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In the years between Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Republican primaries and the 2018 midterm elections, a rash of opinion pieces compared him to Latin American leaders, contemporary and historic. A headline in The Washington Post declared, “Trump is the U.S.’s first Latin American president.” “In Venezuela, we couldn’t stop Chávez. Don’t make the same mistakes we did,” read another. The New York Times published virtually the same article three times: “Is Donald Trump an American Hugo Chávez?”; “What Hugo Chávez Tells Us About Donald Trump”; “Will Democracy survive Trump’s populism? Latin America may tell us.” These very pages analyzed “Trump’s Latin American model.” The Guardian joined the chorus, “How Donald Trump became America's Hugo Chávez,” and the Economist published its own version, with the slightly more oblique title, “A Peronist on the Potomac.” These opinion pieces tend to recycle the same analysis: Trump’s leadership style is “Latin American” because he is a demagogue who rhetorically invokes “the people” and vilifies a corrupt elite.
This analysis is rife with cultural stereotypes—of the caudillo or strongman ruler and the impoverished masses enthralled to him, passively exchanging their votes for clientelistic handouts. And the authors suggest that such a tradition is utterly foreign to the United States, that Trump is a sort of exotic species who has more in common with the leaders of “less-developed” democracies rather those presiding over our presumably otherwise-normal-and-noble republic. But beyond these exoticizing tropes, this media discourse aligns with a refrain in scholarly accounts of populism: a key characteristic of populism is the charismatic leader, a figure towering over adoring and irrational followers. These scholars and pundits weaponize Latin American populism, whatever its historical context or ideological shade, as a somber warning against any attempt to shake up the status quo.
But not all populisms are the same. The arc of left populism in Latin America does indeed impart important lessons for left activists and politicians in the United States—but they aren’t the ones you will read in the pages of the mainstream media.
Latin American history shows that left populism commences with grassroots movements that collectively identify as “the people.” El pueblo isn’t a mute mass, or a violent mob: it is the self-given name of the authors of an expansive collective identity, one whose borders shift and fade as new groups are brought into mutual alliance. El pueblo is the many, in both senses: it is the majority of society, and it comprises multiple social groups. In Latin America peasants are part of it, as are workers—though in less industrialized settings, most labor in the sprawling informal economy—along with the dwellers of vast urban and peri-urban slums, and rural peripheries. In Bolivia and Ecuador, Indigenous peoples were protagonists of left populism, claiming a broad popular identity—el pueblo—made up of multiple collective identities: los pueblos, or Indigenous peoples and other historically marginalized groups.
Latin America’s Pink Tide, a wave of leftist electoral victories from the late 1990s through the early 2010s, didn’t originate with the election of Hugo Chávez, Lula da Silva, Evo Morales, or Rafael Correa, but with the implementation of neoliberal policies decades prior and the crises that followed. The region’s neoliberal turn—which began in the 1970s under authoritarian regimes in Chile and Argentina and deepened in the 1980s and 90s after the re-establishment of formal democracies—was a product of both domestic elite consensus and international pressure, especially from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Policies of privatization, budget cuts, and trade liberalization exacerbated a “crisis of representation”: ordinary people’s disenchantment with the democratically elected governments that presided over debt crisis and austerity.
This context occasioned two types of populist responses. First was the neoliberal populism of presidents such as Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000) in Peru or Carlos Menem (1989–1999) in Argentina, who appealed to popular disenchantment but actively discouraged popular self-organization. After campaigning on vague promises to address people’s suffering, these leaders implemented neoliberalism “by surprise”—through deceptive bait-and-switch tactics, executive decrees, and backroom negotiations with Chambers of Commerce and the IMF—and further undermined the legitimacy of representative institutions and political parties. Second, and often in direct response to these governments, were waves of massive, region-wide mobilizations against neoliberal policies and the political class that had implemented them. These movements, based in the “popular sectors” of labor, peasant, Indigenous, and neighborhood groups, emerged as forceful collective actors, finding common cause in economic precarity and marginalized racial, ethnic and gender identities. In Ecuador, anti-neoliberal protests forced the resignation or impeachment of three presidents, as well as stalling several attempted neoliberal reforms.
