Misunderstanding Latin America and its Left Populisms

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The U.S. has just instituted a new round of even more devastating economic sanctions as part of its ongoing campaign to oust Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro from power. These sanctions, like past efforts, will not contribute to Venezuelan democracy. As explained in an earlier post, the roots of the Venezuelan crisis are complex. The international reaction to the Venezuelan case illustrates the extent to which the U.S. (and now Canada and Europe) fail to understand Latin America’s political struggles. Forcing a particular regime from power will not solve anything; it will not make Venezuela a more democratic or just society.

Imperialist Involvement has never solved anything

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The strategy being employed to change the Venezuelan regime comes from a timeworn playbook in which the U.S. supports the representatives of the middle and upper classes, big landowners and business elites--the currently supposed supporters of liberal democracy and civil liberties. I say “supposed” because in the past U.S. support has involved backing military interventions and the sponsorship of brutal military dictatorships. These efforts aimed to dislodge leaders who, although often less than sterling supporters of liberal democracy and civil rights, stood for redistributive measures to benefit lower socio-economic groups. There are many examples, such as U.S support for the overthrow of populist left regimes in the southern cone from the mid- 1960s to the early 1970s, and U.S. support for brutal dictatorships in Central America during the 1980s.

Lessons of Peronism: Sharp Identity and Distributive Conflict

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The left and the particularly the populist left in Latin America (like pretty much all populisms) has always railed against the enemies of the people. In Latin America these have been some combination of elites and U.S. imperialism, typically seen as closely aligned. No matter how badly left populist regimes perform in the realm of economic policy, they can often retain an amazingly resilient core of solid support. A case in point: Peronism in Argentina (1946-1955). When U.S. Ambassador Spruille Braden came out in support of Perón’s opponent in the 1946 election, Perón’s claim that the U.S. was supporting the oligarchy against the Argentine people and that the election was a choice between “Perón or Braden” no doubt played an important role in his winning over 52 percent of the vote.

Social housing Peron regime 1949

Social housing Peron regime 1949

However, there other important factors accounting for Perón’s popularity. His promise of social justice rang true. As Minister of Labor between 1943 and 1946, he took measures that improved the living standards of workers enormously. Another key ingredient accounting for Peronist support was his (and his wife Eva’s) identification with the mestizo (racially mixed) culture of the country’s working class. Peron and Eva turned the middle and upper class derogatory term for Peronist supporters—cabecitas negras (a reference to their dark skin)--into a term of endearment. Perón spoke to his supporters in Lunfardo (the dialect of the lower urban classes) and drew on themes found in the tango, the music of the mixed-blood lower classes. Perón’s leadership fused deep seated popular aspirations involving escape from material and spiritual humiliation. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Peronism survives, an integral part of the deep polarization that characterizes the current Argentine electoral process.

Latin America and Venezuela: Racial and Social-class Hierarchies

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Chavez supporters

Latin America is characterized by reinforcing class and racial hierarchies involving denigration of the popular mixed blood population, who are excluded both socially and economically by the white/light skinned middle and upper classes. This is the story of the rise of Chavismo. Hugo Chávez, elected in 1998, with generous revenues from the petroleum boom increased social spending and reduced poverty substantially. He too railed against U.S. imperialism. In a 2006 speech to the United Nations, he denounced American imperialism and referred to the U.S. president as the “devil.” While Venezuelan standards of beauty denigrate non-white characteristics, most Venezuelans are black, Indigenous or mixed race. As elsewhere throughout the region, middle and upper classes are white in Venezuela. Chávez’s physical appearance and his folksy method of delivering speeches garnered a close connection with the Venezuelan masses. There was a distinct racial/cultural component to his appeal and to the opposition to it: his opponents called Chávez a monkey and Chávez supporters “hordes of monkeys.” Like Peron, Chávez identified with, and promoted popular culture. He embraced his black and indigenous heritage, claiming that racial hatred against himself was due to his physical non caucasian appearance. Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, lacks his predecessor’s political skills and abundant petroleum revenue. Neither managed their economies well.

Because Chávez gave poor Venezuelans dignity in the broadest sense of the term, support for Chavismo will not disappear even when Maduro, who is widely disliked, leaves office. In reaction to the latest sanctions, Maduro has played the anti-imperialist card, identifying Donald Trump as an imperialist promoter of racism and white supremacy. This is a statement that will likely resonate with many Venezuelans. Venezuela is a deeply divided society and it will remain deeply divided until Venezuelans themselves grapple with their profound distributive and identity-based conflicts. Economic sanctions, particularly ones imposed by an imperialist power that is backing one side in this tragic struggle and is regarded as deeply racist, will not accomplish this task.