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The Economist: The return of populism

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The return of populism
Apr 12th 2006
From The Economist print edition

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A much-touted move to the left masks something more complex: the rebirth of an influential Latin American political tradition
LATIN AMERICA, it is widely asserted, is moving to the left. The recent election victories of Evo Morales in Bolivia, of Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, and of Ollanta Humala in the first round of Peru’s presidential ballot (see article) are seen as forming part of a seamless web of leftism which also envelops Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the front-runner in Mexico’s presidential election. But this glib formula lumps together some strange bedfellows and fails to capture what is really changing in Latin America.
Some of the region’s new or newish presidents are of the moderate, social-democratic left. They include Lula, Ms Bachelet in Chile, Óscar Arias in Costa Rica and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay. Broadly speaking, they stand for prudent macroeconomic policies and the retention of the liberalising reforms of the 1990s, but combined with better social policies.
Mr Chávez, Mr Kirchner, Mr López Obrador and, in Peru, both Mr Humala and his likely rival in a run-off ballot, Alan García, belong in a second category. Albeit in different ways and to different degrees, all correspond to the Latin American tradition of populism. So, in some respects, does Mr Morales in Bolivia. He is often portrayed as an indigenous leader. Yet as a young man he left his Andean-Indian village for the coca-growing region of the Chapare. His politics are those of a mestizo (mixed-race) trade-union leader.
“Populism” is a slippery, elusive concept. But it is central to understanding what is happening in the region. One of its many difficulties is that it is often used as a term of abuse. In many parts of the world, “populist” is loosely used to describe a politician who seeks popularity through means disparaged as appealing to the baser instincts of voters.
But populism does have a more precise set of meanings—though these vary from place to place. In 19th-century Russia, populists were middle-class intellectuals who embraced peasant communalism as an antidote to Western liberalism. In France, politicians from Pierre Poujade in the 1950s to Jean-Marie Le Pen have championed the “little man”, especially farmers and small shopkeepers, against big corporations, unions and foreigners.
In the United States, too, populism had rural roots, in the prairies of the Midwest. In the 1890s, the People’s Party campaigned against what it saw as the grip of urban cartels over the economy. This cause reached its zenith in the 1896 presidential election, when the populists backed the campaign of William Jennings Bryan, a Democratic crusader against the gold standard.
Huey Long, the governor of Louisiana in 1928-32, was another populist. He campaigned against Standard Oil and other big companies, ramped up taxes and state social spending, and was accused of dictatorial tendencies for building a ruthless political machine.
But it is in Latin America where populism has had the greatest and most enduring influence. As in Russia and the United States, it began as an attempt to ameliorate the social dislocations caused by capitalism. In Latin America it became an urban movement. Its heyday was from the 1920s to the 1960s, as industrialisation and the growth of cities got under way in the region. It was the means by which the urban masses—the middle and working classes—were brought into the political system.
In Europe, that job was done by social-democratic parties. In Latin America, where trade unions were weaker, it was accomplished by the classic populist leaders. They included Getulio Vargas, who ruled Brazil in various guises in 1930-45 and 1950-54; Juan Perón in Argentina (pictured above) and his second wife, Eva Duarte; and Victor Paz Estenssoro, the leader of Bolivia’s national revolution of 1952. They differed from socialists or conservatives in forging multi-class alliances.
Give me a balcony
Typically, their leadership was charismatic. They were great orators or, if you prefer, demagogues (“Give me a balcony and I will become president,” said José Maria Velasco, Ecuador’s most prominent populist, who was five times elected president and four times overthrown by the army). Like Huey Long, Vargas and Perón used the new instrument of radio to reach the masses. Mr Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution” relies heavily on his skills as a communicator, exercised every Sunday in his four-hour television programme.
APChávez treads in Perón’s footsteps
Some of the populists, such as Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, the founder of Peru’s APRA party, and William Jennings Bryan, relied on religious imagery or techniques. (“You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold,” Bryan preached.) A recent biography of Mr Chávez remarks on his similarity to a televangelist.
