There is no doubt that Chávez deployed populist rhetoric involving race, class and nation, just as Trump has done. But beyond populist language, the parallels between Chávez and Trump quickly evaporate.
To begin with, Chávez and Trump have entirely dissimilar backgrounds. While Donald Trump’s father became wealthy in real estate and initially funded his son’s business endeavors, Chávez’s parents taught elementary school in a rural area. To escape to the capital city of Caracas and pursue a baseball career, Chávez joined the Venezuelan military.
During his campaign for the 1998 elections, Chávez ran on a populist platform, criticizing the Venezuelan oligarchy, encouraging participatory democracy and promoting the construction of a new constitution that would include all citizens.
After Chávez won the election, his government did write a constitution that for the first time recognized the country’s Afro-Caribbean and indigenous populations. Among other measures, the constitution allowed for intercultural education, recognized indigenous languages and designated three positions for indigenous persons in the National Assembly. Chávez also discussed his Afro-Caribbean and indigenous heritage during public speeches, lending symbolic significance to this heritage in a country that had long featured white political leaders.
This recognition and even celebration of racial and ethnic minorities finds little parallel in Trump’s campaign. Trump has supported stop-and-frisk policies that a federal court found to be racially discriminatory and condoned violence against Black Lives Matter protesters at his political rallies. In fact, the better comparison to Trump is the racially charged imagery used to denigrate Chávez and his supporters.
Trump has also periodically called for immigration policies targeting Muslims and has renounced the idea of bringing Syrian refugees into the country. In stark contrast, Chávez often referred to Middle Eastern citizens as brothers of the Venezuelan people, and he provided food, medicine and other aid to Palestine and Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. In recent years, Chávez’s successor has also offered to take in as many as 20,000 Syrian refugees.
The difference between Trump and Chávez mirrors the difference between what scholars call exclusionary and inclusionary populism. That is, while some populists — like Trump — have drawn lines between native-born citizens and immigrants, other populist leaders have sought to include and empower marginalized or vulnerable populations.
The differences also extend to economics. While Trump has advocated reducing taxes for corporations and the wealthy, Chávez imposed greater state control over corporations and prioritized the poor. In 2001, for example, Chávez passed legislation that allowed the state to expropriate idle land held by large rural landowners and redistribute it to Venezuelan peasants and cooperatives. Chávez also gave the government complete control over the oil industry. With the large oil profits in the 2000s, the Chávez government targeted extreme poverty, illiteracy and substandard housing.
Given these policies, it is curious that more analysts have not drawn parallels between Chávez and Bernie Sanders. Of course, when a super PAC allied with Hillary Clinton pointed out that Sanders had worked with the Venezuelan government on its distribution of heating oil to low-income communities in the United States, Sanders quickly, and mistakenly, lambasted the attempt “to link [him] to a dead communist dictator.”
In the end, there is little substantive similarity between Chávez and Trump. With the Venezuelan economy in a free fall and the Venezuelan government appearing more inept than ever, the urge to compare Trump to Chávez appears hard to resist. These comparisons, however, obscure much more than they illuminate.
Timothy M. Gill is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research at Tulane University, and his research examines U.S. foreign policy toward Venezuela under the Chávez government.