November 27, 2019 · 12:13 pm
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.
September 24, 2019 · 4:40 am
Another course I am currently undertaking relates to the concept of nationalism (in the context of modern Asia), and suggests that nationalism is only a recent trend born from decolonisation movements. Previously, I had only really associated decolonisation with that of South-East Asia and Africa in the mid-20th Century, which makes the context of Bolívar’s piece particularly interesting. What struck me most in his letter was his reference to Montesquieu writings that “it is harder… to release a nation from servitude than to enslave a free nation.” Retrospectively, it is easy to say he was erroneous in this claim (given the history of decolonisation), however, in the context of 1815 Latin America, precedent was not in favour of liberation or independence.
After having completed the relevant readings for this week, I was particularly intrigued by the construction of identity in various independence narratives, especially with regard to the ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Of course, independence movements require mobilisation, which in turn itself requires a process of increasing consciousness and catalysing action. In nationalism, the way in which this tends to be done is by strengthening the collective understanding of ‘us’ as well as ‘them’. In Bolívar’s letter, it is clear that ‘us’ refers to the aggrieved people of Latin America, having shared history and trauma. However, our perceptions of ourselves are also strengthened by our understandings of who we are not – the ‘other’ (in this case, “that unnatural stepmother – Spain”.
Again, in Martí’s ‘Our America‘, he draws the distinction between ‘us’; the inhabitants of the New World, and ‘them’; the inhabitants of the Old World (including the often-forgotten Indians that Bolívar himself made no allusion to) by alienating the Europeans, with their “puny arms, with bracelets and painted nails, the arms of Madrid or of Paris,” as well as the Americans who have enjoyed “four centuries of free practice”. His piece is very much a call to arms, and whilst at times frustrating to read, his voice is at others very beautiful, emotive, and provokes action. He makes an argument for a sort of ‘Latinisation’ of the elites and ruling officials in Latin America, and mythologises the shared history of Latin America (“A priest, a few lieutenants, and a woman built a republic in Mexico upon the shoulders of the Indians.”)
Following the sweep of decolonisation and after having thrown off their imperial chains, Latin America and the Global South have faced the new ‘threat’ of neoliberalism (at least according to Chávez). Neoliberalism of course refers to the international order wherein the cooperation and interdependence of states is desirable for net gain in an anarchic world system, and champions Capitalism and free-trade agreements in order for development to be realised. Whilst having its benefits, a significant downfall of neoliberalism is its western-centric nature as it suggests that the only viable system of state economics going forward is Capitalism, especially after Fukuyama’s suggestion that the “end of History” was heralded by the ‘triumph’ of Capitalism over Communism. By inciting the images of shared Latin American heroes such as Bolívar, as well as other leaders representing unity in the Global South such as Tito and Nasser, Chávez rejects this idea and instead urges other developing states of the G-15 to similarly turn from neoliberalism and Capitalism due to their shared history of exploitation (“The history of our countries tell us…”).