The populist leaders sought a direct bond with their mass following. They led personal movements rather than well-organised parties. Argentina’s dominant political organisation bears Perón’s name. Take Mr Chávez out of the “Bolivarian revolution” and there would be nothing left. Contrast that with Ms Bachelet, who presides over a stable four-party coalition, or Lula, whose Workers’ Party has up to 800,000 dues-paying members.
The populists saw elections as the route to power, and pushed successfully to expand the franchise. But they also relied on mass mobilisation—on getting their followers out into the streets. They were often less than democratic in their exercise of power: they blurred the distinction between leader, party, government and state. Perón, for example, packed the judiciary, put his own people in charge of trade unions, and rigged his re-election in 1950. Mr Chávez used a constituent assembly to gain control of all the institutions of state. Both Mr Morales and Mr Humala have promised similar assemblies.
Not coincidentally, many of the populists have been military officers. That goes for Vargas, Perón and Lázaro Cardenas, Mexico’s president from 1934 to 1940, who nationalised foreign oil companies and handed land to peasants. Mr Chávez and Mr Humala are retired lieutenant-colonels. Part of their appeal is that of the military caudillo, or strongman, who promises to deliver justice for the “people” by firm measures against the “exploiters”. Some scholars distinguish between military populists and civilians such as Haya de la Torre and Paz Estenssoro, whom they see as “national revolutionaries” closer to social democracy.
But there are many common threads. One is nationalism. The populists championed national culture against foreign influences. They harked back to forgotten figures from their country’s past. In many respects, they were nation-builders.
While their preaching was often anti-capitalist, they made deals with some capitalists. They rallied their followers against two rhetorical enemies: the “oligarchy” of rural landlords and foreign “imperialists”. They supported industry and a bigger role for the state in the economy, and they granted social benefits to workers. They often paid for this by printing money.
Though populists were not alone in favouring inflationary finance, they were particularly identified with it. Some commentary on populism has emphasised this aspect. In their book “The Macroeconomics of Populism”, Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards characterise “economic populism” as involving a dash for growth and income redistribution while ignoring inflation, deficit finance and other risks.
Such policies were pursued not just by populists of the past, but by Mr García, Peru’s president in 1985-90. In a milder form, they are being followed by Mr Kirchner, Argentina’s Peronist president. Mr Chávez has been rescued from deficit financing only by Venezuela’s oil windfall.
Populist economics was adopted, too, by Salvador Allende, Chile’s Socialist president of 1970-73, and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. That has led many observers to use “populist” and “leftist” interchangeably—a mistake that led foreign investors to lose money when they panicked unduly when Lula won Brazil’s election in 2002.
More Mussolini than Marx
In fact, there is nothing inherently left-wing about populism. Some populist leaders were closer to fascism: Perón lived as an exile in Franco’s Spain for 18 years. Many favoured corporatism—the organisation of society by functional groups, rather than the individual rights and pluralism of liberal democracy.
Other writers have seen populism as a technique of political leadership more than an ideology. They have applied the term to such free-market conservatives as Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Argentina’s Carlos Menem who, in different ways, sidestepped interest-groups and made direct appeals to the masses. It is not clear whether Mr Humala, if elected in a run-off, would fall into this category—or try to mimic Mr Chávez.
AP…and Humala hopes to follow
Populism is full of contradictions. It is above all anti-elitist, but creates new elites. It claims to favour ordinary people against oligarchs. But as Messrs Dornbusch and Edwards pointed out, “at the end of every populist experiment real wages are lower than they were at the beginning.” Populism brought mass politics to Latin America, but its relationship to democracy is ambivalent. Populists crusade against corruption, but often engender more.
In the 1960s, populism seemed to fade away in Latin America, squeezed by Marxism, Christian democracy and military dictatorship. Its current revival shows that it is deeply rooted in the region’s political culture. But it also involves some new elements. The new crop of populist leaders rely partly on the politics of ethnic identity: Mr Chávez and Mr Humala are both mestizos. Their coalitions are based on the poor, both urban and rural, and those labouring in the informal economy. They champion those discomfited by globalisation rather than industrialisation.
One big reason for populism’s persistence is the extreme inequality in the region. That reduces the appeal of incremental reform and increases that of messianic leaders who promise a new world. Yet populism has done little to reduce income inequality.
