On Sunday 6 November, I met the politically beleaguered president of the United States in Brasilia, a part of the Latin America the men in his position used to call their “backyard” but which now is slipping from their grasp. Fresh from losing the battle of the streets with Hugo Chávez (and the arguments over a Free Trade Area of the Americas) at the Summit of the Americas, George W Bush made an early departure from the Argentinean coastal city of Mar del Plata in order to fulfil several engagements in Brazil. These included meetings with his Brazilian counterpart, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, and with fifteen “young Brazilian leaders”.
I was one of the latter group: clearly, openDemocracy has readers in high places!
The event was fascinating on both a personal and intellectual level. We had the opportunity to talk with President Bush for almost an hour without the presence of the press, whose members left after the first few minutes of the meeting.
I took the opportunity to ask the president what he can do about being blamed by populist politicians in most Latin American countries for their own governments’ failure to improve their people’s living conditions.
In response, Bush talked for a long time – perhaps fifteen minutes. (Indeed, an unexpected aspect of the encounter was that the president gave elaborate answers to most of the questions – to a point where the allocated time was used up quickly by his contributions. On at least three occasions, the president and his staff murmured to each other about wrapping up the meeting).
His opening remark, very correctly made, was that he did not mean to lecture other people’s governments. Then he proceeded to do so, with three main points.
The first was to emphasise that religious organisations should be able to compete for public funds with official, social agencies; Bush used the word “compassion” a lot in advocating this idea.
The second was to recommend that “a good politician does not care about polls and public demonstrations. They are products of a democratic political life”.
The third was to declare that while the United States had no "missionary zeal" to spread democracy in the world, it did possess “a deep desire to help others assume a democracy that conforms to their traditions and their customs … because the world has seen that democracies do not fight each other."
The president went on to say that Brazilians should start thinking seriously about an education system. We should deliver, test it and make it work. When elected governor of Texas, Bush said that reform of the state’s education system was his priority. The pragmatic attitude he forged then continued in his next role:
“I think that it is why I have been re-elected as a president. I see a problem, I make a plan to handle it. I talk to people clearly about it and about my suggestion to solve it. I get elected and I put the plan into practice. People know who I am, what I do and what I will do”.
As the flow of words continued it struck me that President Bush, in marking out his difference from political leaders in the continent he was passing through, was also revealing that he might have more in common with them than he thought. A resemblance that refers back to one of the the most enduring of Latin America’s political traditions – one skilfully analysed by Celia Szusterman in relation to Argentina – namely, populism.
The populist trigger
By the third decade of the 20th century, after a century and more of existence, most Latin American republics were ruled by specific political formations that proved unable to guarantee minimum social benefits – basic education and health, equal access to justice and public security – to their citizens. Some “smart” politicians took advantage of this gap – by blaming an enemy and, in doing so, generating an idea which functions as a model for further political steps.
This is one version of a political chain that in Latin America is called “populism”. Its leading figures are drawn from left and right alike, and its recurrences – from the distance between inclusive promise and divisive performance, through the crushing of minorities in the name of majority rule, to the recourse to the plebiscite as a democratic instrument – are legion.
Many populist presidents are prominent in Latin American history. Even in recent times, they include Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil; Alberto Fujimori, who secured power by fighting terrorism in Peru (and is now on the comeback trail); and Carlos Menem, who aligned Argentina with Washington and internationalised the country’s economy in a way that proved catastrophic. Some authors call these political characters the “neo-populists” – the modern carriers of a tradition that includes nationalist stars as Getúlio Vargas and Juan Perón (who are in some ways the icons of the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez).
Today as in the past, many populists blame international actors and networks – the United States, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, international capital generally – for their country’s troubles: a very clear example of the Freudian “convenient other”.
But a glance at the contemporary political leadership of the United States – governing a society riven by grotesque inequality (as revealed by New Orleans after hurricane Katrina) and burdened by immense debt, which routinely targets official enemies and international agencies as sources of its ills – reveals uncomfortable parallels with Latin America’s populist politics.
George W Bush’s words in Brasilia had gloss. He declared himself in favour of outcomes in the hemisphere that are very widely shared: a place where children are well-educated; which is free from drug-dealers and terrorists; where people, goods, services and capital move freely; which is becoming united in order to face future competition with China and India. In short, the president’s declamations reflected the voice of a “mighty power” giving freedom to people – from outside and from above.
The message, and the politics of power that it embodies, can be recognised as a (rightwing) version of continental, American populism. Thus, behind the cordial conversation in Brasilia lies something else. No one who is as certain as George W Bush about people’s needs and how to serve them can long withstand the temptation to use violence to force people to recognise their true interests. Absolute certainty about all things always was one of the great engines of death and destruction.