Rapid decline of populist Govts in Latin America

| | in Oped

The ongoing social unrest in Venezuela and the escalating corruption scandals in Brazil are the two most observable phenomena signifying the rapid decline of the populist Governments in Latin America.

For some analysts, the current struggle of the Latin American populist Governments is due to the Chinese economic slowdown. They view the decline merely from an economics point of view and correlate it to the Chinese global economic sway. This is a rudimentary explanation of a multidimensional trend considering the establishment of the BRICS countries’ new Development Bank in 2015 through which China gains further financial muscles with the support of Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa to reinforce its economic influence in Latin America.

Nevertheless, the rapid decline of the populist Governments in Latin America is due to the disappearance of revolutionary socialist charismatic leaders and the involvement of populist political parties in corruption scandals.


Revolutionary Socialist Latin American Leaders

Fiedel Castro and Hugo Chavez were two of the last most outspoken and charismatic leaders in Latin America. Castro, the mentor, and Chavez, the protégé, were the perfect combination to moan around Latin America in their anti-capitalism and oligarchy pan-Latin-American socialist quest and set the political tune for populists.

Castro acted as the custodian of Latin American socialism and Chavez played the foot soldier role in support of it in the region. Indisputably, Castro was a revolutionary socialist leader who had enthused Chavez to launch an unsuccessful coup d’état against the Venezuelan Government in 1992 that landed Chavez in prison.

However, after imprisonment, Chavez incorporated his socialist beliefs into a populist approach to winning the Venezuelan presidential election of 1998. This adjustment may have marked the beginning of the “pink tide” in Latin America that brought in power several Left-wing populist leaders in the region. Chavez, a revolutionary socialist turned populist, was sworn in as a democratically elected president in February 1999. 

For good or evil, these two leaders were the dominant voices of the Latin American regions regardless of their Left-wing rhetoric. They did not only influence and support the populist Governments of Latin America, they also promoted and defended their socialism-inspired populist agendas at major international conferences. They were the regional source of aspiration for the rise of populist Governments in Central and South America in the 2000s and they were the de facto defenders of Latin American Left-wing populist politics at the global stage.

Almost no foreign head of state has come to the United States and called its leader the devil at the highest world formal setting as the United Nations General Assembly. Chavez stood behind the very same podium that Bush had done a day earlier and called Bush the devil while addressing the world leaders in New York on September 20, 2006. This showed the intensity of the Latin American socialism-led populist politics making its way at world summits as high caliber as the UN General Assembly.

The disappearance of such charismatic leaders in Latin America has led to a rapid decline of the populist Governments in the region. The populists have lost their source of inspiration regionally, and their defenders and promoters internationally. As a result, they have been losing ground in the Latin American politics.

The continuation of a nationwide protest and political unrest in Venezuela is an example of this. The vacuum that the country’s late leader, Hugo Chavez, left behind has been too big to be filled by his successor, Nicolas Maduro. President Maduro does not possess the charisma and leadership that his mentor had in governing Venezuela on the pink tide trajectory.

In fact, the way President Maduro has been dealing with the situation has pushed the country further into socio-economic and political crises to the extent that the Venezuelan people are turning against the populist politicians who once enjoyed unprecedented popular support.


Populist Leaders Involvement in Corruption Scandals

In Latin America, populists emerged in the sphere of politics to defend the common people who they believed were exploited by a group of greedy capitalists and privileged elite. They started their movement to label the other groups as corrupt and materialistic and declared themselves as the common people. This virtue attracted ordinary citizens of the lower social classes of the Latin American countries to join and support populist parties in the region. After decades of politicking, the populist parties began to dominate the Governments of the Latin American regions. By the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the majority of the Latin American Governments were populist. However, recent political developments indicate a reverse regional trend as a result of the populist leaders’ involvement in major corruption scandals.

Castro and Chavez might have maintained, to some extent, a status as leaders of the common people among their supporters until their deaths, while Jose Mujica of Uruguay remains a rare case. Other Latin American Left-wing populist leaders are accused of various kinds of corruption, and misuse of public funds and public authority. For instance, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva known as Lula, the former Brazilian president who enjoyed a great deal of support in Brazil and the Latin American regions among the populist supporters during his two-term presidency (2003-2011), is accused of major corruptions. Former populist Argentinean president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner too is in a similar situation and she is being investigated.

 When populist leaders, who came to power with the mission of protecting the poor people from the “greedy” and “corrupt” privileged elite, are investigated for corrupt practices, they are disgraceful to the core beliefs of the populism politics. Their betrayal has severe consequences that go beyond their personal political careers to diminish the socio-political leverages of the parties they represent. Lula’s involvement in the Petrobras scandal dragged his workers’ party, Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff. Since then, the entire country has been in a floating political mode.

 Many may still believe that Lula has a strong place in Brazilian politics, but this is more of an inner circle sentiment, not reflective of the greater Brazilian political ring. In fact, there is a higher chance of Lula going to prison than making a comeback to the realm of Brazilian power.

 Now, President Temer, a longtime collaborator of Lula is involved in another cross-regional corruption scandal that is marked as one of the biggest scandals in the history of the Brazilian politics. It seems to be so big to have its roots in other countries of Latin America and beyond where populist leaders have received suspicious financial payments from Brazilian firms. Brazilian-related bribery investigations have already gone out of the Brazilian jurisdiction. Some of the populist leaders are being investigated in other countries in Latin America and perhaps beyond in Africa. This escalating corruption scandal seems to be the beginning of an end for the populist governments in Latin America.


(Eisa Khan Ayoob Ayoobi is a PhD candidate in Government and Public Policy School at OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat. Prior to this, he was the Regional Cooperation Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan. He is a former Fulbright Scholar (Stanford University)

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