Week Thirteen: Towards an Uncertain Future

This week, I would like to focus on the topic of populism in Latin America. I choose this topic because I genuinely believe that populism is a very real threat to the democratic development of the region, and it shows no signs of subsiding. Indeed, Latin America remains consistent in its tendency towards populism, and whilst many elements of the region pertain to both continuity and change, populism is most definitely a continuity that Latin American politics is likely to see for a long time to come. More so than other regions, Latin America’s fixation on populist political leaders tends to come in widespread waves – at many instances in the 20th Century, it was suggested that populism had fallen out of favour and that it was unlikely the trend would ever return to Latin America. These projections all proved to be inaccurate.

“The Return of Populism, Latin American Style” – Javier Corrales, New York Times

This article discusses the ebbs and flows of populism in Latin America throughout the 20th Century, and notes that it is a political tool of mobilisation that may be utilised by either the right or left wing; the steadfast elements are (1) populist leaders mobilise excluded and disenfranchised groups and (2) they pose a threat to democratic institutions as populist leaders tend to invoke anti-establishment rhetoric. Many of the current populist leaders or contenders in Latin America today have honed in on a particular, pressing, and recurrent issue in their country that needs to be addressed. In the case of Iván Duque in Colombia, he has chosen security against guerrillas. In Mexico, Obrador has pinpointed on corruption and wealth distribution. Why is it that populism is so hard to shake in Latin America in particular? I personally would chalk it up to the region’s political tradition of caudillismo and the seemingly unfaltering social, political, and economic inequality, which creates a constantly disenfranchised peoples. However, Corrales also attributes populism’s continuity to external forces, particularly that of the United States. Given Trump’s inflammatory right-wing rhetoric towards Mexico, it is feared that left wing populism may take hold in the country.

“The 40 Year Itch: Populism and Polarisation Threaten Latin America – The Economist 

Whereas the previous article focuses on the conditions in which populism arises in Latin America, this article takes a very bleak approach to explore the autocratic tendencies of Latin American populist leaders in particular. According to Maxwell Cameron, Latin America is seeing the rise of ‘competitive authoritarianism’, wherein, despite using competitive, democratic means to come to power, populist leaders are expanding their presidential powers in a manner characteristic of authoritarian regime. This tends to be done by expanding their powers under constitution, and many populist presidents such as Maduro and Chavez have, upon being democratically elected, embarked on projects of constitutional rewriting. Whilst there is indeed a focus on such principles as the rule of law, security, ending corruption, and more equal wealth distribution, it remains that such a development of these democratic principles without the establishment of strong, liberal democratic institutions to protect them may be putting the cart before the horse.

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