These movements articulated what the Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau termed “the internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power” and connected distinct grievances under the shared sign of el pueblo. This was not a monolithic “people,” and stands in sharp contrast to right-wing attempts to conjure a “pure,” nationally defined demos. Rather, it comprised a heterogenous bloc of the exploited and excluded, the discriminated against and dispossessed. This internal diversity grounded the coalition’s political strength, as coalescing waves of protest brought a wider range of historically marginalized groups into alliance, broadening the “we” of popular subjectivity in an iterative fashion. In Bolivia and Ecuador, Indigenous peoples played a key role in articulating this bloc and in creatively re-signifying popular identity, with concepts such as “plurinationalism,” which recasts the polity as composed of multiple “peoples” with claims to territory and self-governance, and buen vivir or living well (a translation of the Quechua sumak kawsay), a vision of communal plentitude in harmony with nature.
In Ecuador, from 1990 to the early 2000s, the national Indigenous federation (CONAIE) articulated a broad bloc of the oppressed, which they conceived of in cultural (“Indigenous peoples”), democratic (“the people”), and class (“the poor”) terms, and defined against a class of political-economic elites (“the oligarchy”). This broad identity was not only rhetorical: it reflected on-the-ground alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups, and shared experiences of self-organization. Across the Americas, Indigenous peoples’ resistance to multiple oppressions, and visions of a world otherwise, contain the seeds of universal emancipation. In the long cycle of uprisings in Ecuador stretching from 1990 to 2005, the national Indigenous federation’s demands were at once particular and universal, calling for recognition of ancestral territory and control over bilingual education, but also for social welfare, public ownership, and a “Planned Ecological Communitarian Economy.” A better life for all, imagined and fought for from the vantage point of those subjected for centuries to the most brutal edge of imperial capitalism.
After 2005, the CONAIE’s political power declined, but its trenchant critique of neoliberalism continued to resonate. And, this past October, the movement has returned to its historic role of articulating anti-neoliberal protest, in its massive street demonstrations against austerity measures linked to an IMF loan package.
Without this longer cycle of popular mobilization, leftist president Rafael Correa (2007–2017) would have never come to power. During his campaigns and ten-year tenure in office, he redeployed the same critique of neoliberalism voiced by the Indigenous-led popular sector coalition. But his administration was marked by escalating conflicts with the CONAIE, indigenous base communities, environmentalists, labor unions, and student groups. The expanding extractive frontier of new oil and mining projects was a particularly charged site of contention. Ironically, the Correa administration claimed the mantle of “the people” in political disputes with the very movements who had initially assembled this expansive popular identity.
If pundits tend to get the origins of populism wrong—starting with individual politicians rather than coalescing movements—they also draw the wrong conclusions from the experiences of the left in government. They claim that left populists inevitably centralize power and mismanage public policy. In reality, the conditions that led to the “retreat” of the Pink Tide in several countries were more complex than the ostensibly authoritarian personalities of their leaders; instead they have their overdetermined roots in conditions both global and local, economic and political, structural and contingent.
Whenever the left comes to power, it faces a set of shared dilemmas and obstacles. The U.S. left would thus be wise to study the Pink Tide and the inevitable contradictions of the parliamentary path to socialism. The dramatic arc of the Sanders 2020 campaign, from its jubilant upswing to sudden foundering on the shoals of orchestrated centrist consolidation, clarifies how quickly these dilemmas and obstacles are set into motion—and how fatal they can be for insurgent political movements.
Even when left populist campaigns are victorious at the ballot box, in power they face the specific challenge of mobilizing against entrenched elites. In Latin America, where weak states have lacked the political will or institutional prowess to confront the ruling class, this means strengthening the state—and, given the neoliberal hollowing of the administrative state and the uneven subnational capacities that mark our federal system, the same would apply to the United States.
