Webcast Recap

On October 8, 2009, the Latin American Program convened a distinguished group of Latin American, U.S., and European scholars to discuss the revival of populism in 21st century Latin America and its consequences for the future of democratic governance in the region. The conference took place in the context of a three-year project on "Democratic Governance and the ‘New Left' in Latin America." Papers presented at the conference addressed the differences and continuities between the populist regimes of the 1930s and ‘40s and contemporary populist manifestations, the defining characteristics of 21st century populism, and the sources of mobilization, appeal, sustainability, and relevance for regional politics of today's populist regimes.

Authors grappled to come to agreement on the definition of populism, its relationship to democracy and political institutions, and the nature of social policies introduced to address problems of poverty and social inequality.

Francisco Panizza of the London School of Economics distinguished between populism and "populist interventions," in which leaders appeal directly to "the people," identifying and seeking the support of social sectors not well represented through existing political arrangements. Such leaders promise a form of redemption from the exclusion of the past. Panizza argued that such populist interventions characterized the discourse of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former Argentine president Carlos Menem, and even Barack Obama in the United States.

Other participants took issue with the notion that populist discourse was the defining aspect of populism, in that all politicians make direct appeals to and identify with constituents in their quest for votes. Instead, Carlos de la Torre of FLACSO-Ecuador defined populism as a mode of direct political representation that challenges democratic political institutions and rests on a highly polarized concept of society. Populist regimes emphasize the social divide between the privileged few who have benefited from existing political practices (whether democratic or not) and the underprivileged majority that hitherto has been excluded. Populist leaders claim to represent "the people"—that is, the poor and underprivileged—and promise to bring about social justice. Such leaders reject any type of political intermediation that can effectively check and limit their power. Populism is authoritarian, nationalistic, redemptive in rhetoric, and dependent on wide bases of social mobilization and support.

Hector Schamis of Georgetown University suggested that populism be understood more narrowly in its time-bound dimension, emerging in Latin America in the wake of the Great Depression. So-called populist leaders of the 21st century may appear like populists, but labelling them as such dilutes the specificity and historical relevance of the concept.

Kenneth Roberts of Cornell University explored the relationship between populism, political parties, and political regimes. Populist regimes can destroy traditional parties, he argued, but by mobilizing new sectors of the electorate, they may also contribute to rebuilding party structures. Roberts identified "critical junctures" in which populist regimes emerged in the context of severe economic crisis. Current populist manifestations reflect the collapse of import substitution industrialization and the inability of traditional market reforms to sustain economic growth, generate employment, and reduce poverty and inequality. Roberts argued that the type of political regime that emerges in a critical juncture depends on two key variables: the degree of institutionalization of party systems and the extent of contestation of neoliberal orthodoxy. These factors explain why "polarized populism" emerged in such places as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador (under President Rafael Correa), all countries with non-institutionalized party systems and strong contestation of neo-liberal orthodoxy. In countries such as Peru and Ecuador under prior governments, with non-institutionalized party systems but low levels of contestation of neoliberal orthodoxy, populism appeared to be more recurrent, or "serial" as he called it.

Enrique Peruzzotti of Argentina's Universidad Torcuato di Tella discussed the concept of representation in populist regimes, arguing that populism emerges as a response to a deficit of political representation. While populist leaders use democratic means—elections—to come to power, once in office, they undermine democratic institutions. By claiming to represent "the people" directly, populist leaders reject mechanisms of intermediation between the state and civil society; under democratic regimes, these mechanisms serve to check and balance the power of the executive. The distinguishing characteristic of populist regimes, as opposed to other types of authoritarianism, is the claim to represent those who have been excluded by the "oligarchic" system (which can itself be a formal democracy). Finally, Peruzzoti argued that populism is different from the "delegative democracies" described by social scientist Guillermo O'Donnell. While both are personalistic and hyper-presidential, delegative regimes are based on mass social apathy rather than on the mass mobilization characteristic of classical populism. Whether Latin America will move in the direction of greater populism in the future, Peruzzotti concluded, depends on the ability of current governments to deepen democracy and strengthen democratic representation.

