Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century edited by Carlos de la Torre and Cynthia J. Arnson

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Photo: Lars Klove

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Legend has it that on his deathbed, Juan Domingo Perón, the former President of Argentina, uttered a curse condemning any would-be biographer to dedicate his or her career to defining populism. Or perhaps the curse was issued on the lost page of the late Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas’ suicide note, or slipped in among the bills in an envelope passed surreptitiously by Alberto Fujimori to some Peruvian legislator, or whispered by the recently deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez into the ear of his successor, Nicolás Maduro.

No matter. Whoever first uttered the curse, it worked: political scientists studying the region have wrestled and been obsessed with the concept for decades. We want to write about populism. Indeed, we need to write about it, because populism is among the most important and persistent phenomena in modern Latin American politics.

But because the populist label has been applied to such a broad array of phenomena, we are condemned to define it before we can embark on any serious analysis. Academic exactitude being what it is, this leads first to extended consideration of what others have held populism to be, followed by a self-perpetuating and seemingly inescapable cycle of judgment, distinction and justification.

Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Carlos de la Torre and Cynthia J. Arnson, does not escape the curse. Much of the volume is consumed by rehearsing the well-known facts. Leaders commonly designated as populist have:

  • Spanned the economic policy spectrum from expansionary statist redistributionists to privatizing deregulators;
  • Pulled support from varied and inconsistent constituencies—urban and rural, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, working and middle- class, but with smatterings of industrialists and boligarchs;
  • Sometimes built longstanding parties, whereas others left virtually no institutional footprints; and
  • Sometimes sought to re-found their nation’s political systems, whereas others have enfranchised previously excluded groups via corporatist inclusion into the existing system.

And as a couple of the authors in this volume note, if we expand our scope beyond Latin America, the meanings multiply further still. In Europe, populism is generally equated with nationalist, xenophobic political movements that do not even share the pretense of expanding political inclusion.

So what does this new volume on populism in Latin America add, in terms of conceptual clarity?

The chapters in the book are organized around two principal approaches. The first approach addresses populism’s relationship to broad themes such as the role of political parties, democracy and social policy in a comparative perspective. The second provides case studies that survey the populist experience in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia.

De la Torre and Arnson brought together an outstanding group of scholars for this project, so it is not surprising that the individual chapters are well-crafted and authoritative. Any observer of Latin American politics will find insight in Kenneth Roberts’ typology of political parties according to their posture toward neoliberal economics and their institutional stability; in Kurt Weyland’s assessment of the tension between dynamism in the creation of social welfare programs and their fiscal sustainability; in Cynthia McClintock’s distinctions between the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana’s (APRA) indifference to Peru’s ethnic divisions and the strategic overtures toward Indigenous Peruvians by Fujimori and then by Ollanta Humala; or in John Crabtree’s overview of how agrarian demands both fueled and were channeled by the distinctive populisms of Bolivia’s Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) in the 1950s and 1960s, then by Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) currently.

Almost all the chapters, however, also engage the question of what populism is and whether the concept is analytically fruitful.

Here, as usual, opinions diverge. In the course of an outstanding historical overview of Argentine Peronism, Hector Schamis advocates limiting the label to governments that pursue classic import substitution industrialization (ISI) policies. Most of the other chapters adopt a less restrictive posture. The authors appear to share a core belief that something binds Juan Perón of Argentina, Getúlio Vargas of Brazil, José María Velasco Ibarra of Ecuador, Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre of Peru, together with Hugo Chávez, Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, and even with Alberto Fujimori, Carlos Menem, and Fernando Collor de Mello (although probably not Álvaro Uribe). The challenge is to figure out what binds all these leaders together.

Certain words and images recur throughout these discussions: redemption, acclamation, solidarity, unity, agency, plebiscitary, unmediated relationship, charisma, and refounding are among them. But the common denominator is a politics of antagonism, pitting “the people” against an elite enemy (or network), rather than of pluralism, in which politics is the resolution of competing interests.

The basic idea of pluralism holds no expectation that politics could ever consist of anything other than competing interests because it regards society as made up of interests that are politically legitimate even if they are mutually at odds. In contrast, the common denominator among most contributors to this volume is that populism’s core characteristic is faith in the Rousseauian concept of an identifiable popular will that is elevated above others.

If a society, like an individual, has a will, then a leader who can articulate that will embody the society. As Eliécer Gaitán—a Colombian politician and leader of that country’s populist movement during the 1940s—is quoted in Francisco Panizza’s chapter: “Yo no soy un hombre, soy un pueblo” (“I am not a man, I am a people”). Among this book’s strengths are quotations like this, from leaders such as Perón and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, that highlight the confidence of both populist leaders and their acolytes in the elected leader’s ability to identify and pursue the specific will of the people.

And specific it often is. The best example of the presumed ability of a populist leader to divine the specific interests of his or her people can be found in the names and themes of the gran misiones Chávez launched in the run-up to his 2012 re-election campaign (reviewed in the chapter by Margarita López Maya and Alexandra Panzarelli). Some examples: de Amor Mayor (benefi ts targeted at elderly), de Vivienda (housing), de Casa Bien Equipada (subsidized household furnishings sold in misión stores) and Hijos e Hijas de Venezuela (financial support to teenage and single mothers and those of disabled children).

The motivations are unimpeachable, but the specificity of the targets also underscores the differences between them and universal policies like conditional cash transfer programs that apply uniform eligibility requirements and remain agnostic about how the transferred resources are to be used.

The misión version holds that the leader is uniquely qualified to determine how redistributed resources ought to be used (home furnishings!) in order to redress the injustices his national project seeks to correct.

In the end, I found myself persuaded that even a catholic conception of populism can be informative. The curse of homonymy (varied meanings for the same word) might be unavoidable when it comes to populism, but this is at least partly due to the creativity populists have exhibited in identifying their political enemies.

Opponents are always portrayed as elite and as reaping unfair advantage by their control over the state. But such villains might range from large landowners and industrialists to foreign traders and state employees—or even to those with formal-sector jobs. The diversity of populist coalitions reflects the diversity of their opponents, and the fluidity of populist rhetoric reflects the adaptability of the populist style. The more streamlined definition of populism—belief in the Rousseauian popular will coupled with confidence in the individual leader’s capacity to identify and embody it—is, in my opinion, more  analytically tractable, more widely applicable, and more relevant to our century.

Pluralists might not applaud it or want to encourage it, but you have to afford it at least a grudging admiration.

Tags: Populism in Latin America
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