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The Return of Populism and the Challenges Ahead: A Latin American Perspective

The Return of Populism and the Challenges Ahead: A Latin American Perspective

With Jair Bolsonaro’s election as president of Brazil in October and Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador about to take office as president of Mexico in December, JPIA at NYU’s Frederico Fróes met with Latin American Politics Professor Pablo Querubín Borrero in late November 2018 to discuss populism and its implications.

 Frederico Fróes: Populism was a common phenomenon in 20th century Latin America. As you yourself say in your Latin American politics course, the term ‘populism’ gets thrown around a lot, but can be broadly defined as government by political leaders who rise to power by mobilizing previously excluded masses, with common characteristics being political personalism, nationalism, pragmatism, authoritarianism, and corporatism.  

Today, there is a perceived resurgence of populism, not just in Latin America, but around the world, as seen in Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Italy's Matteo Salvini, and even the United States’ Donald Trump. For the sake of clear political discourse, how would you define present day populism when compared to 20th century Latin American populism, and does this new political phenomenon fit your definition?

Professor Pablo Querubín: Yes, I think it does to some extent. There are lots of parallels in the reasons that brought many populist leaders of the earlier 20th century to power and the ones of this 21st century phenomenon. For instance, leaders like (Juan) Perón, in Argentina, or Lázaro Cardenas, in Mexico, came to power through mobilizing segments of the population that didn't feel properly represented by traditional parties. They did so, interestingly, in fact, using mostly a discourse against globalization, which, at the time was perceived as benefiting mostly the oligarchy that owned the land and benefitted from the export of raw materials. We see in many populist leaders today a backlash against globalization. In both cases, there is an appeal to nationalism and very clearly an anti-elite and anti-establishment discourse. 

I would say some of the difference is that the earlier political movements of populist leaders of the 20th century tried to mobilize segments of the population that had never been politicized before because universal suffrage had been introduced very recently. So, in this case, these political entrepreneurs tried to tap into the sentiments of groups of the population that had never belonged to any political party. In the case of present-day populism, they are often mobilizing segments of the population that have never been within the realm of traditional parties. This can be seen with AMLO (Andrés Manuel López Obrador), in Mexico, who has been very successful in trying to mobilize informal workers who live in the slums of Mexico’s cities. Since they’re informal workers, they have never been part of unions or any more formal organizations that were traditionally co-opted by The PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). 

Many populist leaders have been very successful in rallying voters that used to support one of the traditional parties but have grown frustrated or disaffected with what these traditional parties have done. So, I think this broader definition of populists being anti-establishment leaders that try to mobilize disaffected voters, with things in common such as nationalism, anti-elite, anti-establishment, and, in both of these cases, even anti-globalization, this definition remains very relevant.

FF: So, given this common factor of mobilizing previously excluded segments or disaffected segments today, is there a positive side to this current populist trend or is it a threat to liberal democracy as many decry it?

PQ:That is a difficult question in the sense that there are two different things, which are support for democracy and support for the state. There's a sense in which these populist leaders, by trying to respond to the needs of some of these groups of the population, may help some individuals reconnect with the state and feel like they can actually benefit from state resources and integrate into society, and in that respect that's very important; however, it's true, as you mentioned, that this often comes at the expense of checks and balances and institutions. 

Very often people who support these populist leaders express lots of frustration or lack of trust in democracy. So, what we have seen, for instance, in the cases of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, has been the use of plebiscites and referenda through which citizens have actively participated in the dismantling of checks and balances, eliminating reelection limits, and giving presidents more power. To some extent, we have also seen a desire to be part of the state and to be part of society and to have access to the resources that, in their perception, they haven’t had access to in the past. But, as you say, this comes at the expense of weakening checks and balances in democracy, so I think the challenge is how to promote the emergence of leaders who integrate these excluded groups into society, while also instilling in them a support for democracy. This is something that I think is possible. I think, to some extent, the socialists in Chile have been able to govern without necessarily dismantling or weakening institutions. Other countries in Europe have also been able to incorporate poor segments of the population into the state without necessarily dismantling institutions.

