Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America

Please cite as:

Venga, Luca & Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 20, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0052             

 

This brief report offers a summary of the first event in ECPS’s Regional Panel series titled “Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America” which took place online on March 7, 2024. Professor Maria Isabel Puerta Riera moderated the panel, featuring insights from six distinguished populism scholars.

Report by Luca Venga* Andrea Guidotti

This report provides an overview of the first event in ECPS’s Regional Panel series titled "Old and New Facets of Populism in Latin America" and held online on March 7, 2024. Moderated by Dr. Maria Puerta Riera, Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Valencia College, the panel featured speakers Dr. Ronaldo Munck , Professor of Sociology, Dublin City University, Dr. Julio F. Carrión, Professor of Comparative Politics, Delaware University, Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera, Assistant Professor of Political Science at The Citadel, The Military College of Charleston, Dr. Reinhard Heinisch and Dr. Andrés Laguna Tapia, respectively Professor of Comparative Austrian Politics at the University of Salzburg and director of the Center for Research in Communication and Humanities and head of Communication Studies at UPB in Cochabamba, and Dr. Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho, Professor of History at Universidade Federal do Maranhão.

Introduction

Moderator Professor Maria Isabel Puerta Riera opened the panel by offering an overview of the state of the research on populism, commenting on its existing varieties and on its adaptability to different contexts. She identified an ideological view of populism – one that sees the setting up of a confrontation between two antagonistic, homogenous groups (the “pure people” and the “corrupted elites”) as the crucial element of this phenomenon – and a more pragmatic view, one that sees populism as a strategy for charismatic personalities to dominate national life and break their political exclusion. 

Dr. Puerta Riera thus highlighted the flexible nature of the concept, but also pointed at some common, shared trends – chief among them the idea of a radical democracy which dispenses with the formalities of liberal democracy in favour of a direct connection between the people and their leader. She then surveyed the existing varieties of populism in Latin America, distinguishing between populists who rely on ethno-nationalism, anti-imperialism, and on socio economic grievances as the foundations of their discourse. 

Dr. Puerta Riera sketched a temporal division of populism in Latin America: After a “first stage” characterized by populist support for a shift away from agriculture and towards industry (at the expense of the landowning elite) came a “second stage” with the advent of neoliberal economics and popular support of shock therapy in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Lastly, she pointed at a “third stage” characterized by the return of socialist populism, which first came to power through democratic elections before turning towards authoritarianism

In the authoritarian tendencies of many populist leaders, whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum, Dr. Puerta Riera found further evidence of the adaptability of this political phenomenon, paving the way for a discussion of its facets by the various panelists. 

Dr. Ronaldo Munck: “Populism and Socio-Political Transformation in Latin America”

Professor Ronaldo Munck underscores that populism usually stems from crisis, as economic failures generate the conditions for populist leaders to emerge and capitalize on the anger of the masses – as evidenced by the waves of populism that followed each major economic downturn. He covered a number of historical examples ranging from Peron to Chavez before raising a number of questions for future reflection.

The first panelist, Professor Ronaldo Munck, opened the discussion by highlighting the negative normative connotations associated with populism in the “western” world, while acknowledging that Latin America is likely to see this phenomenon under a different light, given its peculiar history in this regard. Dr. Munck also distinguished between a kind of socio-economic dimension of populism, centered around the fight against the landed elites of colonial times, a pragmatic view that portrays populism as an opportunistic strategy, and a third perspective, of post-structuralist nature, which focuses on populist discourse and its narratives. He further described populism as an empty signifier, one that is filled with meaning depending on its context and circumstances, adapting to the cleavages that divide society and that depends on the conscious construction of two groups as antagonists. 

Dr. Munck added that populism usually stems from crisis, as economic failures generate the conditions for populist leaders to emerge and capitalize on the anger of the masses – as evidenced by the waves of populism that followed each major economic downturn. He covered a number of historical examples ranging from Peron to Chavez before raising a number of questions for future reflection: Firstly, he pondered over a “re-Gramscification” of populism, with an increased emphasis on hegemony and the role it plays in populist politics, and secondly he called for an increased focus on the role of emotions and desires in filling the “empty signifier” with powerful images, myths and ideas that capture popular imagination. 