Kurt Weyland of the University of Texas, Austin, analyzed the content and implementation of social policies introduced by populist regimes. He explored whether populist regimes had designed and introduced social policies distinct from those in social democratic regimes such as Chile and Brazil. Weyland compared Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, arguing that despite their different ideological orientations, both can be described as populist. Both Fujimori and Chávez claimed to represent the poor and underprivileged directly; they relied on mass mobilizations in support of the leader, were not bound by democratic mechanisms of accountability, and introduced social policies that claimed to address the long neglected grievances of the poor. Weyland argued that populist regimes have not really designed innovative social policies: what distinguishes them from their social democratic counterparts is the way in which social policies are implemented. Populist regimes can act quickly and are more agile, as they are not bound by traditional mechanisms of accountability. However, haste has some major disadvantages. Populist social policies are not well planned and coordinated; they are often reactive, improvised, chaotic, and often capricious. Moreover, they lack transparency and, in many cases, fail to reach their targeted beneficiaries. Unlike social democracies, populist regimes devote large amounts of resources to social programs, but they are not fiscally sound and hence, not sustainable financially or politically. Social spending tends to pick up during electoral cycles only to decline afterwards. Weyland concluded that populist regimes spend more on social programs but also waste more resources due to inefficiency and corruption.

In addressing the case of Bolivian President Evo Morales, Oxford University professor John Crabtree took issue with the characterization of Morales as a populist. One of the legacies of Bolivia's 1952 revolution, Crabtree argued, was the weakness of state institutions in controlling and disciplining large social sectors that had been mobilized against the oligarchic regime. During the 1990s, the state was unable to channel or control popular social movements that organized against the implementation of neoliberal economic policies. Evo Morales' appeal to the poor, indigenous, underprivileged sectors of society resembles the typical populist discourse against the status quo. However, a key distinction is that Morales' party, the MAS, is distinct from the social movements that support him and with which Morales must constantly negotiate. It remains a grassroots, participatory movement that requires responsiveness and accountability of its leaders. Morales has also been more cautious and prudent than his populist counterparts in the use of state resources from natural gas, avoiding irresponsible spending programs. Crabtree concluded that Bolivia constitutes more of a hybrid case that combines some elements of populist discourse and rhetoric with autonomous social movements that defy top-down mobilization.

Cynthia McClintock of George Washington University argued that the Peruvian case in one of almost constant populist upsurges, or, as Ken Roberts would put it, a case of "serial populism." From the founding of the APRA party in the 1920's to the present, a spectrum of political leaders has used highly divisive rhetoric and, when in office, has abused power. Populist leaders have hailed from both the left and the right and have often been allied with Peru's military. Part of the explanation is in Peru's combination of deep social inequalities, a weak party system, and the perception that liberal democratic governments have been ineffective in bridging the gap. Like APRA founder Víctor Haya de la Torre in the 1920's and 1930s, General Juan Velasco during the military regime of the 1960s and 1970s, and Alberto Fujimori during the 1990s, Ollanta Humala in 2006 portrayed himself as the candidate of the poor and excluded and as an alternative to traditional politicians. The appeal of these populist politicians will remain, she argued, so long as the social grievances of the poor are not seen to be adequately addressed and the party system remains fragmented. The current government of Alan García has been successful in bringing about economic growth, but social spending remains low and the gap between rich and poor is not perceived to have been bridged.

Alexandra Panzarelli of the Universidad Central de Venezuela presented the prototypical case of Hugo Chávez. She explored the social and political context preceding Chávez's election, a period during which the two established political parties imploded and social protests escalated. Panzarelli indicated that between 1989 and 1992, there were on average 720 protests per year. By 1998, the year of Chávez's election, Venezuelan citizens were ready to welcome an outsider who promised to represent the poor and to reject neoliberal economic policies. Chávez has been highly divisive and polarizing within Venezuelan society; he has increasingly centralized power and resorted to authoritarian practices to deal with his opponents. Oil revenues have provided Chávez vast state resources to maintain his power.