FF: So far, we have already covered several populist leaders, especially in Latin America. Many people think nowadays of AMLO, Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela), and Evo Morales (Bolivia) as the region’s current populist leaders, but, not too long ago, at the turn of the century, many viewed the left-leaning leaders of the so-called “Pink Wave” as populists, and, before them, from around the 1930’s to the 1950’s, the region saw widespread corporatist populism like that of Cardenas and Perón. How do these recurrent waves of populist leaders compare, and are they indicative of a Latin American predisposition towards populist regimes?

PQ:Before I get into Latin America's predisposition, I would say one thing that the recent wave of populism illustrates is that, consistent with the definition of populism we offered earlier, populism is not a left-wing phenomenon. You can have left-wingandright-wing populism. As I said, recently this has become very clear. You have conservative populist movements in Europe, the US, and, more recently, in Brazil, with Bolsonaro; and you have left-wing populist movements, with the emergence of AMLO, with Maduro, (Hugo) Chávez, (Rafael) Correa, and Morales. And that was also true, I have to say, with populist movements in Latin America in the earlier 20th century. In Brazil, there was Getúlio Vargas, with the Estado Novo, that was perceived as being a mostly conservative populist movement. Perón was never himself particularly radical on the left; he was a very complex figure. He clearly tried to activate worker movement to his advantage but his policies were not consistently left-wing. 

This is just to emphasize that what they have in common is this ability to capitalize or take advantage of dissatisfaction or frustration with the establishment. In fact, it's not surprising that, in the cases of Mexico and Brazil, these populist leaders emerge following corruption scandals. The corruption scandals in Brazil were under left-of-center governments like the PT (Workers’ Party) and maybe it's not surprising that the reaction to that is conservative, or right-wing, populism. But, in the case of Mexico, AMLO emerges successfully in response to corruption by the traditional, more centrist, PRI and PAN (National Action Party) governments and, maybe not surprisingly, in that case, the reaction is more left-of-center populism. So, to some extent, whether the establishment tends to be more conservative or liberal can give us a sense of what the emerging populist movement is going to be like. 

Now, going back to your original question about whether Latin America is predisposed to populism, I to have to say the answer is yes, to some extent. Latin America has an original sin that the region has not been able to address, which is inequality. Now, inequality has decreased over the past 20 years, but it remains extremely high. This is going to imply that politics are going to be conflictive and it’s going to revolve around redistributive issues; frustration of citizens with the state for lack of provision of public services and access to them; polarization between middle to high income citizens who can access most services through the private market, such as healthcare, education, pensions, security, and, in contrast to that, poor citizens who cannot secure these thing through the private market and cannot secure them via the state either. So, this implies that there are large groups of the population that are always frustrated with how the political system works and with the inability of the state and the political system to deliver goods to them. Consequently, they will seek alternatives, even if these come at the expense of the weakening of institutions. So, I think as long as Latin America's states remain so weak and economic inequality in Latin America remains so high, this recurrence of populist leaders is going to continue. 

FF: In addition to the underlying inequality in Latin America, a common grievance of Latin American populist voters is violence, whereas, in Europe, however, it is often migration, which is not as big of an issue in Latin America. Are there common, identifiable structural conditions that allow populism to arise in such different settings? 

PQ:Yes, that's a great question. You could argue that it's hard to disentangle the role of inequality from the role of violence in the sense that a lot of the violence could be driven by inequality and the perception of some groups in the population that in an unequal society, in which there are poverty traps, it is going to be very hard for them to get out of poverty through standard channels, such as getting a job in the formal sector. This is what triggers a lot of the success of these criminal enterprises. 

The other thing, of course, that drives violence is, as I said before, a weak state, and this, I think, is the distinct feature of Latin America. The reason why Latin America, or, for instance, Colombia, in particular, has specialized in illegal markets or in illegal industries is because they have a comparative advantage in them and this is because of the weakness of the state. 

