The fall of the Populists: The churn in Latin America

Populists are losing ground in Latin America. Their decline started in Argentina with the fall of Cristina Kirchner and her Front for Victory coalition in 2015. It followed with Brazil and the influence peddling charges against former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that put a dent in his hopes of a reelection to the presidency in 2018. It gained momentum with the defeat of Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party in the Venezuelan National Assembly elections. And it will conclude with the end of Evo Morales’s uninterrupted ten-year presidency in 2020 after a Bolivian referendum earlier in February refused to amend the constitution to allow Mr. Morales to run for a fourth term. Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian president who has stayed in power since 2007, stands alone as the only non-embattled populist in the continent, but he will have to step down in 2017 once his term is finished. The legacy Latin-American Populists leave behind them is a legacy of rampant corruption and inability to deliver on the promises made at the beginning of their administrations. After a decade of dominant populism in the region, voters decided it was time to move on.

LatAm’s leaders have faced troubles this year. Source:

When discussing Latin American populists, perhaps the greatest difficulty is to define what “populism” itself really means. The word “populist” is abused in everyday conversations and usually takes the connotation of politicians seeking popularity by provoking and inciting varied emotions within voters. In Latin America more specifically, it is not uncommon for “populist” to be used interchangeably with “leftist” due to the rise of rambunctious left-wing leaders in the past decade. And yet, neither definition is completely correct. Perhaps “populism” is best defined not as an ideology but rather as a set of traits a leader either has or lacks. Charismatic leadership and dazzling oration skills are the trademarks of a populist; a populist is a politician who, in the words of the famous Ecuadorian populist Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra, “when given a balcony to speak, he will become president.” In this sense, populism cannot be associated with any ideology; on the contrary, it is an accessory to promote an ideology and therefore its form varies from region to region. The rural Midwest populism epitomized in William Jennings Bryan in the United States at the end of the 19th century, for example, has no similarities to the urban, anti-capitalist populism that emerged in Latin America between the 1930s and the 1960s. And even though populism in Latin America is currently associated with leftism, it has not always been the case. Historically speaking, the first populist wave to hit Latin America in the 1930s brought leaders and dictators who positioned themselves rather to the right side of the political spectrum, such as the two fascism-sympathizers Juan Peron in Argentina, and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil; and the conservative Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador.

The association with leftism that is now witnessed in the region is the product of the rapid industrialization process that Latin America underwent during the 1950s and 1960s that engendered disparaging inequality, a problem that persists in Latin America up to this day. Most of the populist leaders currently heading the Latin American states grew up in societies scarred by the inequality created by the industrialization of the region. The most famous populist leaders, namely Mr. Lula da Silva, Mr. Morales and Mr. Chavez, grew in extreme poverty and developed not only wariness towards capitalism but also an infatuation towards Socialism and Marxism. Not surprisingly, Mr. Lula da Silva and Mr. Morales became union leaders who campaigned vigorously against capitalism and globalization prior to rising to the presidency. Mr. Chavez, from his part, became a military officer who explicitly denounced the free-market policies of the United States and expressed his support for Bolivarianism and Marxism.

Ten years ago, populist leaders seemed to be on a meteoric rise to the presidency and looked set to consolidate themselves for the unforeseeable future. In Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had just been reelected to his second term with a confortable margin from his adversary Geraldo Alckmin; in Bolivia, Evo Morales had just won his first presidential election; in Ecuador, Rafael Correa had just made history as the first leftist president since Ecuador became a democracy in 1979; in Argentina, Cristina Kirchner’s popularity was riding high as she prepared herself for the 2007 general election to replace her deceased husband, Nestor Kirchner, in the presidency; and in Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had just lost the presidency by the narrowest of margins to his opponent Felipe Calderon. The success of these leaders, coupled with the victory of Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Taboré Vasquez in Uruguay soon spurred talk of a “pink tide” sweeping Latin America, as the majority of countries had just elected either left or center-left candidates as presidents. But fast-forward ten years into current days and many have started to wonder whether the “pink tide” has started to turn.

An old infographic maps out the “Pink Tide” Image source: Geocurrents

     All evidence indeed points to the comeback of center-right and right-wing candidates to the presidency in Latin America, especially after the victory Mr. Macri pulled against the candidate from Ms. Kirchner’s Justicialist party to end more than a decade of Kirchnerism in Argentina. Add to that the apparent collapse of the Workers’ Party in Brazil and the unlikelihood of Mr. Lula da Silva running for a third time in 2018; the adverse outcome of the Bolivian referendum to Mr. Morales; and the collapse of the Maduro administration in Venezuela and suddenly leftism looks rather frail in the region. However, the most important phenomenon happening in Latin America lurks beneath the sudden turn in the “pink tide.” It is the end of yet another cycle of populists in Latin America.

Why did the populists fail again?

