Saturday, May 20, 2006

Latin America: Populismo - Catchphase For A New Era - The P Word


Latin American politicians, media, and political consultants have adopted a new negative buzzword to denounce the new wave of leftist politicians and their policies. Populismo, in case you missed the connection, translates quite directly populism in English. And yes, it is a common word, but it has a distinctive twist to it. In this new era of competitive elections and mass media all across the continent, this is a native phenomenon and not an enemy or doctrine imposed or imported from abroad. And its symbolic figureheads are elected officials, or running for office and not golpistas.

The NL Word

The last au courant term was neoliberalismo, almost as dreaded a label in recent times, as the "L word" was among US Democrats. And no, the term is not a direct translation of the "Neo-Liberals" associated to certain Democratic politicians like Gary Hart in the 80's - though Hart -as well as every Democrat Presidential nominee since 1988- would certainly be considered neoliberales in Latin American today. In Latin America the liberal part applies to the 19th Century classical liberalism of a la John Stuart Mill, which stood for individual liberty, free markets and free trade. In the 1990's to be a Neo meant believing in a smaller state role in the economy, keeping balanced budgets, and encouraging foreign investment - what any sensible Democratic governor of Arkansas would do.

But in Latin America these policies provoked bitter reactions from many sectors of society. Opposition to neoliberalismo became a rallying point for post-Cold War leftists, nationalists angry at IMF policies, coca growers, unemployed syndicalists, indigenous rights activists, former state workers. In many ways this mimicked the loose collection of groups under the "anti-globalization" banner outside of the region. And in fact, foreign activists became sort of a "globalized constituency" (and source of funding) for many of these Latin American struggles.

Populist firebrands turned the term neo-liberalismo itself into a negative catch-all in the public imagination,identifying it with scandals from privatizations, U.S. anti-drug policies, job loss, foreign multinationals taking over companies. Repeat something enough times and it becomes true through repetition. At its core the spin was simple and effective: blame neoliberalismo for the failure of Latin American countries to reduce the gap between the have and the have-nots in the 1990's - and anything else that went wrong too. Facts be damned! Who cared that the public sectors in many countries dragged their countries economies down, that restructuring was needed, or that free market policies were making Asian countries rich. It didn't matter what you actually stood for, so long as you were against neoliberalismo. But, in the new era you also needed to deliver this effectively through mass media as well as to an international audience.

Evo Morales became the poster child for anti-neoliberalismo movement, both in Bolivia and abroad. He started out leading coca farmers angry at US-funded erradication, and shrewdly linked their struggle to opposition to free trade pacts, the indigena movements, squatters rights, and the intense nationalism of Bolivians. But that is not enough in the new era, he worked the mass media in Bolivia as well as abroad. In the end it worked, by promising to erradicate the Neoliberal model from the country, Evo went from a fringe leader to elected President in a landslide.

Gracias Evo

Time to thank Evo again. His recent meltdown in Vienna in front of a global audience, was a defining moment for the new populismo. Chavez gets a big assist, and deserves most of the credit, after all he has been doing it from the bully-pulpit of the Venezuelan Presidency since 99, now amped up even more by 70 dollars a barrel of Venezuelan crude. He did his best to mess with just about every major Latin American government and Spain right before the conference, guaranteeing fireworks at the meeting. But it was Evo who stole the show, even before it officially started. The party started with May day decrees nationalizing foreign oil and gas interestsay, and sending troops to occupy oil company headquarters including Petrobras much to Lula's annoyance. That was quite a prelude to an eresting summit between Latin American leaders (including Evo and Hugo) and the European Union, now the international press had a neat buzzword to throw around as the angle to the story: its all about that populismo thing.
And the actual show really did deliver! Evo's tirades became the hook, the first big TV moment followed by the tidal wave-like backlash. Just about every major player in Latin America and Spain, got in their soundbites condemning populismo including the Socialist leaders of Brazil and Spain. It became a dirty word, losing any positive connotation left. The contempt with which a Fox or a Toledo pronounced the very word populismo just made it that more dramatic.

What Does It Mean?

One the one hand, it doesn't matter what the dictionary says populismo means, for political purposes it has already been defined. Populismo es bad. Search a little further, and you find it represents both a personal style and actual politics.

What I mean by personal style is Chavez and Morales, whose effective use of mass media and international projection is partly responsible for getting them to where they are. But once the backlash starts, they have become the highly visible poster children, Willie Hortons for an entire continent. What they represent politically is a return to caudillos, the demagouges who pander to voters worst fears to get elected, promise the world, whip their supporters into frenzies against enemies real and imagined to keep power. If the neoliberal was the suit-wearing, technocrat at the mercy of big corporations, the populist is the blowhard who tells everyone what they want to hear, and the prisoner of his own promises to everyone. The old Latin American strongman with little concern for formalities like laws and rules of good governance. Throwbacks who have so little respect and understanding for what makes their economies work that Socialists call them out for it.
So now populismo is a personal insult and a blanket condemnation of whatever it is the populistas stand for. Irony of ironies, you now have populists condeming others for being populistas! When the average Peruvian or Mexican voter, sees Lula, Zapatero, and Alan Garcia(!), condeming the populismos, suddenly Chavez stops being the kind wacky uncle with petro-dollars, and anyone endorsed by him now seems scary. "Define your opponent before he defines you" is a maxim of politics. Politicians like Humalla and Obrador have made careers of fighting the neoliberal bogeyman, now they are getting slammed by the same strategy. Hey, live by the sword, die by the sword, could not have happened to a nicer bunch of guys.


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