Now, the problem is voters very often think that the way to compensate for state weaknesses is to elect someone with an iron fist who is going to crack down on violence without respecting human rights, the rule of law, and existing institutions. That is not what building a strong state is about. Building a strong state is about building a consensually legitimate state that everyone trusts, and you can only trust a state that adheres itself to strong institutions and to respect for human rights. But, in desperation, particularly when it comes to crime, citizens are very often willing to elect individuals who will undermine the rule of law, even if they perceive, maybe sometimes naïvely, that this is going to bring security to them. So, in summary, I think inequality combined with the weakness of the state constantly reproduces high crime rates in Latin America and I think you are correct that this partly drives a lot of the frustration with the establishment and generates support for populist movements. 

I should also add that, very recently, conservative movements in Latin America have also tried to use the specter of Venezuela and of Castro-Chavismo as a tool to mobilize voters to support conservative populist movements. This was used by Bolsonaro in Brazil in a way that I thought was crazy, in the sense that the PT government had a track record; they governed for 15 years. They were corrupt and they were deservedly politically punished, if you want, but the sentiment that the PT was going to turn Brazil into Venezuela was at odds with the PT’s track record. They tried to do the same with AMLO in Mexico, where it didn't have any traction at all. But, in the recent Colombian election, that was the main campaign slogan of the conservative Centro Democrático–that voting for the left would drive Colombia into becoming like Venezuela. So, this specter of Venezuela has also been used strategically by the right to mobilize voters.

FF: Do you also identify these conditions as being present in other countries outside of Latin America, such as the European countries that recently elected populist leaders?

PQ:Maybe not the perception of a weak state. Think about the Tea Party in the US. The US is very unusual in the sense that more recent populist movements within the Republican Party have been the opposite. It has been almost like mobilizing voters againstwhat they perceive is an overly-powerful state that gets in the way of personal freedoms with things such as gun control, or when it came to things such as mobilizing against the bailouts following the financial crisis. So, in the case of the US there is this distinctive American phenomenon of distrust, or fear, of a very powerful state, which makes it very different. 

Now, in the case of other European countries, there have been isolated incidents of violence coming from migrants. In that respect, you could think the fear of migrants could be related to the fear of lack of security, but I think, by most accounts, these are not systematic events that would suggest there are substantial concerns about the insecurity driven by immigration. The other thing that has been very well documented is that citizens massively misperceive how many migrants there are in the country.There is a recent study by Alberto Alesina and Stefanie Stantcheva, in which they find that when you ask people what fraction of the population they think are migrants – and they did this across a broad set of European countries and the US – usually the gap between perceived immigration and actual immigration is close to 30%, meaning citizens may believe that 40% of the population are immigrants when, in reality, it is closer to 10%, and this gap is relatively constant across countries. And, not only that, but, in most countries, people also tend to overestimate the fraction of immigrants that they perceive to be Muslim and they massively underestimate the fraction of immigrants that are Christian or white. 

So, there are these misperceptions about the extent of immigration, and there are these misperceptions about the consequences of immigration and things such as crime. The belief that, “people are losing access to basic goods and services because a lot of the money is going to immigrants,” is, again, mostly driven by misperceptions. But, politicians are smart, and they strategically use these misperceptions to create a common enemy that they can use during elections to get more support. 

FF: Earlier this month French president Emmanuel Macron warned against the return to 1920’s populism in Europe. Like you yourself indicate, fake news can be an aggravator to the rise of populism as a tendency. How much do you perceive present-day populism to be a threat to democracy and stability, and do you see us as possibly returning to a time when liberal democracy ceases to be the norm?

PQ:I am not an expert in the events that led to the emergence of fascist movements in Europe following the Great Depression, so I cannot comment too much on that. I think it is the case that the international community is more tightly connected nowadays. In that respect, it is harder for individual countries to get away with very blatant violations of human rights and things that were possible in the twenties, so in that respect, I am hopeful that the international community would be able to play a stronger role in preventing the emergence of truly radical leaders and I think, to some extent, within Europe, the European Union itself as an institution has been very powerful in preventing any return to conflict.  