Dr. Julio F. Carriòn: “Varieties of Populism and Democratic Erosion: The Case of Latin America”

Professor Julio F. Carriòn’s general argument is that there are two main varieties of populism, both the product of the political processes and the shape of populist mobilization. The first is ‘constrained populism,’ in which you may see democratic erosion but not generally regime change. The second is ‘unconstrained populism,’ close to forms of authoritarianism and leading most often to regime changes. The general argument is that every populist leader/movement encounters at a point a moment of confrontation vis-à-vis opposite forces that determines or not the creation of power asymmetry – that consequently paves the way for democratic backsliding or regime change.

Professor Julio F. Carriòn offered a speech based on his book ‘A Dynamic Theory of Populism in Power. The Andes in Comparative Perspective.’ The key question of the book is the relationship between populism and the likelihood of regime change, following the comparative strain in the political sciences literature. Populism is then mainly viewed as a strategy to seek and exercise power, with the exhibition of a personalistic style of leadership, an anti-pluralistic and confrontational mentality, and a general distrust of checks and balances. 

His general argument is that there are two main varieties of populism, both the product of the political processes and the shape of populist mobilization. The first is ‘constrained populism,’ in which you may see democratic erosion but not generally regime change. The second is ‘unconstrained populism,’ close to forms of authoritarianism and leading most often to regime changes. The general argument is that every populist leader/movement encounters at a point a moment of confrontation vis-à-vis opposite forces that determines or not the creation of power asymmetry – that consequently paves the way for democratic backsliding or regime change. The process can be generally divided in three key moments: A tsunami phase where populism take off, a Hobbesian moment where populists are confronting other forces that can lead either to a re-equilibrations phase or to the desired populist in power moment. The development of power asymmetries during the confrontation phase will also consequently determine whether populist forces will be of a constrained or of an unconstrained type: If asymmetries arise, the political system will favor constrained populism.

To conclude, the second panelist discussed the ways to potentially apply this framework beyond the Andes. There are a few cases of constrained populism accompanied by democratic erosion in the American continent taken more broadly: Alan Garcia in Perù, Collor de Mello in Brazil, Menem and the Kirchners in Argentina, Trump in the US. But we can also argue for cases of unconstrained populism in Latin America and beyond where we can observe major processes of democratic erosion: Ortega in Nicaragua, Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Bukele in El Salvador.

Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera: “Global Power Dynamics and Authoritarian Populism in Venezuela”

Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera explained how Hugo Chavez used populism in Venezuela as a guiding ideology to build a cut of support around him, making use of old and new tools to channel participation and support, leading to feelings of empowerment while maintaining a rigid top-down control over their priorities and opportunities. Chavez portrayed himself as a champion of the oppressed and an enemy of imperialism, modulating his discourse to diverse settings, while controlling the elites around him and stymieing dissenting voices. Maduro kept using Chavismo as a guiding ideology whilst he increasingly lost public support and repressed dissent within party ranks, and economic conditions worsened. 

Dr. Adriana Boersner-Herrera provided a tightly focused presentation on Venezuela, comprehensively surveying the case of this country. She begun by distinguishing between populism and authoritarian populism, as the second is systematic in its rejection of pluralism and its concentration of power in the hands of a leader. The authoritarian populism is the more dangerous form, as it undermines democratic checks and balances and often includes extremist ideological elements – both from the left and the right. She then flagged how populism cannot be studies as a phenomenon bounded by national borders, since global events such as the rise of China or the retrenchment of the United States have important impacts on the trajectories of populist leaders and their ideas. 

This allowed her to introduce the case of Venezuela, as Dr. Boersner-Herrera underlined the transnational element of Hugo Chavez’s populist project, constructed in explicit opposition to the United States and in solidarity and cooperation with other allied regimes. A populist approach and discourse were used to capitalize on the divisions between the Global South and the Global North, and eventually to undermine democratic governance in Venezuela. 

