More Than Ideology: The Conflation of Populism with the Left in Latin America

By Cardoso, Fernando | Harvard International Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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More Than Ideology: The Conflation of Populism with the Left in Latin America


Cardoso, Fernando, Harvard International Review


If one reads current press reports and academic analyses on Latin America, the prevailing opinion seems to be that the left is making a comeback. Even though there is some truth to this perception, the political changes that are occurring in Latin America are much more complex than simply a general shift toward the political left. Oversimplification obscures rather than clarifies the current movements in Latin America. Circumstances within individual countries have resulted not in a common response but in a broad array of national responses to current challenges. In my view, the general movement toward the left in Latin America does not represent a change in ideology; instead, it represents a sentiment of dissatisfaction among voters caused by insufficient economic growth and the systematic failure of traditional institutions of representative democracy to ensure a higher standard of living for everyone.

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The 1980s and 1990s were a period of deep and accelerated change in Latin America. Political and economic reforms were implemented simultaneously. Democracy replaced military rule and was portrayed as more than simply an improved political architecture. It was also supposed to bring economic prosperity, thereby providing a powerful justification for new leaders to advance the cause of democracy. Economically, Latin America was largely stagnant in the late 1980s. Because of the relative success of inward-oriented models in the 1960s and 1970s, most Latin American countries maintained some of these policies well beyond their usefulness and were late in adopting open policies. Hand in hand with democratization was thus the need for Latin American nations to succeed in economic matters. Few people realized the dangers of blending the pains of globalization with the merits of democracy. Furthermore, expectations were so high that they could have never been fully met. Hence, democracy became a scapegoat for the lack of economic progress in Latin America.

By the turn of the century, almost all Latin American countries had implemented a vast agenda for reform that included the opening of their economies to foreign trade, privatization, and fiscal adjustment. Many saw these first-generation reforms and the reorientation of state actions as either an ideologically motivated search for a minimal state, inspired by "neo-liberalism," or as a foreign imposition as implied by the very name of the "Washington Consensus." That also helps explain the mounting anti-US rhetoric in the region. However, few countries have been able to reap the benefits of globalization as promised by the proponents of these ideologies. Globalization is not meant to be a road to a more just world; instead, it should be justified on economic rationale alone. It is allegedly a more efficient system for allocating means of production worldwide. Those with the largest economies and the greatest investment in education have fared the best. Mexico, Brazil, and Chile are cases in point, having received an enormous inflow of foreign investment. Medium-sized economies such as Argentina and Colombia are at a halfway point. Smaller economies, especially in South America, have lost out with globalization. This would probably have been the case with Venezuela as well, were it not for the oil price bonanza of the past few years. Central American countries have generally fared somewhat better by negotiating preferential access to the US market for their exports.

Populism as the Common Thread

Several of the new Latin American leaders have been able to exploit the shortcomings of the past reforms. They claim leftist credentials and have a demagogic mind-set that looks back rather than forward in the content of their inflammatory, populist speech. That is not to say, however, that they belong to a single movement that is shaping the entire region. Latin America is not a uniform political landscape; there is no ideological consistency among its new leaders.

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