Now, when it comes to the dismantling of democracy, I think we have already observed this happening in Latin America, with many of these plebiscites and referenda weakening checks and balances on presidents, which is going to be a real test for political institutions. Political institutions are meant to be there to constrain politicians in their desire to destroy democracy or abuse power for personal reasons or for the interest of their own political movements, and, hopefully, we have come a long way since the 1920’s, such that institutions are stronger now and international institutions are also stronger now, so that we don't have such a bleak future ahead of us. So, I think we will observe some weakening of checks and balances, but hopefully not something as extreme.

FF: Are there any specific policy measures that can help prevent populism and safeguard the institutions of democracy? 

PQ:If there is something that has been shown to be incredibly important in preventing abuses of power historically, it has been a free media. Now, the media environment nowadays is much more complex, given that now we don't only have traditional media outlets, but we also have social media outlets in which politicians themselves can set the agenda and can communicate directly with voters. But, I think, precisely because of that, free and independent media becomes more important now than ever, so we have to be very vigilant of any attempts to weaken independent media sources, like newspapers or TV networks, which constantly denounce abuses of power. We do not know very well what the approach is going to be to try to control the ability of politicians to spread false information to their followers. As you know, there is confirmation bias, so very often if followers have some intrinsic reason why they like a politician–either because of their ideology, or because of the policies that this politician advocates–they will have a tendency to believe what the politician says, even when it is not true, so I think we need more research in order to figure out how traditional media outlets can counteract the potentially damaging effect of fake news, but I think a free and independent media is something that we should definitely protect. 

Ultimately, the legitimacy of the rulers lies in the citizens, and I think civil society and collective action are very important in in this respect, and this is something in which the US population has reacted to in different ways. There have been popular mobilizations in response to recent events across the country, and I think this is also very important in order to express opposition to any attempts to weaken institutions or democracy.

FF: On the topic of policy, we have established that populism isn't specifically a left- or right-wing phenomenon. With AMLO set to take office now in December and Bolsonaro in January 2019, can we expect any similarities in their coming administrations or do the similarities end in their rhetoric and campaigning? 

PQ:I think it is unfair, to some extent, to put Bolsonaro and AMLO in the same bag. I will talk about their similarities, but also about their differences, and I think an important difference is AMLO at least has a track record of experience in a challenging executive position. He was the head of government of Mexico City, one the biggest cities in the world, and he was very popular–he certainly did not turn Mexico City into Venezuela. So, he has a track record of being competent in an executive position and I think those are grounds to believe that an AMLO presidency won't be as catastrophic as some may fear. 

On the other hand, Bolsonaro has experience in congress, but very limited experience in an executive position. That could go either way. Some say this implies that he is going to have to surround himself with people who actually have some experience running government. This could mean that if he surrounds himself with people who are more moderate than him, then his government won't be such a total failure. But that's a big question mark so far. Now, the other thing that happens in respect to Bolsonaro and, to some extent, in respect to AMLO as well, is they will both have to inevitably form alliances. 

Keep in mind that the PSL party (Social Liberal Party) of Bolsonaro only controls 10% of the house and 5% of the senate. So, if he’s going to get anything done, it's going to be very hard to pass his policy unless he forms a broader coalition within congress. Judges and courts are also relatively strong in Brazil in being able to block the adoption of certain policies. So, I think this could go either way. Either this is going to force Bolsonaro to moderate, surround himself with more moderate people, build coalitions, and have a relatively more moderate–hopefully functional–government, or, the alternative to this is once he realizes that he's not going to be able to get everything done by himself because congress and the courts and the judicial system are going to oppose it, he's just going to trigger popular mobilization directly; try to activate his followers saying, “congress and courts are not allowing me to do what I promised.” 

