Rafael Correa claims victory, 2013. Demotix/Sandra ten Zijthoff. All rights reserved.The first 15 years of the twenty-first century have generally been quite positive for Latin American economies. This has been due, to a great extent, to the rising price of most exports, which in turn has produced an improvement in tax revenues that different countries have used to reduce disturbing poverty levels. Oil has regularly exceeded $120, but high prices for natural gas, copper and soybeans have also helped the economies of these countries to grow vigorously and to improve the living conditions of their people.
It seems, however, that the continent is capable of exporting more than just commodities. Together with the economic good times linked largely to rising exports, we are currently witnessing an unusual phenomenon from a historical perspective: Latin America is beginning to export political practices and ways of doing things.
It is difficult to say at what historical moment left-wing populism became a plausible form of government in Latin America. Arguably, it all began on 6 December, 1998, when Hugo Chávez’s Patriotic Pole won the presidential elections in Venezuela. It should be borne in mind that the seed for this surge had already been planted following the country’s failed coup in February 1992. Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador followed suit and reached the highest political office in their respective countries.
During a period of economic growth and rising leftist movements throughout the region, this brand of populism expanded readily. But it seemed at the time, a special, exclusively Latin American phenomenon.
This changed in 2014. The emergence of Pablo Iglesias in Spain at the European elections early that year and the subsequent rise of Podemos in the opinion polls raises an issue that most social scientists did not anticipate: what we are witnessing here is a mutation and re-adaptation of these particular ways of doing politics outside South America and this is being offered as a potential government option, and not just as a new party bearing witness or even a fraction within an existing party.
To describe Iglesias’s party and its rising popular support in the past months, one should take into account some contributory factors that explain a phenomenon currently puzzling not only the leaders of the three traditional national parties in Spain (Popular Party, Socialist Party and United Left), but also the sociologists who are struggling to design election polls which can deliver results with some guarantees.
It is agreed that Podemos emerges in the context of four key elements which determine the current Spanish political reality: an unemployment rate verging on 25% of the workforce; a hidden generational conflict stemming from stratospheric rates of youth unemployment; popular opposition to the public-spending cuts undertaken first by the Socialist Party and then, in depth, by the Popular Party in the name of budget consolidation; together with the prevailing corruption and the perception of its pervasiveness by a growing number of citizens increasingly disaffected with the political establishment.
This is the fertile ground from which Podemos springs. But we must add to this the political tools that Podemos is using to take advantage of the situation. This is where the adaptation of Latin American leftwing neo-populism comes in.
The first thing to say about Podemos is that it is an organization characterized by ambiguities. Iglesias says certain things and then undoes his words; he is assertive and then softens his stance. His discourse fluctuates and is veiled under a mysterious mantle calculated to throw analysts off-balance, in a manner that might remind us of the 1998 interviews of Jaime Bayly and Oscar Yanes, in which an apparently tamed and moderate Hugo Chavez busied himself with disowning measures he later went on to implement.
In the clearings that are left in the midst of Podemos’s ambiguous discourse, a purely anti-establishment party can nevertheless be seen to emerge, a party that bases its campaign strategy on standing ‘against’ and gains followers from the prevailing disaffection. Its neatly vertical structure, headed by trained social scientists, conducts a flawless strategy aimed at accessing power (Iglesias himself holds a master degree in political communication) through the development of a post-Marxist discourse that blurs the class struggle (the traditional political engine of the Left) and fills it with concepts of social inclusion without losing a bit of its belligerence.
Imprecise concepts such as "caste" (heir to the Venezuelan term "oligarchy"), the "Troika" and "Empire" are used as scapegoats for all ills and have become regular reference points in Podemos’s political program, a program that finds it difficult to field policy proposals because of its preference for this barrage of in-depth analysis.
Despite the many connections between some key members of Podemos and Bolivarian Venezuela, perhaps the real model of the approach here, both in terms of its internal operation (a strong charismatic leader, allegedly only the "simple spokesperson" of a party created on his shoulders) and its external activities, is not Venezuela but rather Rafael Correa’s Ecuador.
Doubts regarding the payment of sovereign debt, the statist and aggregate-demand economic proposals based on the Ecuadorian president’s (neo)extractivist and (neo)developmentalist beliefs, trade protectionism and dubious claims on press freedom, offer clear similarities with the stance of Podemos. This being so, however, Correa’s statist policies are riding on an upward cycle of raw materials, where oil revenues, if high, can sustain an oversized public sector in a country where per capita GDP is just over $6,000. Two key questions arise from this comparison: Would it be possible to maintain such policies with the barrel of oil at half the price? And how could you implement such policies in a highly indebted country such as Spain, without major natural resources, with a per capita GDP which is several times Ecuador’s, an aging population and no control over its monetary policy? At first appearance this seems very unlikely.
The fact remains that in December 1994, Hugo Chávez, recently-released from prison, traveled to Havana where he received the “political blessing” of a still-active Fidel Castro. Twenty years later, in October 2014, Iglesias made a Latin American tour during which Evo Morales called him “the hope of our Spanish brothers”. Although, at this point, a landslide victory for Iglesias at the forthcoming elections may seem unlikely, a blessing has been bestowed: leftwing Latin American neo-populism has crossed the ocean.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Asuntos del Sur.