The rise of the Dutertegarchs
“Being rich is bad,” thundered the Venezuelan populist Hugo Chávez a decade into his iconic rule in one of the world’s oil-rich nations. Under his “Bolivarian Revolution,” the soldier-turned-statesman promised to take the fight, on behalf of the disenfranchised Venezuelan masses, against “the oligarchy.”
Charismatic, passionate and an astute communicator, Chávez was the embodiment of 21st-century populism. The sheer force of his personality, coupled with the oil wealth of Venezuela and hyper-romantic notions of a modern Bolivarian Revolution, turned him into one of the most influential figures in the first decade of this century.
Through “Aló Presidente” (Hello, Mr. President), the famously unscripted propaganda talk show hosted by Chávez no less where ministers could get fired for reported incompetence, he captured the hearts and minds of tens of millions of masses in the country and beyond.
Long before US President Donald Trump’s Twitter diplomacy and President Duterte’s “Gikan sa Masa, Para sa Masa,” Chávez was the pioneer of cutting-edge, emotionally resonant and hyperentertaining populist communications. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Chávez was not just a wild card candidate who hit the electoral jackpot amid popular discontent against a corrupt elite.
His vehicle for political transformation was the “Chavismo” movement, which upended an electoral oligarchy that had allowed a few, mostly “white” mestizo elite, to gobble up the country’s immense hydrocarbon resources. He dismissed the Band-Aid populism of his predecessors, who provided a “‘couple of concrete blocks, a sheet of corrugated iron, a bag of food, a couple of cents” to keep the masses at bay, while preserving the fundamental systemic inequalities that bedeviled Venezuelan society. His vision of social transformation was not driven by class ressentiment, but by a fundamental sense of justice.
“I was shocked when I discovered the mass of poverty,” Chávez shared in his biography by Ignacio Ramonet, “Chávez: My First Life,” when asked about the roots of his radicalization amid the country’s oil boom in the late 20th century. “I never dreamed such unfathomable poverty could exist in Venezuela, one of the richest countries on the continent. I soon started wondering what kind of democracy this was, to so impoverish the majority and enrich a minority. It seemed to me unjust.”
Through “Petroleum socialism,” Chávez worked to have the country’s riches properly redistributed to ordinary countrymen. However, years before his demise, and the complete collapse of Venezuela into a failed state, there were already signs of trouble in his governance.
After he fired the remnants of the old regime, including capable managers and engineers overseeing the country’s oil industry, a pernicious form of what German sociologist Robert Michels called the “iron law of oligarchy” kicked in.
As political scientist Jan-Werner Müller observes, the art of populist politics is not only about “hijack[ing] the state apparatus” but also overseeing “corruption and ‘mass clientelism’ (trading material benefits or bureaucratic favors for political support by citizens who become the populists’ ‘clients’).”
Rising through the ranks primarily through political connections, a new breed of Venezuelan oligarchs emerged, the so-called “Boligarchs” (Bolivarian oligarchs), who relished large-scale business deals with new strategic partners such as China amid Chávez’s spats with the West.
Less than two decades later, a similar phenomenon is taking place across democracies overtaken by populist leaders, including in the Philippines. Over the past three years, a number of well-connected friends and allies of the current president, the so-called “Davao boys,” have come to dominate the country’s leading institutions.
To be fair, many of them were already successful, prominent businessmen and public servants under previous administrations. Some, however, would see themselves catapulted from relative obscurity to heavyweight status based on their degree of proximity to the man in Malacañang. The greatest winner of the new “Dutertismo” order is not only the President and his kin, but also folks like Sen. Bong Go, who has become the ultimate political gatekeeper in the country.
Few remark how Go, who had zero prior experience in elected office, managed to garner even more votes than Mr. Duterte (20 million) in the last elections, though of course they competed for different offices.
Or think of Davao businessmen like Dennis Uy, a top donor to Mr. Duterte’s campaign who has rapidly built a corporate empire in the last three years, now extending even to the country’s multibillion-dollar telecom industry in tandem with a Chinese state-backed company. As Erap once observed with characteristic cynicism: “Weather-weather lang ’yan.”
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