This task is of course difficult. States are, according to Marxist theorist Nicos Poulantzas, terrains of struggle, “the material condensation of the relation of forces between classes.” The daily operations of state institutions reflect the broader balance of social power and are themselves potential sites of class conflict. And, as Spanish political scientist and Podemos co-founder Juan Carlos Monedero reminds us, after left forces take power, state agencies and bureaucrats can function as enduring enclaves of reaction. Meanwhile, bolstering the state’s enforcement capacities—necessary to confront capital and restrain its political influence—risks overly concentrating power (and, in presidential systems, this concentration tends to strengthen the executive). It also risks overly centralizing decisions and empowering bureaucrats without organic connections to broad social bases. Wittingly or not, a left committed in principle to democratic participation can undermine social movement autonomy and marginalize grassroots democracy. Thus, the degree to which leftist leaders centralize power or criminalize dissent does not reflect a problem with “populism” per se, but the insulation of leaders from mobilized bases.
The dilemmas of left populism also reflect the exigencies of an extractive model of development. In Ecuador, the state relied on oil and mining exports to vastly improve the wellbeing of ordinary Ecuadorians. But this model also justified the deployment of repressive force against and criminalization of Indigenous and environmental activists, and ultimately fell victim to the slump of commodity prices. The pattern holds across the region. It’s no coincidence that the end of the commodity boom in 2014 coincided with Latin America’s shift to the right. The corollary is that to be politically, as well as ecologically, sustainable, leftist governments should inaugurate a transition away from an economic model vulnerable to the vagaries of global commodity markets to a socially just, green economy similar in spirit to the Green New Deal. In the Global South, this would require relief from crushing sovereign debt and redistribution from the wealthier countries that have historically profited from a neocolonial world order. And it’s worth noting that the U.S. is by no means immune to the volatility: from Ohio to Texas, tens of thousands of workers have been laid off from jobs in the oil and gas sectors, and the shale bust will have dire consequences for localities and states dependent on fossil fuel revenues. The demand for a just transition resonates across the hemisphere.
Other dilemmas immediately confront the electoral left, and while these are exacerbated by conditions of economic dependency and imperial coercion in Latin America, they are widely shared across our hemisphere. Left movements and governments face a hostile media environment: pundits, journalists, and moguls are deeply embedded in networks of elite power, and reporters tend to absorb the worldview of their informants. Left governments may confront a conservative judiciary that slows public policy with both jurisprudence and prosecution. The left needs to cultivate its own experts, from foreign policy to economic enforcers, and its own leaders.
The question of leadership is particularly tricky. The establishment’s vilification of left populist movements as mere personality cults simplifies a more complex truth. No doubt particular individuals ascend to the helms of mass mobilizations, catapulted upward by the serendipitous intersection of biography and history. They refine the expansive and diverse grievances of the popular sectors through evocative rhetoric and visual symbols and reflect them back to ever-broader audiences, endowing them with political legitimacy and amplifying their historic importance. But these leaders never act alone. They are never the sole authors of their speeches, so often peppered with familiar phrases from protest chants, folk songs, and the classics of Latin American critical thought. Likewise, the militancy of popular demands and the uptake of popular reception lent the words of Chavéz, Morales, Correa, and Lula their particular force. This dynamic reveals an oft-neglected aspect of Max Weber’s analysis of charisma: charisma is the most unstable source of authority because it is the most dependent on the ongoing ratification by its audience. It is this feature that accounts for charisma’s democratic quality.
Despite the complexity of individual leadership, however, for left forces to not only sustain themselves but deepen their political power requires the ongoing cultivation of new leadership, at all levels of parties and movements. Absent a broad ecology of independent media and organizers, left governments become insular and brittle, dominated by the president’s clique and lacking internal debate. In such a context, any dissent can look like the enemy’s work. In some cases, bases and parties polarize; in others, voters become complacent, or drift right. More generally, with left economic success the class calculus of left coalitions becomes increasingly complex. The poor are now the precarious middle class, more concerned with maintaining what they have earned than with deeper redistribution; for such a constituency, right-wing discourses of “security” and “law and order” resonate.
