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The sum of all fears in Latin America

Arthur Ituassu
7 May 2006

"(As) a way of protest, I begin...a hunger-strike as a last resort in defence of the truth that is being hidden from the Brazilian people...My quest will not cease in face of the greed and the hate of the enemies of the people. I count on God, on the prayers of all, and on the power of the Brazilian people to confront this moment."

These are the words of Brazilian presidential candidate Anthony Garotinho, who started a greve de fome (hunger-strike) on 30 April to protest against media allegations of illegal campaign financing. Thus did Garotinho – candidate of the centrist Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement / PMDB), a former governor of Rio de Janeiro state and the husband of the current governor, Rosinha Garotinho – create an echo of former Brazilian president Getulio Vargas and "father of the poor", whose suicide in August 1954 consolidated the myth of populism in Brazil.

Garotinho was hitting out at what he called a campaign by the media, banks and the government to destroy his chances in Brazil's elections of October 2006. The Rio-based newspaper O Globo recently reported that Garotinho had received $310,000 in illegal campaign funds from companies later given state government staff-training contracts. The hunger-strike, he said, was meant "to protest the campaign of slander and lies unleashed to destroy my image as a public administrator and to ridicule my Christian and ethical positions". He called for international supervision of the electoral process "to guarantee equal treatment to all candidates."

Garotinho began his protest just before Bolivian president Evo Morales announced on 1 May that he intended to nationalise his country's energy sector, and a few days after the Brazilian leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wet his hand in oil to celebrate Brazil's supposed self-sufficiency in the production of the black gold. Lula's gesture also reflected a popular one by Vargas in the 1950s, when he inaugurated Petrobrás, the Brazilian state oil company.

Big or small acts such as these – observed too in Hugo Chávez's Venezuela and in Néstor Kirchner's Argentina – are part of the populist political ideology. In contrast to the "neo-populists" of the 1990s – former presidents Fernando Collor de Mello of Brazil, Carlos Menem of Argentina and Alberto Fujimori of Peru – who took liberal approaches to the economy, the current populists have gone back in history to incorporate another strong Latin American ideology: nationalism. Together, the two ideologies represent the sum of all fears in the region, producing and reproducing the big diseases of the local political environment: social, political and economic instability and inequality.

It is very difficult to reach a consensus about what populism is. However, there is some agreement that the classical populism of the 1930s and 1940s was a political movement based on the state (the bureaucracy), the army and parts of the organised working classes. These three vortexes always identify both internal enemies (the elites, the bankers, the employers, the media) and external ones (the United States, international capitalism, international finance, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund). They usually blame their enemies for the problems of their political base and promote a "revolution", a structural one, to change this situation.

The neo-populism of the 1990s changed some of these concepts. It was able to get closer to workers in the informal sector of the economy who were unprotected by labour legislation. The tendency blamed its own state and bureaucracy for society’s problems, but never distanced itself from the army; after all, to affect structural and institutional change, it is helpful to have the army on one’s side.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro. His website is here

Also by Arthur Ituassu on Brazil in openDemocracy:

"Lula and Brazil: new beginning or dead end?" (May 2005)

"A big mess in Brazil" (June 2005)

"Lula: the dream is over" (August 2005)

"Brazil: never the same again" (October 2005)

"Farewell José, farewell 2005"
(December 2005)

"Lula's flame still burns" (January 2006)

"Lula in London"
(March 2006)

"Brazil's next winning team" (March 2006)

Beyond left and right

The "new populism" of Chávez and Morales – and in some ways that of Kirchner and Lula – differs from the neo-populism of Collor, Menem and Fujimori in the way it brings nationalism back to politics. This is an ideology that seeks to reinforce the state in the centre of the political, economic and social life. For nationalists, the state is the engine of the revolution against the bankers, the media, the elites and, of course, the United States.

This is where nuclear-weapons projects appear. This is where the "national interest" is cited for everything – to buy airplane companies with public money or to send someone to walk in space.

In Latin America, in general, the problem of ideologies does not lie in the correctness or mistakenness of the policies implemented, but in their reproductive nature. Far from helping, they disturb the constitution of a common and equal political community around an accepted authority.

Those platforms give rise to an environment of instability by creating strong internal divisions (as in Venezuela and soon to be in Bolivia), by disrupting the political institutions and by blaming internal and external enemies for problems that – most of the time – are reinforced by the process of radical change. Such an environment does not help to solve the problems of the poor; rather, it reproduces the traditional injustices of the region in an inverted way, changing only those who are benefit.

That is why one can never see a populist calling for the public basic needs that can constitute a common political community based on respect for a shared authority: education, health, security, equal access to justice. Needless to say, if a platform like this did succeed it is likely to mean the very end of populism. In this sense, Latin American countries are still running to catch Thomas Hobbes and his theory of human nature as self-interested cooperation.

"Populism" is very flexible and can adapt itself to different agendas on the right (neo-populism) and the left (populism-nationalism) of the political spectrum. However, by disturbing the institutional environment to reach its objectives – causing great problems and tensions in terms of foreign policy and creating strong divisions within societies – populist agendas both produce and reproduce the problems they say they want to end. This is not a matter of left or right, but of both.

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