Latin American Neo-Populists: Or how I learned that Populism is nothing but Rhetorical Poppycock
Latin America has tragically been under the spell of populist governments through out its tumultuous history. There seems to always be an important neglected sector of the population that will always fall for the belief that someone will hold a messianic solution to their problems. Not that they are completely to be blamed because many of the neglected are simply uneducated and/or frustrated after many years of injustice. Causing them to go along with the person that can tell them the fairy tale with the best ending.
During the Andean diplomatic crisis last March I grew immensely irritated at my government and particularly its populist president: the controversial Hugo Chavez. It seemed to me that this was an obvious problem between Colombia and Ecuador. This would become a Venezuelan problem with Chavez and his never-ending theatrics. A theatric, that could be referred to as the the most dangerous one that he has done during his 9-year rule.
Chavez is currently losing support due to his terrible management of the Venezuelan economy, and his increasing autocratic governance. Although Chavez’s rule has always been controversial, with people either loving him or hating him, it is now obvious that elements that were either open to his ideas or who had previously supported him are no longer doing so. The Venezuelan peoples rejection to the referendum to reform the constitution on December 2007 is an example of this loss of support. Thus, Chavez most likely decided to move some Venezuelan troops to the border with Colombia during the Andean crisis in the hope of garnering some support against a foreign enemy. This is not new on his behalf since he has constantly used the U.S (“The Empire” as he refers to it) as an escape goat. He also accuses the opposition of having links with the U.S government.
The U.S scapegoat has worked in the past due to an opposition (or “Agents of the Empire” as he refers to them) that was not open to dialogue or compromise. As well as because of a failed coup d'etat in 2002. However, Chavez is currently faced with a legitimacy problem. Since he has no real opposition and has had a complete majority in the Venezuelan national assembly for more than 2 years. Thus, Chavez has no one else to blame for Venezuela’s deteriorating government institutions, rampant corruption and bad public management. Chavez and his administration are to be blamed fully. With oil at over 100 dollars a barrel one would think that the Venezuelan economy would be booming and that most of its people would be benefiting from it. However, this is not the case and only the new oligarchy or “boligarchy” (named after Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution") is benefiting from the high oil prices.
This so-called “revolutionary” government has in fact become but a simple pigpen of corrupt and inefficient politicians. Chavez’s revolution is nothing more than a well-orchestrated vaudeville act that has taken advantage of Venezuela’s poor. In the sense that the poor in Venezuela had been so neglected and ignored in the past that a little help or even recognition went a long way in getting their support. Not to mention, being addressed directly by the president with such consistency thanks to his weekly or sometimes even daily radio/TV shows.
Chavez frequent talk to the needy of Venezuela and his solidarity with them is but a lie. He has yet to deliver on his promises and his impromptu Bolivarian missions can only ease the situation of many. At the end of the day these missions will only be able to help as much as a group of red cross clinics or hospitals in a war torn country. Pablo Medina, a well known Venezuelan trade unionist that was once a supporter of Chavez, told a reporter once that Chavez’s relationship with the poor was like that of between an impotent flirtatious man and a woman. Medina would describe this as: “In that the man will flirt and give a lot of verbal flattery to the woman, but then when the moment comes, he cannot have sex with her.” This is a simile that although vulgar is in my opinion very accurate.
Chavez is not the only current populist leader (or neo-populist as they are being referred to) in South America. There are many others like Evo Morales and the Kirchners. However another populist president is Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe. A leader that due to his right wing tendencies seems to be overlooked as a populist by many. It is important to note that there is no clear definition for populism. The definition is rather flimsy like the idea itself. But one can say that most definitions emphasize that it can be both a political philosophy and/or rhetorical style that a candidate uses to essentially garnish “all around” support.
From both a philosophy and rhetorical point of view it is usually but an appeal to the current emotion and worries of people. This can be seen as a call for change and progress but usually just ends up being a successful rhetorical device to gain power. Since populists will only rise when a nation is in a state of despair. The problem is in my opinion that these leaders (at least in Latin America) do not usually fix the problems. It is also important to note that populists exist in either the left or right wing political spectrum. This is particularly significant because in Latin America there is a current wave of left wing populists, and this is precisely why Colombia’s conservative populist Alvaro Uribe has been overlooked.
Uribe certainly has a very different ideology than Chavez, but his success in extending his years of governance allows us to infer that he has also employed similar populist tactics to maintain himself in power. Even though both leaders will have to step down after their current terms. It is important to notice that there has been speculation about how both are trying to find out ways to change the electoral laws of their respective countries. In order for them to be allowed to run again.
This has been made complicated for Chavez with the Venezuela people’s rejection of constitutional reforms on December 2007. However, Chavez has been working hard to find out other ways with in the law to achieve this even after the Venezuelan people’s rejection. It has been made harder for Uribe because of the ongoing “Parapolitica” scandal involving members of his party and family. Some have even speculated that this scandal will soon directly involve him as well.