Latin America also teaches us that right-wing victory is not permanent. Deepening structural contradictions—poverty and wealth side-by-side, with newly resurgent right-wing governments only worsening the status quo—ensure that the Pink Tide’s retreat does not spell the end of history for the region’s left. In addition to recent electoral victories for the center-left in Mexico and Argentina, and deep social conflict in the wake of the 2019 coup in Bolivia, last year, popular insurgencies rose up in Ecuador and Chile, in each context sparked by policies that raised the cost of living for already economically precarious masses. And, in both cases, the militancy and scale of protests resulted in substantive concessions from governments, though they stopped short of transforming structural inequalities.
In Ecuador, protests were triggered by negotiations between President Lenín Moreno, Correa’s former vice-president and erstwhile ally, and the IMF that resulted in, among other measures, the elimination of fuel subsidies. In a process reminiscent of the heyday of protest against neoliberal reforms, the CONAIE articulated a popular sector coalition broader in social scope and bigger in size than their mobilizations under the Correa administration. After twelve days of unrest, during which 800 protestors were detained and more than 1000 were injured by police, Moreno reinstated the subsidies. This outcome raises thorny questions. What are the prospects for social struggles to build on such discrete successes in the effort to undo the entrenched dominant order more broadly? And, in petrostates like Ecuador, what are the possibilities of a just transition to a green economy? The subsidies that Moreno attempted to terminate are a form of fossil fueled welfare; absent mechanisms of global redistribution, it’s unclear how the needs of the Ecuadorian population can be met without fossil fuel extraction. Further complicating matters, the future of the oil industry is itself in question: the historic collapse in the price of crude has deprived Ecuador of its primary revenue stream and only portends another round of brutal austerity.
These questions are all the more pressing in the midst of the global pandemic sweeping through the hemisphere as I write. In Latin America’s informal economy, 100 million low-wage workers labor with scant protection against either the virus or economic turbulence. They must choose between working and risking infection, or staying home and going hungry. In recent history, popular movements have arisen to indict the untenable status quo; their provisional victories, including especially the broadening of political horizons that enabled the Pink Tide, have been met with forceful counter-reaction. Yet once the shock of brutal revanchism wears off, movements tend to re-articulate. Today, politically mediated class conflict has only accelerated in speed, characterized by dizzying reversals of political fortunes for both left and right. In the current impasse, a demobilizing interregnum of social distancing and immiseration, it’s impossible to predict the contours of the political terrain that will emerge once the pandemic recedes. But two dynamics seem to hold. First, the right’s grasp on power, so recently achieved, has already proven quite tenuous. Second, the outlook for the regional model of accumulation—resting on export-oriented primary sectors utterly dependent on global trade and an equally precarious, highly informalized service sector—look bleak.
Further north, the U.S. left is recovering from the feeling of a vertiginous descent that traces the tragic arc from Sanders’s success in the first three primaries to the presumptive nomination of Joe Biden. Sanders’s victories built on a several year period of cumulative left power, evidenced in the dramatic growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, the election of insurgent politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the resonance of transformative proposals such as the Green New Deal. But despite the temptation of political nihilism, left movements and campaigns have continued to organize even amidst the limitations of lockdowns and economic desperation, recognizing that moments of crisis are the critical junctures at which either the status quo is reproduced in even more morbid form, or the groundwork is laid for a more humane social order. The outcomes of the coming political battles will have consequences for years to come. In this context, it remains to be seen what new popular practices will be enacted, how collective subjectivities will be transformed, and whether the left can again forge a path to regional power.
Editors’ Note: Parts of this essay are adapted from the author’s forthcoming book, Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (Duke University Press).
Thea Riofrancos is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Providence College. She is author of the forthcoming book Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (Duke University Press).
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