     The failure of populist leaders in Latin America can be attributed to many different factors. The most important one however is their inability to deliver on the promises made at the beginning of their terms. Candidates with allegedly messianic messages seduce voters with unrealistic promises of a better country. Promises to crack down on corruption, reduce poverty and remove “oligarchies” from power are common topics in the inflammatory speeches of many populists. Ironically enough, corruption scandals, poverty and new “political oligarchies” are the legacy the governments of Mr. Lula da Silva, Mr. Morales, Mr. Chavez and Ms. Kirchner are leaving behind.

Rampant corruption has become the norm for populist politicians that claim to govern for the majority of the people. Venezuela ranks dead last among Latin American countries in Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index”, as politicians from Hugo Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela face charges of association with the narcotraffic. In Brazil, Mr. Lula da Silva’s administration has been forever tarnished by the Mensalão vote-buying scandal in 2005; furthermore he himself is currently facing charges of influence peddling as part of the investigations of Operation Carwash. In Argentina, Ms. Kirchner is currently responding to the charges of fraudulent derivatives trading at prices below the market-price, not to mention the campaign-financing Maletinazo scandal that haunted the beginning of her first term in 2007. Even Mr. Morales, the most sensible of all populists finds himself answering charges of influence peddling and embezzlement after the discovery of an affair he had with a businesswoman in 2005. It seems that for all the anti-corruption talk before election, everything is immediately forsaken once the presidency is achieved and gives way to administrations filled with corruption scandals and imprisonments of upper echelon politicians. Corruption is not endemic to the administration of populist leaders, the corruption charges against Mr. Macri in Argentina and Ms. Bachelet in Chile prove so much, but it seems corruption breeds more organically under populist governments.

There are also the promises to remove “oligarchies” from power and create a more majoritarian government. The problem is that populist leaders have a tendency to mislabel anyone that opposes them as “oligarchs.” They may, and often do, engage in ideological manipulation techniques to try to stir up support for their policies and rile up the people against their opponents. In the end, what populists label an “oligarchy” in many cases actually represent the majority of the population that does in fact oppose their policies. Furthermore, in an effort to remove the old “oligarchies” from power, populists and their parties inevitably create a new “oligarchy” as they often engage in illicit vote-buying and campaign-financing schemes to hold on to power. Such was the case with Mr. Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party in Brazil and with Mr. Chavez and his United Socialist Party in Venezuela.

The commitment to reducing poverty however is a genuine concern for populists, but they often fall short on delivering on their promise, at least in the long-run. The problem with promises to reduce poverty lies in the inability of populist governments to take the next step once the poverty line is crossed. Social welfare programs such as the Bolsa Familia program Mr. Lula da Silva created in Brazil are responsible for helping millions cross the poverty line in the short-run. The issue is that they are a short-term solution and nothing more. For all the pomp in the speeches about reducing poverty and providing assistance to the poor, populists often lack ideas to ensure the aided do not regress back to poverty in the long-run. When the poverty line is crossed, the people yearn for more than simple subsidies; they want the assurance they will not revert back to poverty, and that is something populists are unable to deliver.

The failure of populist leaders in Latin America can also be attributed to the weakening of their parties and the consequential rise of strong adversarial coalitions within their respective countries. Populists rise to power based on their charisma and oratory skills that translate into a direct bond with the masses. In this sense, their path to the presidency consists of personal movements rather than well-organized parties. As a result, populists concentrate too much power in their hands during their presidencies and their political parties become hostages to their success. This makes the creation of an adversarial coalition much easier to be created. Once the populist’s presidential term is over, the handpicked successor from within the party does not measure up to his/her predecessor and cannot emulate either their charisma or the oratory skills; as a result, the successor will either lose the general election or perform dismally as a president. The first outcome happened in Argentina after Ms. Kirchner’s handpicked successor Daniel Scioli lost the 2015 general election. The second outcome is currently happening in Brazil and Venezuela as Dilma Rousseff has been suspended for the presidency for 180 days following the impeachment charges against her, and Nicolas Maduro has just declared a state of emergency in Venezuela.

The fall of populist leaders such as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Cristina Kirchner, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa will bring to an end yet another populist cycle in Latin America. But it certainly will not be the last one. The stark inequality that has always plagued the region impedes the success of reforms and facilitates the rise of messianic leaders with promises of a better country, but whose ideas in reality usually exacerbate the ills already present in the region. There is reason to be hopeful though. After a decade of ineffective leadership, questionable policies and outrageous corruption scandals, Latin America has finally caught a break from populism. It should use it to its fullest extent to fix the damage caused by the populists and ensure the region is at least better equipped to deal with the next populist cycle.

Lucas Silva Lopes

Lucas was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, having lived there for fifteen years prior to moving to the United Kingdom, where he currently resides. At the moment, Lucas is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science with a minor in economics at the University of Connecticut in the United States.

His research interests lie in the fields of political economy and economic history of Latin America. At the moment, he is conducting research for his honors thesis on presidential challenges in Latin America since 1978 and the political and socioeconomic consequences they bring to each country.

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