She offered an overview of the main stages of “Chavismo,” beginning with the drafting of a new Constitution in 1999, moving to the creation of Bolivarian Circles in 2001 and the 2006 address to the United Nations. Dr. Boersner Herrera explained how Chavez used populism as a guiding ideology to build a cut of support around him, making use of old and new tools to channel participation and support, leading to feelings of empowerment while maintaining a rigid top-down control over their priorities and opportunities. He portrayed himself as a champion of the oppressed and an enemy of imperialism, modulating his discourse to diverse settings, while controlling the elites around him and stymieing dissenting voices. 

Dr. Boersner-Herrera concluded by remarking on the regime’s economic foundations, and on the transition that led to the inauguration of the new President, Nicholas Maduro. She gave evidence supporting the theory that Maduro kept using Chavismo as a guiding ideology whilst he increasingly lost public support and repressed dissent within party ranks, and economic conditions worsened. Attention was also paid to Venezuela’s global networks, developed by Maduro to shore up his position and reap the benefits of anti-western discourse. Thus, Dr. Boersner-Herrera linked this specific case back to her broader suggestion that populism’s international dimension needs to be better understood and studied. 

Dr. Reinhard Heinisch & Dr. Andrés Laguna Tapia: “Libertarian Populism? Making Sense of Javier Milei’s Discourse”

According to Professor Reinhard Heinisch and Professor Andrés Laguna Tapia, Peron is considered the quintessence of populism in Argentina, exemplifying personalistic leadership, anti-institutionalist ideas, and following a redistributive economic agenda. In this sense ‘Peronism vs anti-Peronism’ remains a defining feature of Argentine politics, continuing to shape the nation’s political discourse. Against this backdrop, Javier Milei stands as a divergent figure, especially in the economic agenda layered out during his electoral campaign. Milei can be seen as a sui generis populist, fitting just some populist features and precisely Moffit’s theoretical approach about populist as performers of crisis. 

Professor Reinhard Heinisch and Professor Andrés Laguna Tapia gave a speech about Javier Milei’s political discourse. The aim of their presentation was to analyze Milei’s character under the lens of theories of populism in order to better position his figure in the political (populist) spectrum. To them, this is important because the literature describes Milei as a ‘half populist’ leader, in addition to the fact that he considers himself as a liberal libertarian vis-à-vis other populists in Argentina. To do that, Dr. Heinisch and Dr. Laguna Tapia looked at his discourse from three different approaches: Ideational populism, populism as a discursive frame, populism as a strategy, populism as performing crisis. The strategy employed to analyze Milei’s discourse has been to track his position in speeches and postings on the medias collected from the beginning of his campaign to the elections, under a holistic deductive coding methodology.

Dr. Laguna Tapia gave an historical summary of the unique perspective of Argentine populism, recalling the three-phases division of a ‘classical’ phase in the 1940s and 1950s, the ‘neo-populist’ era in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the resurgence phase in the early 21st century. Particularly, Peron is considered the quintessence of populism in Argentina, exemplifying personalistic leadership, anti-institutionalist ideas, and following a redistributive economic agenda. In this sense ‘Peronism vs anti-Peronism’ remains a defining feature of Argentine politics, continuing to shape the nation’s political discourse. Against this backdrop, Milei stands as a divergent figure, especially in the economic agenda layered out during his electoral campaign.

Dr. Heinisch then presented the findings of the research from every angle outlined above. From the ideational approach, Milei doesn’t refer much to the concept of ‘the people’ as opposed to ‘corrupt elites,’ that he spends a lot of time in identifying as enemies. There is also not much Manichean opposition between these two forces, and his host ideology is clearly a libertarian one, with a quasi-religious nature. Therefore, Milei does not fit the ideational pattern. 

