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The populistic perversion
September 8, 2008
Populism in this region is nothing new. Perón in Argentina was populist and also Vargas in Brazil was populist. The problem is that the new populism didn't change its essence, but it did change its face. And like this, it obtains legitimacy in certain circles that before hated it.
By Claudio Paolillo

"Brasil and Mexico will drag the others along" was the confident answer of a very important European banker some months ago, when I asked him about the risk of populism expansion in Latin America. The conviction of the banker seemed to be sincere, but it also left the sensation of a desperate expression of wishes. Fact is that it's in the interests of the banker and his bank that this region maintains itself relatively stable, free from political and economical ups and downs that have always characterised her, for one simple reason: The success of his management depends on that the thousands of millions of dollars that they are operating with, he and his bank, don't end up disappearing due to one of the unpredictable sudden shocks with which we Latin Americans every once in a while surprise the world.

It's true that my interlocutor's arguments were based on heavy fundaments. Populism is present, basically, in five countries: Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. He thought - and probably continues to think - that that's it. Because, as he told me, the others, even though they came to power with "progressive flags", are not as foolish as Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Daniel Ortega or the ineffable Kirchner couple. "They aren't - he argumented - neither the Mexican Felipe Calderón, nor the Brazilian Lula, nor the Chilean Michelle Bachelet, nor the Uruguayan Tabaré Vázquez, nor the Columbian Alvaro Uribe, nor the Peruvian Alan García, nor the Costa Rican Oscar Arias". Back then, the banker didn't know which course was going to follow the Paraguayan Fernando Lugo. But, in any case, he held, Mexico and Brazil, plus Columbia, Peru, Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica, represent 85 % of the Latin American population and also a similar porcentage of the general gross product of the region.

This is a good starting point for the optimism of the European banker. But maybe that's not everything related to that topic. Chávez, Morales and Correa continue to install their "democratic dictatorships" in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, the Cuba of the Castros presents the world merely cosmetic changes, but it continues to be the in fact oldest Latin American regime, Ortega is more and more tied to this vicious circle and the Kirchners are, literally, incredible.

Above all this there is the mystery of Lugo, who can't be judged yet on a true perspective as he didn't even perform one month as head of the Paraguayan government yet (even though he already denounced an attempted coup d'etat against himself), the real possibility that the former guerilla fighters of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) might win the next elections in El Salvador,  the permanent reach for power of Ollanta Humala in Peru, the unexpected accession of Honduras to the ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana para Ámerica Latina y el Caribe) invented by Chavez, the persistence of Andrés López Obrador in Mexico and a certain chance that in Uruguay a "more left-oriented" government could follow the moderate one of Tabaré Vázquez, which in that country simply means a more populist one.

Populism in this region is nothing new. Perón in Argentina was populist and also Vargas in Brazil was populist. The problem is that the new populism didn't change its essence, but it did change its face. And like this, it obtains legitimacy in certain circles that before hated it.

The Argentines Héctor Leis and Eduardo Viola, two prominent professors of philosophy and political science who give classes in American and European universities, analized this phenomenon in a recently published book ("América del Sur en el mundo de las democracias de mercado"). According to those experts, the change regarding populism is evident.

"Back then reputiated by the most famous representatives of democratic ideas, from the left side as well as from the right wing, because of its strong authoritarian burden associated in an indeniable way with reactionary sectors of Latin American militarism, today populism returns with an enhanced prestige by democratic votes and with its past practically forgotten", according to Leis and Viola.

Like this, "with the same strength as populism earns a great number of votes in Latin American countries, it also gains ideological legitimacy in the democratic field". The most dramatic issue, they warn, is that "it's difficult to know what is worse" since "nothing could be as harmful for the processes of democratic consolidation right now going on throughout the continent as to mistake populism for democracy".

Populism assigns preeminence to the idea of the "enemy" and therefore to the logics of war. The researchers recall that "when the political behaviour of the actors reproduces this logic, the nation will end, sooner or later, cut into irreconcilable pieces". In this environment democracy and development become unreachable illusions.

In the past the democracy in the region faced two enemies: The demogogic populist and the revolutionary extremist. Both promised to solve all the problems with fast and simple solutions. But if they formerly attacked democracy separately, now they are together. "Democratic counterfeit of populism is that it doesn't create citizenship but majorities lacking conscience and serving the elites on duty", say Leis and Viola. And like this, in the name of "democracy", populism attacks the basic rights of the people, mistrusts the market economy and neglects the state which it treats as spoils of war.

Maybe the European banker might be right with his optimism about the near future of Latin America. But his arithmetic operation (Brazil and Mexico plus some others equals 85 % of Latin America and this is enough) seems a bit simplistic in the light of a much more complex phenomenon that is totally valid, apparently expanding and certainly very dangerous.