The term “populism” is used these days to refer to a vast array of leaders, movements, and parties—from Viktor Orbán’s far right anti-immigrant Fidesz party, to Evo Morales’ left radical anti-neoliberal Movement for Socialism, to recently elected Jair Bolsonaro, who has glorified Brazil’s period of military rule, promised to rid Brazil of socialism, and give the police free rein to kill suspected criminals. Does the term have any meaning if applied to such a disparate array of leaders, parties, and governments?
The Caravan of Central Americans making its way toward the U.S. border has led to the amassing of some 5000 U.S. troops along that border. This mass migration is driven by a confluence of factors that have a long-standing history in the region: most notably widespread poverty and violence. Central American countries, more than any other countries of the region, are, in the words of the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, “at war with the past.” They have a history of repressive dictatorships, extreme concentrations of wealth, and poverty. Part of that history, however, has involved the involvement of the United States in ways that have exacerbated the very problems that are causing the current massive out-migration.
Right wing populism, widely seen as a threat to liberal democracy, has been on the rise in the United States and Europe over the last decade. Latin America has a long history of both left and right populist movements, leaders, and governments. It also has had its share of programmatic political parties and leaders committed to social change and substantive democratization. Yet the region’s illiberal democratic features remain stubbornly persistent. There are lessons to be learned from the Latin American experience. Unfortunately, these lessons do not provide much reason for optimism.
In the wake of its most recent economic crisis, Argentina has just signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The agreement will reinforce the austerity measures introduced by centre/right president, Mauricio Macri, since 2015. Most observers blame Argentine populism for the country’s current economic debacle and urge strict austerity, institutional reform, and an end to corruption as the solution. However, such measures are not likely to solve much because they do not address the root cause of populism. Understanding the enormous reliance of populism is key since the most pessimistic of observers suggest that the current Argentine crisis may be the harbinger of worsening economic and (political) troubles in the region and beyond.
Inequality is not good for democracy and it is, as is widely known, on the rise everywhere. While wealth has always been instrumental in shaping political outcomes in electoral democracies, the concentrated wealth that has arisen with economic globalization has produced ever-more brazen forms of authoritarian behaviours on the part of political elites as they respond to the interests of their powerful economic allies. While details differ from country to country, there is an important common denominator: the role of economic power in giving greater leverage to political claims. In the worst cases, the economically powerful buy politicians, the media, and troublesome individuals. In all cases, the alliance between political leaders and economic elites has coincided with a notable distancing between political leaders and their publics.
Much has been written on the fight of millions from Global South countries in recent years. The main drivers of this out-migration have been civil war and/or high levels of social deprivation. This flow of migrants has had profound political implications in the Global North where it has been linked to the rise of new populist movements and parties. Indeed, the Trump phenomenon has played on growing American xenophobia that has been deepened by economic instability, labor precariousness, and regional poverty--all of these features have characterized the current phase of U.S. capitalism.
In a country of modern office towers, luxury condos, gated communities, and stylish outdoor cafes, 41 million people live in extreme poverty. In one major city, the extremely poor cover fifty city blocks, either living on the streets or in makeshift dwellings, without electricity, sanitation, or clean water. They suffer from the diseases of poverty, particularly intestinal parasites. This underclass is ignored, if they are not scorned, by the country’s middle and upper classes. This not a country in Latin America; it is the United States and the fifty blocks of desperately poor are in Los Angeles, one of the richest cities in the world.
In Mexico, earthquakes and politics are closely intertwined. The country’s 1985 earthquake (centred in Mexico City with a magnitude of 8.1) left 10,000 dead and 30,000 injured. It proved to be a defining political moment in the country’s politics. The failure of the government of President Miguel Hurtado to respond to the devastation, including his refusal of outside assistance, prompted widespread grassroots social mobilization. Spontaneously, thousands of assistance groups organized themselves to come to the aid of earthquake victims. A great many of these newly formed civil society organizations, and their opposition to the government, has been fueled by its callousness in the face of the earthquake tragedy, and has formed the bases of a new political front (the National Democratic Front) that challenged the ruling party (the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party, PRI) in the 1988 presidential election. It is widely believed that the PRI presidential candidate lost that election although the party managed to hang onto power. Faced with clear evidence of impending defeat, the government closed down the country’s computerized voting system, rejigged the vote tally, and declared victory. But Mexico’s transition to electoral democracy had begun. The use of electoral fraud gradually diminished as it became important to convince the country’s new NAFTA partners that Mexico was a worthy trade partner. By 1997, the ruling party had lost control of Congress and by 2000 the presidency.