Moving to the discursive framing approach, ‘the people’ is again not fully defined as a concept, while he focuses a lot on the diagnosis of the problems, without leaning a lot on the prognosis and about what he wants specifically to change. As well as before, he is clearer mostly on the economic agenda. Also here, he thus fails to satisfy this theoretical approach. 

Considering the third theoretical pattern, populism as a strategy, Dr. Heinisch argued that is difficult to tell whether populism is in itself a strategy or not, given that every politician has a strategy by definition. Milei is strategic here in the sense that he distances himself mainly from fellow conservatives and the representatives of the government. Hence, this approach is just half satisfactory to tackle Milei’s populism

Following the last line of investigation based on the performance of crisis, there is more evidence pointing to Milei as a populist. He talks extensively, strongly, and morally about the crisis Argentina is facing, describing enemies and detractors in extremely negative terms, while positioning ‘the people’ as opposed to them. To conclude, Milei can be seen as a sui generis populist, fitting just some populist features and precisely Moffit’s theoretical approach about populist as performers of crisis. 

Professor Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho: “The Phenomenon of ‘Bolsonarism’ in Brazil: Specificities and Global Connections”

Professor Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho offered an overview of ‘Bolsonarism,’ a peculiarly Brazilian phenomenon with a global dimension that is closely connected with populism. He drew comparisons between Bolsonarism and other far-right populist movements, noting similarities such as the reliance on a supposedly ‘outsider’ leader and the use of polarizing language, while also shedding light on the international connections of the Bolsonaro family within the galaxy of right-wing movements, before offering some remarks around the idea of populism and Bolsonarism as a symptom of the crisis of the current liberal-capitalist model. 

The last panelist, Professor Victor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho, offered an overview of ‘Bolsonarism,’ a peculiarly Brazilian phenomenon with a global dimension that is closely connected with populism

Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho begun with a general definition of populism, highlighting which elements are necessary for a movement to be labelled as populist. He identified the presence of a strong, charismatic leader, a discursive emphasis on the “us versus them” mentality, and a tension between liberal democracy and the movement’s impulses as the crucial facets of populism, before delving into the intricacies of the ‘people versus elites’ discourse. He underlined how these narratives are not necessarily based on pre-existing societal divisions but are built around ‘empty signifiers’ which act as catalysts to unite the people and construct an enemy to target. 

Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho then discussed the ways in which the highly publicized Lava Jato scandal was instrumentalized by the far-right to craft an anti-corruption narrative centered around the ideas of a clean, minimal state; a beacon of entrepreneurial freedom juxtaposed with the wasteful, inefficient ‘big state’ promoted by the left. This vision was presented as an apolitical quest in the nation’s interest, but Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho pointed at its inherently political agenda and at its ideological undertones. 

He then proceeded to explain how former President Jair Bolsonaro took ownership of this anti-corruption discourse, mixing it with a strong anti-communist rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War and of the years of the military dictatorship. Further, he pointed out how a new moral dimension was added by Evangelical and Neo-Pentecostal supporters of the former president, as corruption became an all-encompassing target in the ‘culture wars.’ 

Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho thus dissected the supposedly apolitical nature of these campaigns, exposing their roots in far-right thinking and in the frustrated aspirations of millions of Brazilians. He explained how the absence of a true national project, the state’s reliance on agribusiness, and the model of ‘consumer citizenship’ all led to a crisis of expectations, as economic conditions worsened, and many Brazilians felt robbed of their future. He placed these trends in the larger, global milieu, linking them with the 2008 financial crisis and with the worldwide neoliberal project, which creates new forms of subjectivation and promotes the rollback of an already absent state. 

Finally, Professor de Oliveira Pinto Coelho drew more comparisons between Bolsonarism and other far-right populist movements, noting similarities such as the reliance on a supposedly ‘outsider’ leader and the use of polarizing language, while also shedding light on the international connections of the Bolsonaro family within the galaxy of right-wing movements, before offering some concluding remarks around the idea of populism and Bolsonarism as a symptom of the crisis of the current liberal-capitalist model.

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