A second driver of populism has been Latin America’s wealth of natural resources. Many Latin Americans believe that their countries are rich, whereas in truth they are not. Populists blame poverty on corruption, on a grasping oligarchy or, nowadays, on multinational oil or mining companies. That often plays well at the ballot box. But it is a misdiagnosis. Countries develop through a mixture of the right policies and the right institutions. Whatever their past achievements, the populists are leading Latin America down a blind alley.
“Hugo Chávez Sin Uniforme: Una Historia Personal”, by Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera. Random House Mondadori, Caracas, 2005.
“Latin American Populism in Comparative Perspective”, edited by Michael L. Conniff. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1982.
“Populism in Latin America”, edited by Michael L. Conniff, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa and London, 1999.
“The Macroeconomics of Populism”, edited by Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.
América Latina: La vuelta del populismo
Un movimiento mucho más cercano a la izquierda enmascara algo más complejo: el renacimiento de una influyente tradición política latinoamericana
Correo, 16 de abril del 2006

Un artículo aparecido en la prestigiosa revista británica The Economist realiza un profundo análisis sobre los gobiernos de la región. Correo reproduce la versión traducida de los pasajes más importantes de dicha entrega.
América Latina, se afirma extensamente, se está moviendo a la izquierda. Las recientes victorias de Evo Morales en Bolivia, de Michelle Bachelet en Chile y de Ollanta Humala en la primera rueda electoral del Perú son consideradas como parte de una telaraña que también envuelve a Hugo Chávez de Venezuela, Luiz Inácio Lula de Brasil, Néstor Kirchner de Argentina y Andrés Manuel López Obrador, el delantero-corredor en la elección presidencial de México. Pero esta fórmula simplista de juntar en un mismo saco a estos extraños no puede explicar qué está cambiando realmente en América Latina.
Algunos de los nuevos o novísimos presidentes de la región se ubican en la moderada socialdemocracia de izquierda. Ello incluye a Lula, Michelle Bachelet en Chile, Oscar Arias en Costa Rica y Tabaré Vázquez en Uruguay. Hablando ampliamente, ellos están por una prudente política macroeconómica y la retención de las reformas de liberalización de los años 90, pero combinadas con mejores políticas sociales.
Chávez, Kirchner, López Obrador y, en Perú, Humala y su probable rival en una segunda vuelta, Alan García, pertenecen a una segunda categoría. No obstante, de diversas maneras y grados, todos corresponden a la tradición latinoamericana del populismo. Así pues, en algunos aspectos, lo hace Morales en Bolivia. Lo retratan a menudo como líder indígena. Como todo hombre joven, él salió de su aldea andina hacia la región cocalera del Chapare. Sus políticas son las de un líder sindical mestizo.
El “populismo” es un concepto escurridizo, evasivo. Pero lo central es entender qué está sucediendo en la región. Una de sus muchas dificultades es que se utiliza a menudo como término del abuso. En muchas partes del mundo utilizan al “populista” para describir a un político que busca popularidad a través de los medios más desacreditados, como apelando a los instintos más bajos de los votantes.
Dame un balcón
Típicamente, sus liderazgos fueron carismáticos. Eran grandes oradores, o, si se prefiere, demagogos (“Dame un balcón y me convertiré en presidente”, decía José María Velasco, el más prominente populista ecuatoriano, quien fue elegido presidente cinco veces y cuatro veces derrocado por los militares).
Como Huey Long, Vargas y Perón usaron la radio para alcanzar a las masas. La revolución bolivariana del señor Chávez depende mucho de sus habilidades como comunicador, que ejercita cada domingo en su programa televisivo de cuatro horas.
Algunos populistas como Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, fundador del Partido Aprista del Perú, y William Jennings Bryan confiaban en imágenes religiosas o técnicas (“Ustedes no crucificarán a la humanidad en una cruz de oro”, predicaba Bryan). Una reciente biografía de Chávez remarca su similitud con el evangelista televisivo.
