The Will to Security: Populism and the Politics of Crime in Venezuela

Authors: Robert Samet*, Union College
Topics: Latin America, Political Geography, Cultural Geography
Keywords: Populism, security, crime, Venezuela
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 4:30 PM / 6:10 PM
Room: Empire Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Populism is a notoriously unstable phenomenon. This instability has been on display in Venezuela where the Bolivarian Revolution has gradually shifted right on a number of issues, among them violent crime. Venezuela has the highest homicide rate in South America and one of the highest levels of gun violence in the world. Despite these problems, the late President Hugo Chávez rejected a tough-on-crime stance and instead emphasized programs of economic justice. In contrast, Chávez’s handpicked successor, President Nicolás Maduro, declared an all-out war on crime, one that targets already marginalized communities. What accounts for this abrupt shift in the politics of security? Why did a political movement that sought to protect the poor suddenly embrace a punitive paradigm that targets some of the country’s most vulnerable sectors? This paper describes how the experience of violent crime reshaped attitudes toward security in Venezuela. Building on ethnographic research alongside crime journalists in Caracas, it formulates a broader argument about the relationship between populist mobilization and what I call “the will to security.” I show how the will to security articulates a particular strain of populism that is closely linked to both neoliberalism and the expansion of the kind of revanchism that Neil Smith describes. This conceptual framework allows us to better understand the shifting politics of crime in Caracas. Specifically, it explains how demands for more and better security went from being an oppositional strategy during the Chávez era to a political strategy that was embraced by the Maduro administration.

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