Latin America's Populist Temptation

February 4, 2004 Topic: Domestic PoliticsPolitics

Latin America's Populist Temptation

This past October, Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was forced to resign as violent protests rocked the capital city of La Paz.

This past October, Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was forced to resign as violent protests rocked the capital city of La Paz.  The myriad groups committed to Sánchez de Lozada 's removal included disgruntled coca farmers displaced by US-supported crop eradication programs, miners unions, and assorted indigenous-based groups.  These disparate groups have been united by indigenous leader Evo Morales whose message of economic nationalism, anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism and anti-globalization resonates among Bolivia's poor population.  Morales deftly paints himself as the savior of Bolivia's indigenous peoples, ones neglected by a white government that long ago sold out the country to foreign economic interests and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. 

Evo Morales' populist rhetoric and policy prescriptions have fueled his rise to political power over the past two years.  In fact, though he lost (just barely) the presidential vote to Sánchez de Lozada in 2002, Evo Morales stands a good chance of winning the upcoming presidential vote, an event that would place Bolivia among the growing group of Latin American countries that in recent years have elected populist governments.  Needless to say, Bolivia is not the only country in Latin America where populism is making a comeback.  Elected presidents Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Lucio Guttiérez in Ecuador, Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva (or "Lula") in Brazil and Nestor Kirchner in Argentina have all been noted in varying degrees for their populist platforms.

The international media has often depicted these populist figures' electoral successes as a backlash against free market-based policies such as trade liberalization and privatization of public enterprises that are widely (and somewhat erroneously) known as the Washington Consensus.  And there is no doubt that an economic and political malaise has settled in Latin America, one marked by frustration with the lack of economic dynamism and employment that both democracy and economic liberalization were supposed to permanently provide to the region.  Yet, at the same time, there is something deeper than just a rejection of lower tariffs or privatizations that is driving Latin America's current turn towards populism. Indeed, there is an innate societal inclination towards populist leaders and policies, one that a charismatic leader such as Morales has tapped into so effectively.

What is more, the rise of the populist left in Latin America casts doubt on the belief held by many Beltway pundits and policymakers that democracy would lead to greater political stability. Rather, in what might be seen as the region's "democratic paradox", democracy's greater enfranchisement has thrown the political field wide open, clearing the way for the election of leaders who are either dubious or outright hostile to Washington's own political, economic and security interests in the region.

The Populist Preference


Since colonial times Latin America has exhibited both a temptation and even inclination for populist political figures and policies.  Populism in Latin America has been bipartisan - used by both political liberals (more often) and conservatives; it has also existed in both undemocratic (such as Argentina's Juan Peron in the 1950s) and democratic regimes (Peru's Alan Garcia in the 1980s).  Populist policies have historically been carried out by charismatic individuals who appeal directly to and mobilize the political participation of mass groups such as labor unions and the poor.

It was these leaders that promised to look out for the interests of the masses by directly providing jobs and rhetorical comfort; in return, of course, the population supported these leaders (in some cases such as Mexico under the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) they were not individuals but parties) with their votes and/or social mobilization.  Latin America's modern populism can perhaps best be summed up by the aphorism attributed to intermittent Ecuadorian populist José María Velasco Ibarra, "Give me a balcony and the people are mine." However, Latin American populism has rarely delivered on its lofty promises; in fact, populist policies have often ended up hurting most of the very sectors that it claimed to represent. 

While populism certainly helped Velasco's political career, all too often the expansionary monetary and fiscal policies implemented to provide promised services in the short run ultimately led to economic crises.  Populism's ambitions almost always rebuff the economic truth that "there is no free lunch." Nevertheless, populism and its comforting, paternalistic political leaders remained the most prominent societal narcotic for Latin America throughout its modern history.  This is not to suggest, of course, that only populist governments have poorly managed their economies.  For example, former Argentine president Carlos Menem's free market "miracle" in the 1990s eliminated the country's chronic hyperinflation almost overnight, but was predicated on the unsustainable accumulation of public debt, something that eventually sent Argentina's economy into a depression in 2001.

Today in Latin America, we have the paradoxical situation where many Latin Americans-especially the poor and desperate-continue to vote in democratic elections for populist leaders whose own democratic credentials are at times suspect and whose populist policies hurt the very groups that vaulted these individuals into office.  Take, for example, Alan García who, while wonderfully articulate and persuasive in promoting his nationalist and anti-imperialist views, ran Peru's economy into the ground.  During Garcia's five years in power from 1985-1990, Peru's economy accomplished the dubious feat of recording the country's highest inflation levels; millions of Peruvians moved into poverty and millions more moved from poverty into extreme poverty. Populism promised Latin Americans greatness but in reality provided inefficiencies, inflation and even more misery.