On May 28, the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) and the Indigenous Council of Government (CIG), selected María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, an indigenous women from the Nahua community of the state of Jalisco, to run as their presidential candidate in the 2018 election. As she readily admits, she has no chance of winning. In fact, just obtaining the opportunity to run for the presidency will be a struggle since electoral law requires that an independent candidate obtain some 850,000 signatures across 17 of the country’s 32 states.
When I teach Latin American politics, I usually begin by counselling my Canadian undergraduates that it is important to resist the natural human inclination to pass judgement. It is tempting to do so because Latin American politics is rife with authoritarian strong men, corruption, and procedural irregularities. However, in the words of Uruguayan journalist, Eduardo Galeano, “History never really says goodbye. History says, 'See you later.'” This is particularly true when trying to make sense of the current turmoil in Venezuela. The Venezuelan crisis is the culmination of a complex and long historical process. Contrary to much of the mainstream media, it is not a good versus evil struggle between the forces of repression and the forces of democracy.
The mainstream media has characterized Emmanuel Macron’s victory in yesterday’s French election as a resounding defeat of right wing authoritarian populism. Macron, heading up a new political party called En Marche! (Forward!), won 65 percent of the popular vote against right wing populist Marine Le Pen’s 34 percent. Despite the rise of populist authoritarian movements in an increasing number of countries, global elites continue to laud the unquestionable benefits of free trade and other features of the neoliberal policy prescription.
U.S. politics is becoming increasingly polarized, characterized by growing rigidity, extremism and, at times, incidents of violence on the part of pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators. What many find most puzzling about the current U.S. administration is how President Trump can continually make what is regarded as outrageous statements without those statements having a substantial detrimental impact on his core base of support. True, his 37% approval rating is one of the lowest so early in a presidential first term. However, even this level of support is difficult to fathom. At the same time, many Democratic supporters have been unwilling to grant the new government even minimal legitimacy, apparently convinced that Trump’s road to the White House was paved with Russian complicity. Europe is now more politically polarized than ever before with the rise in popularity of populist right fringe parties, the result, according to reports, of a general ideological shift.
As Donald Trump assumes office as the 45th president of the United States, widespread pessimism about the impact of his presidency abounds. The Donald has not backed off from (what appeared at the time) to be his most extravagant campaign promises. He has ramped up his rhetoric against China and Mexico as at the root of the decline of American manufacturing. He has announced that he will re-negotiate NAFTA and, if America does not get what it wants, will abandon it. The U.S. will not enter the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The era of pursing free trade agreements with the rest of the world is gone, at least for now. Instead, we can expect his administration to slap tariffs on products manufactured abroad by U.S. companies and re-exported to the U.S., particularly in those sectors where it appears that companies have changed production location for the sake of reducing the cost of labor. Many commentators recalling the prelude to the Great Depression of the early 1930s, have raised fears about a decent into the protectionist policies of the past, a sharp deterioration of economic growth, and the onset of a severe recession. Others have opined that companies will simply seek other ways of reducing costs (and maintaining profits) such as through the use of robot technology. In general, most political observers place a great deal of blame on Trump himself for stirring up anti-trade public sentiments. Others focus on the racist/anti-immigrant and misogynist predispositions of Trump supporters, arguing that he has fostered these attitudes and rendered them legitimate.
U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has targeted Mexico as one of the main sources of job losses in the U.S., leaving many people with the mistaken impression that countries such as Mexico have been the winners in the global competitive game. However, today’s liberal trade and investment order, as I suggested in an earlier blog post, has not, on balance, benefitted Mexico. From 1996 to 2015, the Mexican economy has grown at the average annual growth rate of only 1.2 percent. With such lacklustre growth, the country’s poverty rate increased by 2.9 percent between 2008 and 2014. Inequality has also risen. While the top 10 percent saw their incomes rise, the bottom 50% of the population either failed to see their situation improve, or saw it deteriorate. In 2012, the total household income of the bottom 10 percent of the population was substantially lower than it was in 2008, despite some slight improvement in 2010.
