Over the past week, important public figures from Mexico’s President Vicente Fox to Interamerican Development Bank President Enrique Iglesias have joined forces to warn that “populism is rearing its ugly head again in Latin America .
The first alarm was sounded by Carlos Slim in the Barcelona Cultural Forum. Slim, Latin America’s wealthiest citizen and direct beneficiary of the privatization of the Mexican telephone system, warned that lack of growth in the region over the past 20 years and extreme concentration of wealth could lead to “nostalgia for populism and “undesirable authoritarian, populist, and protectionist alternatives.
President Fox took up the cry the following day, urging businessmen to “demonstrate the viability of a socially responsible market economy to halt populist and demagogic proposals that divert us from the true route to development. His sentiments were echoed by U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza, who urged more privatization and greater flexibility in labor protections, warning that without a stronger commitment to the market system investors would lose faith, and “society would move away from both the free market and democracy and toward the kind of demagoguery that has too often been the plague of other nations
“Populism in Latin America has been an enormous problem identified with ex Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón and Evita, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Alberto Fujimori, and Luis Echeverria of México, chimed in Alberto Núñez of the Mexican Businessmen’s Association that same day. He rallied business to “a head-on battle against populism.
Business representatives, government figures, and heads of international finance agree that the solution is more, not less, of the neoliberal economic model that the “populists attack.
But what, exactly, is the threat they warn of? Despite frequent use of the term, no concise definition of “populism exists in political dictionaries. In the Latin American context, it is described vaguely as a “syndrome rather than a theory that takes a mythologized notion of “the people as its central point of reference. In political discourse, its use is often synonymous with authoritarian and corrupt governments that pander to public opinion.
Although originally associated with agrarian movements and later the urban disenfranchised, in recent years, the term “populist in Latin America has been applied to any deviation from the free-trade norm.
The latest verbal assault on “populists comes in direct response to popular protests and an increasingly visible shattering of the Washington Consensus in the region. Over the past few years the neoliberal model exhorted by the IMF and World Bank and embraced by many national presidents has faced mounting criticism, leading to massive demonstrations that have blocked or slowed reforms, especially in Andean countries.
While some of these movements and leaders call for a total break with the model, most do not. Protests have targeted reforms aimed at privatizing natural resources, such as the battles in Bolivia over the terms of privatization of gas, or for control of vital services such as water, health, and electricity in Mexico and Central America. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez’s pro-poor social policies and the strident tone of his criticisms of the U.S. government and Venezuelan opposition have earned him the permanent moniker of populist, although the national policies have aimed at ameliorating, not overturning, neoliberalism.
What’s undeniable is that large segments of society in these countries associate neoliberal reforms with a series of negative trends that directly affect their lives: increased poverty for those excluded from the benefits of the model and burdened with its costs; loss of public assets to irresponsible and voracious private sectors; the turbo-dynamic of forced migration and family separation, especially in the countryside; growing polarization of wealth and power; and the erosion of equity gains for women, indigenous peoples, and the poor.
No wonder the people–not the mythical “people but the flesh-and-blood, in-the-streets kind–are protesting.
In the joint IMF-World Bank meeting held last week, the World Bank recognized again that global stability depends on the eradication of poverty and that the world is far behind in its goals in this area.
Their response is to tighten the screws on national governments through renewed pressure to carry out further neoliberal reforms. IMF Director Rodrigo Rato called for an IMF that would say “no to lending when its conditions were insufficiently met and the Fund agreed on more stringent “surveillance of debtor countries, economic policies. In Mexico, the international financial institutions have virtually demanded that the petroleum, electrical, health, and social security sectors be completely privatized, despite the spectacular failure of the bank privatization in that country.
In recently released reports, the IMF recommends that Mexico hold the line on government spending, assure debt payments, and push through remaining privatizing reforms. The World Bank urges improved conditions for private investment and less bureaucracy. While recognizing poor results in the area of poverty reduction and dangerous tendencies toward concentration of wealth, neither suggests an even moderate change of course.
Meanwhile, ascending Latin American political figures who are suggesting a change of course are immediately labelled as “populists. Fox’s recent accusations of populism were clearly dedicated to Mexico City mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and constituted the latest in a long series of political and pseudo-legal attacks aimed at thwarting a López Obrador presidential bid in 2006.
The mayor, a member of the center-left opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution and a leader in pre-electoral polls, has instituted pensions for the elderly and other public works that have gained him great popularity in the nation’s capital. In a speech on August 29 announcing 20 points of an “alternative project for the nation, he called the neoliberal model a “complete failure, noting that Mexico ‘s economic growth rate has averaged below its population growth rate since 1983, the public debt has tripled, and real wages have gone down.
The Kirchner government in Argentina has also suffered more than its share of populist charges, particularly from the U.S. right. Argentina is seen as straying from the fold due to its hard-bargaining with private debt-holders and the IMF. What earned the Argentine government its label of populist is its not-unreasonable insistence on assuring national recovery before repaying profligate lending institutes and international speculators.
By far the most dangerous application of the populism epithet has been the U.S. Southern Command’s recent inclusion of “radical populism on its list of national security threats.
SouthCom’s commander, General James Hill, alerted Congress to the threat of “radical populism in which the democratic process is undermined to decrease rather than protect individual rights. Recognizing that grassroots movements have at their root the failures of the current model, Hill warned that: “By tapping into these frustrations, which run concurrently with frustrations caused by social and economic inequality, the leaders are able to reinforce radical positions by inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment.
As analyst Tom Barry notes, “What was especially striking–and alarming–about Hill’s description of emerging populism was that it was described not just as a new political phenomenon but as a U.S. national security threat . He adds that this new threat “is being used to justify the rising levels of U.S. military and police aid to the region as well as the considerable presence of the U.S. military itself.
The syllogism that equates all grassroots movements against neoliberal reforms with “radical populism, and “radical populism with a security threat to the United States, opens the door to a carte blanche repression of these movements and their leaders. Within this logic, a civic battle to halt privatization of public services could become a mark for international counterinsurgency efforts. Such an extension of the definition of the United States , “national security interests could make the cold war pale in comparison.
A blanket condemnation of populism is a handy way to discredit popular discontent and smear opposition leaders. However, it does not help to decipher the deep and complex dynamics of the region.
Historically, political parties and the military have at times tapped popular discontent to gain and shore up power without substantially altering unequal social relations. These systems–from corporatism in Argentina and Mexico to nationalistic military regimes in Bolivia –demonstrate paths that should not be taken up again.
But it takes a serious lack of imagination to believe that the only options are the current failed model and past failed models. Instead of laying discursive traps, what’s needed is to give credence to the legitimate aspirations for change in Latin America today.