Exploring the Brazilian case, Leslie Bethell argued that there were several possible candidates for consideration as "classical populists" during second half of the the 20th century: Getulio Vargas, Ademar de Barros and Janio Quadros in São Paulo, Leonel Brizola in Rio Grande do Sul and Rio de Janeiro. Former president Fernando Collor de Melo could be characterized as a neo-populist of the Right, but he was impeached in 1992 after only two and a half years in office. In Bethell's view, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva should not be considered a neo-populist of the Left. A union leader, he had created the Workers Party (PT) from the bottom up during the 1970s and 1980s. The PT drew its support from organized labor, the professional middle-class, the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, and intellectuals of the Left, not the poorest sectors of society. Lula contested - and lost - three presidential elections before being elected in 2002. Although his discourse and style have been somewhat populist in nature, Lula has maintained "responsible" fiscal and macroeconomic policies, while adopting social policies to alleviate poverty and reduce social inequality. Brazil is a reasonably well functioning representative democracy with an institutionalized party system, an independent media, and a strong, active civil society. Most important, Lula understands the importance of the alternation of power and, despite his enormous popularity, did not attempt to change the constitution to permit a third mandate. However, Bethell noted at the end of his presentation that the extraordinary lengths to which Lula was going to elect Dilma Rousseff his successor in 2010 have raised the suspicion in some minds that she, if elected, will represent a third mandate and that he plans to return to power in 2014 "in the arms of the people."

Ana María Bejarano of the University of Toronto discussed whether or not to characterize Colombian President Álvaro Uribe as a populist. The answer, she argued, is both yes and no. During the last several years, Bejarano argued, Uribe has worked to amend the constitution in order to remain in power, but his populist style is reactionary, not leftist. In sharp contrast to other countries in the region, Colombia lacks a prior populist experience in\ the 1930s and 1940s. Populism as a leftist expression became the realm of the guerrillas. The emergence of left-wing political outsiders was kept in check by the strength of the landed elite as well as of the country's two traditional political parties. While Uribe is by no means a political outsider, he cast himself as an anti-establishment candidate in 2002, promising to re-establish security in the wake of a failed peace process with the guerrillas during the Pastrana years. Unlike populist presidents, Uribe does not claim to govern on behalf of poor, nor has he attempted to mobilize them on behalf of an effort to overcome poverty and inequality and poverty. Rather, his appeal and popularity have rested on military successes against the guerrillas and on significant reductions in levels of violence and crime. Like other populist leaders, however, Uribe has resorted to a highly divisive and polarizing discourse of "us" against "them." By seeking a third term in office through a second process of amending the 991 Constitution, President Uribe, like populist presidents of the Left, has come to undermine traditional institutions of democracy.

Finally, Hector Schamis contrasted the Peronist movement of the 1940s and 1950s in Argentina, a regime that became the prototype and reference point of populism in Latin America, with the so-called populism of the 21st century. The populist experiences of the past are no longer viable in the 21st century, he claimed, and the term neo-populism does not provide a good analytical definition of the nature of these regimes. At best, he said, today's regimes can be considered post-populist, because they are dealing with populism's legacies. Populism, Schamis argues, came as a result of the Great Depression and its aftermath. As such, it is related to a particular industrialization strategy based on import substitution and the mobilization and political inclusion of vast sectors of the population, particularly industrial workers. Neither former presidents Carlos Menem or Néstor Kirchner, nor current President Cristina Kirchner, can be classified as populists. While they have appealed to the poor and underprivileged, they have confronted serious limits to their ability to take on strong private sector interests. Menem campaigned as a populist, but once in power, he pacted with big business and introduced pro-market reforms, including the controversial privatization of state enterprises. The Kirchners look and sound like populists, but they lack an industrialization strategy, have not articulated or introduced a social program to reduce poverty, and have not been able to organize and institutionalize a multi-class coalition of support. Political patronage, not populism, characterizes the rule of both Kirchners. Their strategy is to concentrate power in the hands of the executive, something facilitated by Argentina's deep political fragmentation.