others believe that it is a class revolt to rectify the racial and social inequities perpetrated by 500 years of colonial and oligarchical rule. Bolivarian rhetoric is full of such concepts. However, it is none of the above. Bolivarianism is nothing more than a well coordinated movement that seeks to centralize all national power within the domain of a single individual through the use of populism.
There are several common characteristics of Bolivarianism. The first is the destruction of all independent political and economic institutions. The IMF, the World Bank and IADB spent billions of dollars during the 1990s to construct independent institutions across much of the developing world. The decentralization of power was meant to enhance the stability of developing nations. However, it also sapped the executive capabilities of national leaders, making them highly vulnerable during the crises that plagued the developing world at the turn of the century. Argentina was the most extreme example of a country in turmoil. It had five presidents during a period of two weeks. Ecuador was also wracked by political instability, and a strike PDVSA brought Venezuela to its knees. Electorates rejected the instability wrought by weak governments, and they clamored for powerful leaders. Therefore, it is not too surprising that the first thing that the Bolivarian leaders did was to lay siege to all independent institutions. They hijacked the legislatures, judiciaries and central banks. Powerful companies were nationalized, and major economic groups, such as soybean farmers and oil workers, were confronted.
The second common aspect is the heavy use of populism. Bolivarians are big on redistributive policies, providing direct handouts to the poor. However, they do not go far beyond that. There may be some showcase appropriations and nationalizations, but most acquisitions are well compensated. Moreover, there is no move to collectivism, as we saw in Chile during the early 1970s. Private enterprise continues to be the mainstay of the Bolivarian economies, with the leadership often having lucrative operations under their domain. The third important characteristic is the heavy use of the ballot box. Bolivarians are always in campaign mode, either through referendum, local elections or presidential contests. Bolivarian leaders always need the affirmation of the masses. They take their authority and legitimacy from the population. Despite some of the bent in the Western media, there is very little repression in Bolivarian societies. The press is often free to criticize, and most of the countries have active opposition groups. This is not meant to be a magnanimous gesture by the leadership. Bolivarians need a visible enemy to fight. In the case of Ecuador, there was no organized political opposition. Therefore, President Correa had to concoct a set of public enemies in the form of the prior officials who authorized the accumulation of Ecuador’s foreign debt. Bolivarians are like military generals on campaign. They are only useful, as long as they have an enemy to engage.
The last common trait is the need to remain in office forever. Bolivarian are here to stay, and they will introduce whatever constitutional reform needed for them to remain in office. Therefore, Marxism, regionalism and class warfare are nowhere on the Bolivarian agenda. They are some of the slogans that make up the rhetorical backdrop. While it is evident that leaders, such as Chavez, Humala, Correa and Morales are clearly identified as card carrying members of the Bolivarian movement, a close look at the common characteristics will show that Alvaro Uribe is a member in disguise. Unfortunately, Bolivarianism is centralizing so much power in the hands of a few individuals that eventual regime change will plunge the countries into a period of deep social instability.