Uribe like Chavez has also an autocratic flare. He has gained his support due to his strong stance against the many guerrilla groups in Colombia. Particularly the largest active guerilla group: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC.) But the sad reality is that the FARC guerrilla army will continue to remain in Colombia for a very long time. Any talk of them going away is as silly as when the Bush administration claims that the insurgency in Iraq is close to being defeated. There is no sign that the conflict that started more than 40 years ago will end anytime soon even with Uribe’s tough military approach. However, I can only hope that it does end, as a citizen of the neighboring country who suffers the spillover effect of Colombia’s mismanagement of their guerrilla problem.
That is why when Uribe accused the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian governments of assisting and providing refuge to the FARC. I could only interpret it as yet another populist leader using foreign countries as an escape goat to hide his domestic failures. Although Chavez has certainly shown his sympathy towards the FARC (a sympathy that I particularly abhor) I find it tough to believe that he would finance them directly or that Ecuador would allow them refuge. Historically speaking the FARC has been very strong and have never really needed any sort of foreign government assistance to survive. Particularly with their highly lucrative but criminal dealings with the illicit drug industry in Colombia. The truth of the matter is that Uribe cannot eradicate the guerrilla group just like all the other presidents of Colombia before him. All other countries in South America have successfully eradicated their guerrilla groups through a "stick and carrot" strategy. Sometimes even with a lot more "stick" than "carrot" as it was the case in Venezuela and Peru. Colombia must use the "stick and carrot" method and not just the "stick method" because with no constructive dialogue their civil war will just go on forever.
One thing that is for sure though is that both Uribe and Chavez have placed themselves messiahs for their troubled countries. Both Uribistas and Chavistas devotion to each of their leaders is equally as scary. Like I have said both Uribe and Chavez might be very different in their ideologies but in their strategies to maintain power they have not been. Chavez is an obvious man “of the left” and Uribe a “man of the right.” But both leaders serve as examples of that reoccurring fantasy that people in Latin America seem to always fall for. That is the belief in a messiah like leader that will fix the problems that plague them. In Colombia’s case, it is the desire to find a leader that can eradicate the various guerrilla groups and drug lords. Colombians thus chose to elect a man with an “iron fist” and who they thought would eradicate such groups. Uribe portrayed himself as a strong man of the right since that side of the political spectrum has always tried to monopolize the idea that they are the ones that can provide better security for a nation. In Venezuela people were worried about the state of corruption and growing poverty that seemed to be increasing in the oil rich nation. Venezuelans thus elected a man that they thought would destroy political corruption and spread the riches in a productive way. That would not only boost the national industry but also provide most Venezuelans with a good standard of living. Thus Chavez placed himself as a leftist, because the left has always had a monopoly in both the economic equity and social justice sector of politics. He would also present himself, as a former military officer who people thought would put order due to his military background. The fact that both of these leaders created their own alternative parties to appease most peoples desires of outing the traditional ruling parties, simply goes to show us that both of them were well aware of peoples emotions, and simply acted to satisfy such bare needs in order to be elected.
The truth is that both leaders are failures and if anything is to be said of them is that they are/or were “great presidential candidates,” but not presidents. Their policies have not really made a particular long-term dent in either security or economic development. These two populists have only brought the empty and hopeful rhetoric that the desperate people of their countries not only heard but sadly believed. For that they are not leaders but merely implemented the successful theories of political marketing. They did not really sell their true ideology or program but simply catered to the desires of the masses with their politically savvy personas. Austrian Nobel laureate Friedrich Von Hayek wisely said:
“The successful politician owes his power to the fact that he moves within the accepted framework of thought, that he thinks and talks conventionally. It would be almost a contradiction in terms for a politician to be a leader in the field of ideas. His task in a democracy is to find out what the opinions held by the largest number are, not to give currency to new opinions which may become the majority view in some distant future.”
I could not agree more.
Authors Note May 4, 2008: It is important to note that although the term neo-populists has its roots in Presidents who embraced economic reforms of the neo-liberalism nature (e.g.: Like Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Carlos Menem of Argentina). Some (me included) feel that the current leftwing populists can also fall under this category. Since they have used similar strategies to maintain themselves in power. Particularly with their politically savvy use of all media outlets. The neo-liberalism doctrine did not work. So this has made a group of current left wing neo-populists get closer to ideas of the left in their rhetoric. The reason being that it would just be silly to try and sell to people an ideology that did not work for them in their lifetime. Even so once again I would like to emphasize that neo-populism like populism has a very weak definition.
Tags: Venezuela , Colombia , Populist , Populism , Hugo Chavez , Alvaro Uribe , Government , Autocrats , Scandal
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