Latin America, the populists vs the people

From Venezuela and Argentina to Bolivia and Ecuador, a political cycle is showing signs of exhaustion. But Latin American democracies have the resources to move beyond it. Español. Português.

Federico Finchelstein Fabian Bosoer
9 September 2015

Evo Morales, Nicolás Maduro and Rafael Correa. 2013. Flickr, some rights reserved.

We are witnessing the end of Latin American populism as we have known it in the last ten years. While other more nativist types of populism are thriving in Europe, Latin American populism is at the end of its recent cycle of popularity. In Venezuela, bad economic indicators jeopardise its expansion of social rights, while political rights and the existence of an independent press continue to be curtailed. This combination of crisis and repression makes President Nicolás Maduro’s regime more akin to classical authoritarian regimes of left and right, thus putting in question its characterisation as a populist one.

Some followers of Venezuela's government might prefer to try to undo its increasing hostility towards those whose disagree with Maduro. His predecessor, (Commander) Hugo Chávez, once accepted the result of a constitutional referendum even though the other side had won. Maduro - with his use of non-democratic means to affect electoral results, deporting of immigrants, and further restrictions on media - seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

Venezuela's experience is one signal of changing times. Populism is no longer what it was and will evolve further in the years to come. An important trend here is that the United States, populism's perennial antagonist, has joined the beginning of normalisation of relations with Cuba to a now long-lasting indifference towards the region (a trend augmented by Barack Obama's administration). But if the external enemy no longer acts as an enemy, what is populism to do? The answer is to turn on internal ones as it conceives them.

An example is the current diplomatic crisis between Venezuela and Colombia, which to a great extent is a result of Venezuela’s internal problems and in particular its government's use of nationalism and repression. The wounding of three Venezuelan soldiers in a confusing border incident was blamed by Venezuela on smugglers or Colombian paramilitaries; but the government in Caracas then inexplicably decreed a state of exception, closed the border, and deported 1,000 Colombians. More than 10.000 Colombians have in addition left the country from fear of deportation. Pope Francis expressed hope that the problem will be solved, while Argentina and Brazil are mediating between the neighbouring countries.  But why is a government famed for its promotion of Latin American integration now deporting citizens who have lived in its country for many years? And what does this say about its changing nature and populism's current condition?

The political limit

If populism can generally be defined as soft political authoritarianism given democratic legitimacy by elections, recent events in Venezuela show that populism is losing its "better half". Yet a deeper shift is responsible for the imminent decline of Latin American populist governments. 

Economics plays a big role. A cycle of economic expansion is ending, one that allowed many Latin American administrations to distribute incomes and social benefits among the middle and lower sectors of the population. This cycle initially allowed populist leaders (in Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere) to improve living standards and then see this advance revalidated by winning popular elections. But being in power for many years generated typical vices: personalism, clientelism, corruption, harassing of the press. Once economic conditions began to deteriorate, this context bred growing public dissatisfaction and dissent. As Now, the populist political formulae are trembling from within.

In recent weeks, gubernatorial elections in Argentina's important northern province of Tucumán were marred by the tampering and even burning of ballot-boxes. This situation was condoned by the administration of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in the capital, Buenos Aires. To be sure, what has become the rule in Venezuela is still an anomaly in Argentina. Yet it would have been unthinkable some years ago, when populist leaders won free elections and reaffirmed their democratic credentials with no need for such actions.

Argentina’s current leader, after her party lost congressional election, accepted that a proposed constitutional reform which would have allowed her to seek a third term lacked public support. She is now supporting a more moderate presidential candidate, Daniel Scioli, in the October 2015 election. Scioli tries, at times, to stress his independence from the rhetorical radicalism of the Kirchners (both Cristina and her late predecesor Néstor). All in all, Argentina is very different from today's Venezuela, and actions like ballot-box-burning will be harder to manage in the central provinces where most Argentines live, such as Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Santa Fe. In other words, Argentine populism will either remain as a democratic option with a more pragmatic take, or it will have to leave the scene.

In Bolivia and Ecuador, the ruling parties are trying to extend their cycle in power through indefinite presidential re-election. They are also strengthening the populist symbiosis between state, government and movement. Both countries have strong charismatic presidents in Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, but even they might have to accept that their concentration of power after a long time in government is causing increasing dissent and internal friction.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Guatemala's populist right-wing president, Otto Pérez Molina, was pushed to resign - then detained - after serious accusations of corruption. Guatemala's current political turbulence has local roots but it is also part of a broader trend.

The next cycle

The noted presidentialism of Latin American democracies is becoming a boomerang for  administrations that took advantage of it in times of economic bonanza. Coupled with social conflicts provoked by a prolonged recession, populist presidents find both their image and their poll numbers falling. They respond by blaming the usual suspects: United States conspiracies, national and international media, and the conservative right. But none is the cause of their primary problem. The problem is that the populist recipe of vertical leadership, with ruling parties far too used to keeping hold of power, is exhausted.

Populists who came to office to change reality end up as true conservative forces. They even adopt the traditionalist and nationalist language of the oligarchical power they promised to replace. Resented for their inability any more to deliver benefits, distrusted by ever wider social groups for corruption and other social harms, populists become defenders of an unacceptable status quo.

But there is also good news in this evolving story. Since the 1980s, Latin Americans have become adept at moving beyond these conservative-populist cycles without the ills of previous eras: US-sponsored institutional ruptures, gruesome military coups, and violent repression. Now that another cycle with all its disillusions is ending, the encouraging factor is that Latin American democracies and societies have far greater resources to reform their institutions and to remain active in defence of their civil, political and social rights. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData