ECPS Regional Panel — Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America

Inauguration of Argentinian President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires on December 1, 2023. Photo: Facundo Florit.

Date/Time: Thursday, March 7, 2024 / 15:00-17:30 CET

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Dr. Maria Puerta Riera

(Adjunct Professor in the Political Science at Valencia College)


Populism and Socio-Political Transformation in Latin America,” by Dr. Ronaldo Munck (Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Engaged Research at Dublin City University).

“Varieties of Populism and Democratic Erosion: The Case of Latin America,” by Dr. Julio F. Carrión (Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Delaware).

“Global Power Dynamics and Authoritarian Populism in Venezuela,” by Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera (Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina).

“Libertarian Populism? Making Sense of Javier Milei’s Discourse,” by Dr. Reinhard Heinisch (Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Salzburg and Head of the Department of Political Science) and Dr. Andrés Laguna Tapia (Director of the Center for Research in Communication and Humanities and head of Communication Studies at UPB in Cochabamba).

“The Phenomenon of ‘Bolsonarism’ in Brazil: Specificities and Global Connections,” by Dr. Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho (Professor of the Human Sciences at Universidade Federal do Maranhão).

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Brief Biographies and Abstracts

Dr. Maria Isabel Puerta Riera is a political scientist with a Ph.D. in Social Sciences. She serves as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Valencia College and holds the position of Research Fellow at GAPAC. She also chairs the LASA Venezuelan Studies Section and is a proud member of Red de Politólogas. Previously, Dr. Puerta Riera was an Associate Professor and Chair of Public Administration at Universidad de Carabobo in Venezuela. Her research interests are democratic backsliding, hybrid regimes, authoritarianism, illiberalism, populism, and immigration in Latin America. Email: Website:


Populism and Socio-Political Transformation in Latin America

Dr. Ronaldo Munck is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Engaged Research at Dublin City University and was a member of the Council of Europe Task Force on The Local Democratic Mission of Higher Education. Professor Munck was the first Head of Civic Engagement at DCU and drove the ‘third mission’ alongside teaching and research. As a political sociologist Professor Munck has written widely on the impact of globalisation on development, changing work patterns and migration. Recent works include Migration, Precarity and Global Governance; Rethinking Global Labour: After Neoliberalism and Social Movements in Latin America: Mapping the Mosaic.

Professor Munck has led large-scale social research projects funded by The British Academy, Economic and SocialResearch Council, Human Sciences Research Council, The Horizon Fund (EU), EU Peace and Reconciliation Fund, EUCorporate Social Responsibility Project, EU AGIS framework, EU Science and Society framework, HEA/Irish AidProgramme of Strategic Co-operation, South African Netherlands Partnership for Development, Social Science andHumanities Research Council, Canada.

He is a member of the editorial board of the following international journals: Globalizations, Global Social Policy, Global Discourse, Global Labour Journal, Latin American Perspectives and Review: Journal of the Fernand Braudel Center. He is a lead author of Amartya Sen’s International Panel on Social Progress Report ‘Rethinking Society of the 21st Century.’

Abstract: In both popular and academic parlance, the term “populism” has taken on a more or less uniformly negative connotation. It implies being an enemy of democracy, anti-immigrant and, most obviously, irrationally under the sway of a charismatic leader. Yet in Latin America, populism has been an integral element of the development and democratization process and plays an important role in the contemporary process of social transformation under the left-of-centre governments that have emerged since the turn of the century. Thus, we need to deconstruct the term “populism” and explore its diverse historical manifestations, to rethink its meaning and its prospects moving forward. The term “populism” today spells, for most people in the global North, something akin to racism and with dark memories of fascism lurking in the background. The “populists” who come to mind are Orbán, Le Pen, Farage or Trump, who cultivate a mass base around the needs of the “left behind” or native-born. The political elites are cast as globalizers, not from somewhere in particular, and dangerously complacent about the dangers of being swamped by mass immigration.

In Latin America, the same term has had a very different resonance. It is bound up with democratization, the incorporation of the working classes, and the making of the national developmental state. Its emergence is marked by the crisis of the conservative export-oriented state in the 1930s that burst into the open after the Second World War, with the growth of an organized labour movement and the consolidation of nationalism in the new world order that emerged. This gave way to what can be called a compromise state that replaced the old oligarchic state, and in which the popular masses were both mobilized and controlled by what became known as populist state politics.

There have been many interpretations of populism in Latin America. Early studies tended to place it in terms of the modernization of society and the emergence of disposable masses, waiting to be captured by an ideology that would promote social change while maintaining the stability of the dominant order. This perspective was closely tied to the dominant modernization perspective promoted by the US following the Second World War, as it sought to dominate the postcolonial world. It was also deployed in a different way by the advocates of national development, a conservative modernization from above, led by the state. It was thus often seen as tied to the emergence of national inward-looking development strategies that were an integral component of the postcolonial era. National industrialists would thus support these movements, as would the military in some cases due to their national developmentalist ambitions.


Varieties of Populism and Democratic Erosion: The Case of Latin America

Dr. Julio F. Carrión holds the position of Professor of Comparative Politics, specializing in Latin American Politics and Populism, at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. Dr. Carrión’s current research focuses on the relationship between populism, illiberalism, and democracy. He teaches courses in Latin American Politics, Research Methods, and Democratization more broadly, drawing upon his extensive experience in survey data analysis and both quantitative and qualitative methods. Dr. Carrión is the author of numerous books and articles. His most recent book is A Dynamic Theory of Populism in Power: The Andes in Comparative Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022). His most recent publication is “Illiberalism, Left-Wing Populism, and Popular Sovereignty in Latin America” (a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Illiberalism, edited by Marlene Laruelle, 2024). He is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively entitled Public Opinion and Democracy in Peru, co-authored with Patricia Zárate and Jorge Aragón.

Abstract: Recent experience in Latin America shows that the erosion of democratic rule emanates from different sources. However, it is still the case that the most severe cases of democratic backsliding in recent years have come from populist chief executives seeking to aggrandize their power. The prominence of these cases has led many to conclude that populism in power, whether of the left or the right, leads inexorably to regime change. I argue that the record does not support this conclusion. The ascension of populism to power generally opens a moment of severe political confrontation that may or may not lead to the end of democratic rule. Thus, the relationship between populism and democracy depends on the variety of populism that crystallizes in power. The variety of populism that eventually develops is the result of the combination of permissive and productive conditions as well as the ability of non-populist actors and judicial institutions to successfully confront its autocratic predispositions. When analyzing populism in power, the most important distinction to make is not the nature of its discourse or the political coalition behind it but whether it can be constrained by non-populist actors. I also argue that those who extol the democratizing effects of populism in power are similarly mistaken. The record shows that in no instance of populism that lasted a decade or more in power resulted in a significant increase in the exercise of popular sovereignty. 


Global Power Dynamics and Authoritarian Populism in Venezuela

Dr. Adriana Boersner Herrera is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at The Citadel, The Military College of Charleston. Dr. Boersner Herrera’s main areas of research are Venezuelan foreign policy, the presence of Russia in Latin America, and leadership studies focusing on the personality of dictators. Dr. Boersner Herrera has years of teaching experience both in Venezuela and the United States.

Abstract: Due to changes in global power dynamics and different centers of power having global ambitions and mutual distrust of the West, liberal democracy, neoliberalism, and the liberal international order seem to be facing a challenging test. Populist leaders have exploited this to push for a more authoritarian agenda and populist rhetoric, positioning themselves as strong leaders who will protect national interests against liberalism and what’s perceived as a failed model of liberal democracy. They have used different strategies, including institutional attacks to diminish checks and balances, hegemonic parties, surveillance, repression, and scapegoating. However, these authoritarian strategies have not been implemented separately from changes in the international context. Rather, the changes in global power dynamics in the 21st century have helped populist leaders to openly model other populists in implementing various strategies through economic dependency, geopolitical authoritarian alliances, and regional dynamics. In the case of Venezuela, since Nicolas Maduro took power in 2013, it has been prominent Venezuela’s economic dependence on China and Russia, solid and expanded authoritarian alliances with Cuba, China, Iran, Syria, and Russia, and regional isolation while Maduro’s authoritarian power has been consolidated. The focus here is to trace the rise of authoritarian populism in Venezuela and how it has been viable due to changes in global power dynamics in the 21st century.


Libertarian Populism? Making Sense of Javier Milei’s Discourse

Dr. Reinhard Heinisch
 is Professor of Comparative Austrian Politics at the University of Salzburg and Head of the Department of Political Science. He earned his PhD at Michigan State University, USA. His research focuses on comparative populism and democracy. He is the author of over 40 peer-reviewed research articles and more than 50 other academic publications, including 12 books. His research been funded by numerous grants including a Marie Curie fellowship and Horizon 2020 grant. He is a faculty affiliate of the University Pittsburgh and a regular visiting lecturer at Renmin University of China.

Dr. Andrés Laguna Tapia is director of the Center for Research in Communication and Humanities and head of Communication Studies at UPB in Cochabamba. He holds a PhD from the University of Barcelona. He won several journalism awards and was program director of the International Film Festival of Huesca and jury member in various film and literature competitions. He has contributed texts to journals, books, and media in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Spain, United States, France, and Mexico. His areas of research focus on film studies, the cultural and entertainment industries, philosophy of technology and aesthetics.

Abstract: Argentina’s Javier Milei is a self-proclaimed political insurgent promising radical political change. Upon assuming the presidency, he vowed to wrest power from la casta, a conceived illegitimate elite that he said had robbed the people of their resources and dignity. Milei, who is also known for his flamboyant style, cultivates the image of an anti-politician and a "madman," meaning that only a madman, a "loco," could take on and accomplish this task. Not surprisingly, political observers and the international media have identified Milei as a populist. Upon closer examination, however, it is unclear whether he is indeed a true populist, and even if Milei turns out to be such, it is not immediately apparent what kind of populist he is. While Milei’s anti-elitism is undisputed, his people-centeredness is. Since he is clearly also a libertarian, that means a defender of an extreme form of individualism, whereas populists generally construct some form of collective that they vow to defend. Populism without the construct of "the people" as a central reference category is unusual. Moreover, despite the bombastic rhetoric, Milei’s policy positions cannot simply be dismissed as typically shallow populist appeals to the lowest common denominator, because Milei is a serious economist. He has consistently backed up his calls with more substantive arguments. Furthermore, his proposals are not designed to be "popular," as they promise painful medium-term cuts for long-term gains, which is also unusual for populist discourses. Lastly, he operates in a country shaped by past populist politics, which Milei blames for Argentina’s misfortunes. All of this raises the question of whether Milei is an anti-populist populist or a populist without an inherently popular agenda. More generally, our two-part research question asks whether Milei is indeed a populist and, if so, what kind of populist he is. Our goal is not merely to classify Milei’s political agenda, but more importantly to determine whether Milei represents a new type of populist, perhaps anticipating a fourth wave of populism that has emerged in Latin America in response to the wave of left-wing populism of before. To this end we undertake a comprehensive text analysis of Milei’s speeches, interviews, and social media presentations.


Oscar Gracia Landaeta  (Universidad Privada Boliviana)

Reinhard Heinisch – (University of Salzburg, Austria)

Andres Laguna – (Universidad Privada Boliviana)

Claudia Muriel – (Universidad Privada Boliviana)


The Phenomenon of ‘Bolsonarism’ in Brazil: Specificities and Global Connections

Dr. Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho is Professor of History at Universidade Federal do Maranhão (UFMA) and a faculty member at the Postgraduate Program in History (PPGHis/UFMA). He holds a leadership role in the CNPq Research Group ‘Powers and Institutions, Worlds of Labor, and Political Ideas’ – POLIMT (UFMA). Additionally, he is a member of CNPq research groups ‘Peripheral Studies Network’ – REP (UFMA) and ‘Myth and Modernity’ – MiMo (UFMG). Dr. Coelho is affiliated with the Schmittian Studies Group, part of the International Network of Schmittian Studies – RIES. Furthermore, he serves as the Vice-coordinator of the Political History Working Group of History National Association – ANPUH Brazil for the biennium 2023-2025. He is also a member of the State Committee to Combat Torture under the State Secretariat for Human Rights and Popular Participation – SEDIHPOP/Government of the State of Maranhão for the biennium 2023-2025.

Abstract: The presentation aims to succinctly outline the primary characteristics of Bolsonarism, a far-right phenomenon in Brazil. While summarizing the features highlighted in local analyses, I seek to delve into its distinct aspects within the Brazilian context and identify the traits that make it a global phenomenon. Lastly, against the backdrop of "new populisms," I intend to define the distinguishing characteristics that classify Bolsonarism as a conservative or reactionary phenomenon, contrasting it with left-wing movements.

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