Los líderes populistas buscaron una relación directa con las masas que los seguían. Ellos manejaron más que nada movimientos personales en vez de partidos bien organizados. En Argentina, la organización política dominante lleva el nombre de Perón. Chávez tomó el de la Revolución Bolivariana, pero nada más. Esto contrasta con Michelle Bachelet, quien preside una coalición estable de cuatro partidos; o Lula, cuyo Partido de los Trabajadores tiene hasta 800 mil miembros que pagan por su militancia.
Los populistas vieron las elecciones como la ruta hacia el poder e impulsaron exitosamente la expansión de esa franquicia. Pero ellos también se apoyan en la movilización de las masas, o sacando a sus seguidores a las calles. Ellos eran frecuentemente menos que democráticos en el ejercicio del poder. Borraron la distinción entre líder, partido, gobierno y Estado. Perón, por ejemplo, copó la judicatura, puso a su propia gente a cargo de los sindicatos y manipuló su reelección en 1950. Chávez usó una Asamblea Constituyente para ganar el control de todas las instituciones del Estado. (Evo) Morales y (Ollanta) Humala han prometido asambleas similares.
No es coincidencia que muchos populistas hayan sido militares. Así fue con Vargas, Perón y Lázaro Cárdenas, presidente de México de 1934 a 1940, quien nacionalizó las compañías extranjeras de petróleo y entregó la tierra a los campesinos. Chávez y Humala son tenientes coroneles retirados. Parte de su atractivo es aquello del militar caudillo, del hombre fuerte que promete dar justicia a la “gente” a través de medidas firmes contra los “explotadores”. Algunos eruditos distinguen entre los populistas militares y los civiles, como Haya de la Torre y Paz Estenssoro, a quienes ellos ven como “revolucionarios nacionales” más cercanos a la socialdemocracia.
Pero hay muchos hilos comunes. Uno es el nacionalismo. Los populistas defendieron la cultura nacional en contra de las influencias foráneas. Ellos se remontaron a figuras olvidadas del pasado de sus países. En muchos aspectos fueron constructores de sus naciones.
Mientras sus prédicas eran frecuentemente anticapitalistas, hacían tratos con algunos capitalistas. Reunieron a sus seguidores en torno a dos retóricos enemigos: la “oligarquía” de los terratenientes y los “imperialistas” extranjeros. Apoyaron la industria y un rol más importante del Estado en la economía y concedieron beneficios sociales para los trabajadores. Pagaron esto imprimiendo dinero.
Aunque los populistas no eran los únicos que favorecían políticas inflacionarias, fueron muy identificados con éstas. Algunos comentarios sobre el populismo han enfatizado este aspecto. En su libro La macroeconomía del populismo, Rudiger Dornbusch y Sebastián Edwards caracterizaron la economía populista como una carrera envolvente hacia el crecimiento y la redistribución de ingreso haciendo caso omiso de la inflación, el déficit de las finanzas y otros riesgos.
Esas políticas fueron aplicadas no sólo por los populistas del pasado, sino también por Alan García, presidente del Perú entre 1985 y 1990. En una forma más moderada están siendo seguidas por Kirchner, el presidente peronista argentino. Las ganancias inesperadas por el petróleo venezolano han salvado a Chávez de un déficit financiero.
La economía populista fue adoptada también por Salvador Allende, presidente socialista de Chile de 1970 a 1973, y por los sandinistas nicaragüenses.
Esto ha provocado la confusión de muchos observadores al usar los términos “populista” e “izquierdista” de modo intercambiable, error que hizo que los inversionistas perdieran dinero al entrar en pánico excesivo cuando Lula ganó la elección en Brasil en el 2002.
Una razón del populismo ha sido la riqueza de los recursos naturales de Latinoamérica. Muchos latinoamericanos creen que sus países son ricos, cuando en verdad no lo son. Los populistas culpan de la pobreza a la corrupción, a una codiciosa oligarquía o, en estos días, a las multinacionales del petróleo o a las compañías mineras.
Esto a menudo juega bien en las urnas. Pero es un diagnóstico equivocado. Los países se desarrollan por una mezcla de políticas e instituciones adecuadas. Cualquiera sean los logros de su pasado, los populistas están llevando a Latinoamérica directo a un callejón sin salida.
(Traducción: Azucena Romaní)

Written by Michael Ha

April 12th, 2006 at 8:34 pm

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