It is widely asserted that Latin America has moved to the left.

At the same time, the political map of the continent is often depicted as a seamless, growing web of “populist” regimes. Some pundits have qualified this assertion by making what they think are useful distinctions. They discriminate “degrees” of populism.

Accordingly, a “soft-core” populist government, for instance, would be one that stands for prudent macroeconomic policies while retaining some of the deregulation reforms that went en vogue during the 90s. On the other hand you have populist rulers that order nationalizations or propose the idea of putting central banks under direct control of the executive branch. They decry liberal democracy and threaten freedom of speech, shrug off congress accountability and govern by decree while posing as headstrong advocates of submitting difficult, technical matters to direct popular vote. Both kinds of regimes, however disparate, would all correspond to the Latin American tradition of populism.

To complicate matters, ever since the early 1990s there has been a lot of talk about a special strain, the so called “neoliberal populism”.

Though central to grasping what is going on throughout the region, populism has proved to be an elusive concept. In the 1890s, the United States’ Midwest saw a surge of what then was called “populism”. It was a movement with rural origins that stood against what was thought as “the grip or urban cartels”, railroads not the least of them. Its heyday coincided with the 1896 presidential election, when American populists backed William Jennings Bryan in its crusade against the gold standard.

19th century Russia’s populists embraced peasant communalism to counter industrialization and Western-styled liberalism. “The heroism, the disinterestedness, the personal nobility of the Populist was often admitted by their Marxist opponents.”1 But while regarded as worthy forerunners of 20th century’s Russian revolutionary parties, they were usually “written down as an amalgam of unorganized moral indignation and utopian ideas in the muddled heads of self-taught peasants, well-meaning university intellectuals and other social casualties of the confused interim between the of an obsolescent feudalism and the beginning of the new capitalist phase in a backward country. Marxist historians still tend to describe it as a movement compounded of systematic misinterpretation of economic facts and social realities, noble but useless individual terrorism, and spontaneous or ill-directed peasant risings—the necessary but pathetic beginnings of real revolutionary activity, the prelude to the real play, a scene of naïve ideas and frustrated practice destined to be swept away by the new, revolutionary, dialectical science heralded by Plekhanov and Lenin”.2

But it is in Latin America where populism has had the most enduring influence and come to signify social unrest, corruption, lawlessness, outrageous contempt for individual and economical liberties, backwardness and sheer poverty.

It is nowadays customary among specialists—prompted by what Frenchmen call l’esprit de systeme—to list the “waves” of Latin American populism that time and again have swept the continent since the late 1920s. Thus, the Argentinian dictator Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974), who ruled his country as a military dictator from 1943 to 1946, then as an elected strong man, from 1946 to 1955, would belong in the “second wave” category while Peruvian Alan García’s first tenure as an elected president (1985-1990) belongs in the “third wave.”

Nevertheless, Latin American populism blurs any possible distinction between leader, party, government and state. Fifty years ago, populist leaders already differed from communist and socialist leaders in that they were keen to forge multi-class alliances. But already then as now, they packed the judiciary with their pals, rigged elections and riled against capitalism while fostering crony capitalism.

Most populist, past and present, have been military officers but then José María Velasco (1893-1979), Ecuador’s foremost populist leader, five times elected president and four times overthrown by the army, was a lawyer who rose to power on the votes of multitudes of sub-peasants and unskilled labourers emotionally enraptured by his oratory. Typically charismatic, he once was reported saying to his followers, “Give me a balcony and I will become president”.

Lashing oratory, charismatic caudillos, be it civil or military, contempt for the restraints on executive power that are normal in properly functioning democracies and crowd-maddening myths of social redemption such as Evita’s; these all are elements ordinarily associated with populism.

Indeed, populism can be a tangle of contradictions. Despite its anti-elitist drive, it tends to create new elites. Nationalism do not necessarily curb doing business with foreign “imperialists” corporations. Populist leaders campaign against political corruption but more often than not they end up generating even more.