The election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union have coincided with a growing chorus of concern about “fake news.” It is tempting to lay much of the blame on social media in general and on the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of teenagers in a small Macedonian town, who churned out pro Trump “news” to make money by increasing traffic to their sites. However, politicians and their supporters, particularly of the right centre populist variety, have also gotten into the act. One Donald Trump supporter, for example, claimed that Clinton and her senior staff were involved in underage sex rings while Trump himself made many false statements during his election campaign. He declared that global warming was a “hoax invented by the Chinese,” said that Barak Obama was not born in the U.S. and then lied again, by denying that he had made such a claim. Fake news, some believe, played a role in the American election and in the Brexit vote. There is also a growing consensus that this type of phenomenon is dangerous to liberal democratic institutions and it is on the rise.
Reactions to Fidel Castro’s demise have been strongly polarized. Denunciations from the Cuban American community have been particularly harsh. The first Cuban-American elected to Congress, said Castro was a “tyrant and thug” and hailed his death as an opportunity to “work for a Cuba that is free, democratic, and prosperous”. In Miami, Castro’s death sparked celebrations on the part of the Cuban American community. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement praising Castro has been widely criticized for its failure to mention the repressive nature of the regime and its human right violations. While the tributes of Latin American left leaders were generally effusive, leaders of the centre and centre right, did not focus on the negative aspects of Castro’s legacy. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto praised Castro for being “a friend of Mexico” and for “promoting bilateral relations based on respect, dialogue and solidarity”. Chile’s President, Michelle Bachelet, whose democratic credentials are impeccable who was herself imprisoned and tortured by another dictator said: “Fidel Castro fought for the ideals of dignity for his people and social justice, indelibly marking the history of America”. Brazilian’s new right wing President Michel Temer called Fidel Castro a "leader of convictions," who "marked the second half of the 20th century with the firm defense of the ideas in which he believed". Despite the recent failures of the regime, including severe restrictions on political freedoms and deprivations such as food shortages, many in Cuba, did mourn his death. Recent televised reports showed long lines of mourners in Havana, many tearful, paying their respects.
On October 2, Colombians voted by a narrow margin (50.2 to 49.8 percent) to reject the peace agreement negotiated by the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. This war has raged for 52 years, caused an estimated 220,000 deaths, and displaced millions. While the population is clearly polarized over the agreement, it is also widely believed that many who voted for the agreement, voted for it more out of war weariness than enthusiastic endorsement. Most recent analyses of the “no” victory point to public (mainly urban) concern about the aspects of the agreement that appear to provide overly generous provisions for the rebels, such as the guarantee that FARC members would be able to avoid long prison terms for brutal human rights violations. The agreement would also provide the FARC with a guaranteed 10 seats in Congress.
Mexico’s political and economic leaders are clearly terrified about the prospects of a Trump election victory. However, they should probably not be too sanguine about a Clinton victory either—although Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has rejected the idea of a wall along the Mexican/U.S. border, she has gone on record as supporting “a barrier to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in” (1). She, like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, also supports the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). To many observers it appears that Mexico has much to lose should the US abandon its enthusiasm for free trade agreements. It has, but the agreement has already been very costly for Mexico.
With the election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of Venezuela in 1998, the country became the darling of the intellectual left. Chavez pledged to confront the country’s reactionary oligarchy and redistribute the bounty from the country’s petroleum wealth to eradicate poverty, and deprivation. Until recently, supported by buoyant international petroleum prices, the “socialist” experiment seemed to work fairly well, although with intermittent and growing political tensions and increasing political polarization. Between 1999 and 2011, poverty and infant mortality rates declined. Today, however, the country faces a severe economic and humanitarian crisis involving inflation of over 700 percent, rising poverty, severe shortages in food and medical supplies, and burgeoning crime rates. Venezuela is now one of the world’s most violent countries.
The rise of the Trump phenomenon in the U.S. and the victory of the leave vote in Great Britain have given rise to growing concern about the rise of xenophobia among apparently large swaths of the public in both countries. There has also been considerable fear that such uncharitable attitudes may usher in a new age of inward protectionist policies that will hurt trade and general social welfare. While there is no doubt that anti-immigrant/anti-foreign sentiment is a reality in both cases, it is important to understand the conditions under which opposition politicians have been able to cultivate such sentiments.