Hopefully, institutions in Brazil are strong enough that he won't be able to do things like Fujimori did in Peru, like closing congress or dismissing judges. You would hope that close to 30 years of democracy in Brazil would prevent something as extreme as that from happening, but, what I think will happen – and this will bring me to AMLO – is that he will try to make use of direct democracy, maybe plebiscites, referendums, trying to get voters to directly approve measures that congress or judges won’t approve. And this is something that I also think AMLO is going to do, and we already saw it with the plebiscite regarding the airport in Texcoco, where there was this massive infrastructure project and, through a popular referendum, people in the community expressed their opposition to this project and this was the way for AMLO to implement one of his policies that maybe he wouldn’t have been able to do through the usual channels of government. 

So, I think we're probably going to observe in both cases relatively weak support in congress and, thus, using their popularity with citizens to put pressure on congress and on the courts to approve their policies. But, I think in the case of Mexico this is going to happen in the context of someone who at least has a direct track record of running government.

FF: What lessons can we use from Latin America's history of populism in dealing with the coming populist administrations, not just in Mexico and Brazil, but also around the world?

PQ:That is a hard question in the sense that I think there are some blueprints about things that can be done effectively. Chile has been a case in which the more progressive socialist coalition has been able to win elections and govern relatively successfully, but within the constraints of existing institutions and existing checks and balances, and this was in spite of having gone through a repressive military dictatorship and in spite of historically having a really radical left-wing government under Allende. So, countries are not condemned to this gridlock of radicalized political movements on either side of the aisle and I think the Chilean case illustrates that. 

We haven't talked much about Ecuador, but I think the case of Ecuador deserves more attention as well in the sense that I think Correa was relatively successful in, first of all, using the oil boom to invest in the country's infrastructure. A lot of people say countries like Venezuela basically spent the oil boom in poorly designed transfers to citizens in ways that were not very institutionalized or on lots of corruption as well. In the case of Colombia, there have been lots of recent scandals about how the oil boom was probably also lost to corruption scandals involving Odebrecth as well, and more progressive movements in Brazil were also victims of corruption. In the case of Ecuador, Correa has been very successful in investing the oil revenues and in improving the legitimacy of the state, and reaching out to previously excluded communities. 

Now, the problem with Correa, and this is why I have mixed feelings about Correa, is, in some respects, he also ruled as an autocrat. He was particularly unfriendly towards independent and free media and, like many other leaders, he also tried to change the constitution to perpetuate himself in power. I think there's something to learn about the Ecuadorian example in the sense that there has been, to some extent, a lot of progress in Ecuador under Correa.

FF: Does that mean it is still possible to remain optimistic today?

PQ: I do not know if optimistic is the right word in the sense that current governments or movements may not be trying to do that; they may not be trying to learn about what other governments did successfully within the constraints of institutions. For me, the extent to which future governments will give any cause for optimism in Latin America depends on whether they will abide by existing political institutions and to whether they will make an effort to strengthen, rather than to weaken, political institutions and checks and balances, and it does not seem like current leaders are trying to do that, so, in that respect, there is no room for optimism. 

I think there is room for optimism in the sense that there are certain cases that show that you can be successful and you can have a progressive movement that integrates excluded groups into society without having to undermine institutions, but certainly, in the case of Bolsonaro, it does not seem like that is his project right now. So, I am not very optimistic about Brazil, unfortunately, and I think neither are my fellow Brazilian friends and colleagues.

I think it is an exciting time to be studying politics; it is an exciting time to be studying political science. These are hard questions and this should just increase our excitement and enthusiasm about studying them and trying to tackle these hard issues. If anyone believed there are settled debates or intellectual discussions in the study of politics, we are far from that, so I encourage more NYU students to enroll in politics classes and to get excited about the study of political science.



Professor Pablo Querubín Borrero is an Associate Professor of Politics and Economics at NYU. He holds a PhD in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as a Master’s and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the Universidad de los Andes. Professor Querubín is the author ofEconomía Política de la Política Económica (Ediciones Uniandes, 2018)and has published articles on political economy, development, and comparative politics. As of Spring 2019, he teaches Latin American Politics, in the Undergraduate College of Arts and Sciences; The Political Economy of Development, in the Undergraduate Leonard N. Stern School of Business; and Comparative Politics of Developing Countries, in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

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