“In the 1960—says a feature story ran by The Economist last year—populism seemed to fade away in Latin America, squeezed by Marxism, Christian democracy and military dictatorship. Its current revival shows that it is deeply rooted in the region’s political culture. But it also involves some new elements. The new crop of populist leaders rely partly on the politics of ethnic identity. Their coalitions are based on the poor, both urban and rural, and those labouring in the informal economy. They champion those discomfited by globalisation rather than industrialisation”.3

Early on the 1990s, many observers hastened to predict the demise of populism arguing that now available top-notch techniques of political marketing had rendered all candidates charismatic, given enough money. Furthermore—so went the argument—new global economic and social realities demanded new policies, absolutely unattainable by obsolete, discredited populist parties and leaders. Populism was declared moribund, if not utterly extinct.

More recently, however, other analysts have maintained that one of the most prominent traits of populism is its—very often failed—inclination to bridge the gap between traditional and progressive policies. One explanation for this might be that populism is a technique (or a set of techniques) of political leadership and of mass and proxy control rather than a likely enough “ideology”.

Furthermore, as American historian Michael L. Conniff has noted in Populism in Latin America, “The populists imaginatively constructed broad, heterogeneous followings by appealing to diverse groups in different ways. They formulated vague programs and doctrines with which many sectors and class could identify.—Perón’s Justicialismo, [Brazilian dictator, Getulio] Vargas’ Trabalhismo are good examples”.4

This is precisely what we are witnessing in many countries of the region, more than a decade after Conniff’s remarks were written. Consider Venezuela’s bolivarianismo or Bolivia’s indigenismo.

“The multiclass makeup of populism—Connifs goes on to say—stood in contrast to most other parties in the region, which drew from restricted social strata, for example, the workers, middle sectors, or rural landowners. Populists’ broad appeals gave their parties heterogeneous followings that were unwieldy yet also very effective in reaching newly enfranchised voters, a something-for-everyone approach. Only very clever leaders could manage this without tripping over discrepant planks in their platforms.”5

All in all, no matter how clever a leader can be or how craftily populist coalitions are built, the fact is that personalismo, as well as excessive centralization, condemns government agencies and public servants to paralysis as all decisions, appointments, and initiatives require the leader’s direct involvement, approval and action. This is what ultimately undermines the effectiveness of populism once its leaders are in office.

No appraisal of the salient features of Latin American populism will be complete without addressing what populism entails in economical terms.

Populism’s emphasis on growth and income distribution with disregard for inflation and deficit finance are paradigmatic. In a 1999 study that has already become a classic, the late Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards set out the Latin American populist paradigm and went as far as breaking it up into phases.6

Once the initial phases are completed the economy runs into bottlenecks due to ill-advised expansive policies and a growing lack of foreign exchange. Inflation, price realignments and devaluation become unavoidable as the budget deficit worsens as a result of subsidized wages and goods.

It has happened in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Chile, at different epochs throughout the 20 century, and under the aegis of multifarious regimes. According Dornbusch and Edwards, the macroeconomics of all these various experiences is very much the same, even if the politics differed greatly.

Can countries develop an economic memory? It’s a difficult question. Dornbusch and Edwards summarize the findings of the many fine Latin American contributors to their book in a somewhat disheartening way.

“Quite clearly,” they write, “the detailed case studies collected here suggest that, in general, there is very little capacity (and willingness) of learning from other countries’ experiences. Indeed, one of the most striking regularities of these episodes is the insistence with which the engineers of the populist programs argue that their circumstances are unique and thus immune from historical lessons from other nations.”


Isaiah Berlin, “Introduction” in Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution. A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1966, p. xxvii. Published later as “Russian Populism” in Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers. London, 1980.

Ibid. p. xxviii

“The return of populism.” The Economist, Apr. 12, 2006.

Michael Conniff, (Editor), Populism in Latin America. The University of Alabama Press, 1999, p.16.

Ibid., p.14.

For a full fledged discussion on how this “paradigm” explains the ultimate failure of populist economics, see Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards, (Editors), The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America. The University of Chicago Press, 1991.


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.