Modern Latin-American populism is a 20th-century development, involving the direct contact between a leader (the caudillo) and “his” people.
Figures of both the left and right can lay claim to its paternity. General Juan Domingo Peron of Argentina was a quintessential populist. He had witnessed the ascent of Italian fascism and admired Benito Mussolini to the extent of wanting to erect “a monument to him on every corner.” These days, Comandante Hugo Chavez is a postmodern populist, whose hero is Fidel Castro. He wishes to convert Venezuela into an experimental example of “the new socialism.”
The two extremes are facets of the same political phenomenon, which is identified not by its ideological content, but rather by the way it functions. Here are 10 of its essential characteristics.
-- It exalts the charismatic leader. There is always a man (or in Peron’s Argentina, a woman, too) who is “chosen by providence,” and who will, once and for all, solve the problems of the people.
-- The Latin-American populist constantly speaks to the public and inflames passions, and does so without limitations or preliminaries. Twenty-five centuries ago, a similar distortion of public truth appeared in the person of the “demagogue” (as distant from democracy as sophism was from philosophy) and manifested itself in the agora, where the Greeks discussed politics; in the 20th century, its venue has been the virtual agora of sound waves and visual transmission.
From Mussolini (and Joseph Goebbels), Peron learned the political importance of radio, which he and Evita used to hypnotize the masses. Chavez, for his part, has surpassed his mentor Castro in his frenetic use of television.
-- Latin-American populist leaders fabricate their version of truth. These governments interpret “the voice of the people” and elevate their interpretations to the rank of official truth. At the same time, they despise freedom of expression. They confuse legitimate criticism with militant hostility and try to disparage it, control it or silence it.
In Peronist Argentina, the official and nationalist newspapers -- including one that was openly Nazi -- could count on generous subsidies, while the free press almost disappeared. The situation in Venezuela today points in the same direction, with freedom of expression under threat from increasingly restrictive laws.
-- The Latin-American populist leader has no patience with the subtleties of economics or finance. The national treasury is his private patrimony. He can use it to launch projects that he considers important or glorious, or he can use it for personal enrichment. Or he can do both, without considering the cost. He has a magical conception of the economy. This ignorance or lack of analysis on the part of populist governments has translated into disasters from which countries have taken decades to recover.
-- The populist directly apportions wealth. This isn’t necessarily negative in itself. But the Latin-American populist doesn’t distribute wealth gratis: He focuses his contributions, and expects to be paid back with obedience. A false idea of economic reality is created and a culture of government largess is enthroned.
And in the end, who pays the debt? Not Evita Peron (who profited abundantly and stored her many millions in Swiss banks), but the national reserves accumulated over decades and the Argentine workers themselves with their “voluntary” donations and, above all, the indebted future generations, whose inheritance is devoured by inflation.
In Venezuela (whose caudillo distributes and redistributes the profit from oil), the consequences of Chavez-style government assistance will only truly be felt in the future, when oil prices plummet or the regime carries its dictatorial designs to its ultimate consequences.
-- The populist nurtures class hatred. Latin-American populists oppose “the rich” (whom they often accuse of being “antinational”), but attract “patriotic businessmen,” who support the regime. The Latin-American populist doesn’t seek to abolish the market by force; he subordinates its agents and manipulates them.
-- The modern Latin-American populist tries to permanently mobilize social groups. He summons, organizes and encourages the masses. The public square is a theater where “the People” are called to appear, continually demonstrate their power and listen to invectives against the “evil forces” within and outside the country. “The people” to whom the caudillo makes his appeals aren’t of course the sum of individual wills expressed in a vote and represented by a parliament. It is a selective and vociferous mass.
-- Latin-American populism systematically maligns “the exterior enemy.” Immune to criticism and allergic to self-examination, the regime needs to divert attention toward scapegoats who can be blamed for failures. Peronist Argentina revived the old (and explicable) anti-American passions that had been seething since the Spanish-American War; Castro converted this passion into the essence of his regime.
For his part, Chavez rants about a U.S. invasion that is likely only in his imagination, but in which an important sector of the Venezuelan population has come to believe.
-- Latin-American populism has no respect for legal order. Once in power, caudillos such as Chavez tend to take control of Congress and move toward “direct justice.” For all practical purposes, such justice becomes what the leader himself decrees it to be. The Venezuelan Congress and judicial branch are now, in effect, appendices of Chavez, just as they were in Argentina under Juan and Evita Peron, who formally eliminated parliamentary immunity and purged the courts.
-- Latin-American populism undermines, dominates and tames or cancels the institutions of liberal democracy. Populism fiercely opposes limits on power, which it considers aristocratic, oligarchic and contrary to the “popular will.”
The reasons for the rise of these movements are diverse and complex. But let me point to two. In the first place, they have deep roots in an historical notion of “popular sovereignty,” which the Neo-Scholastic thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries propagated throughout the Spanish empire, and which had a decisive influence in the wars of independence from Buenos Aires to Mexico.
In addition, this kind of populism has a perversely “moderate” or “provisional” nature. It never becomes fully dictatorial or totalitarian, and is able to nourish a deceptive illusion of a better future. It disguises the disasters it provokes, delays the objective examination of its actions, subdues critics, adulterates the truth, and corrupts and degrades the public spirit.
(Enrique Krauze, the author of “Mexico: Biography of Power” and “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz.)
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