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The whole world must learn from Latin America’s populist leaders

Strongman political leaders changed the face of Latin America. Now the whole world must learn the lessons of populism, says Will Grant
The whole world must learn the lessons of populism, writes Will Grant

A conservative president hellbent on staying in power. A contested election result leading to a month-long stand-off. A violent protest in which several people died.

No, not Washington DC in recent months – but Honduras in 2017.

The president in question, Juan Orlando Hernández, succeeded where his ally to the North, Donald Trump, recently failed. He clung on to power in the face of overwhelming evidence he lost.

The Trump Administration congratulated Mr Hernández even as his rival was asking where his lead vanished to when the count was inexplicably stopped for 36 hours.

The populist strongman is undoubtedly an attractive prospect in Latin America.

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The entire sorry episode had huge consequences for Hondurans. President Hernández was later named by US prosecutors as the co-conspirator in his brother’s drug-trafficking trial in New York. He denies the charge – that he was financed by drug money from ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán – saying it is politically motivated.

So often in Latin America, real lives read better than any fictional character one might invent. And the past two decades have been peppered by figures far more charismatic and politically astute than the hapless Hernández.

To me, the most important and interesting ones of the 21st-century made up what was known as the ‘Pink Tide’, the swing to the left in the Americas. I see that period as bookended by two moments: the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power in Venezuela in 1999 and the death of Fidel Castro in 2016.

As a BBC correspondent based in the region for the past 14 years, I’ve met and interviewed several of the ‘Pink Tide’ leaders from Chávez to Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva in Brazil, from Bolivia’s Evo Morales to Rafael Correa in Ecuador. I was struck how these men would often be painted as the same, as homogenous or monolithic. I wanted to show that, although they shared some ideas, they and their political projects differed greatly.

The populist strongman is undoubtedly an attractive prospect in Latin America. Decades of military rule during the 1960s and ’70s were followed by corrupt conservative governments craven to Washington. The terrible abuses of those years made a leader like Hugo Chávez seem irresistible to many millions when he burst on to the political scene in the 1990s.

He promised to be the change they sought, to use Venezuela’s oil wealth to alleviate their misery. He looked and sounded like them, had roots in rural poverty. At a rally in Caracas, I saw him lay it out in plain language: “yo no soy yo, ¡yo soy un pueblo, carajo!”, he yelled into the microphone, “I am not me, I’m the people, goddammit!”

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That fundamental idea – the leader is the people and the people are the leader – is nothing new. Populism is as old as politics itself in Latin America. It’s closely aligned with the near-deification of some extremely fallible leaders, several of whom rewrote their constitutions to perpetuate their time in power.

Populism is not ideological, it’s neither of the left or the right. It’s fundamentally about power – and holding on to it at all costs – rather than any single political colour. Everything revolves around the leader with the party relegated under the sheer weight of one outsized personality.

From the turn of the century, those controversial, colourful figures ushered in a new and hitherto unseen period of left-wing authoritarianism in the Americas, the effects of which are still felt today.

When history reflects on their moment of high tide it is a decidedly mixed picture. They were loved by their supporters, and untouchable at the polls. For a time, they made real economic strides. Lula and Evo Morales in particular pulled millions from extreme poverty via family stipends and subsidised food programmes, and tackled the ingrained stigma of being poor, indigenous or black in the Americas.

The conditions were created for some dangerous characters to take over.

To fail to recognise those achievements would be churlish. Evo Morales was the first indigenous president in a majority indigenous nation, a hugely important step for Bolivia and South America.

But their critics accused them of becoming intoxicated with power. They said their political projects were mere clientelism, a house of cards based on a high commodities price. When that fell, they predicted, so too would their ‘revolutions’. Nowhere does that charge stick more than in Venezuela which has seen near-total economic collapse since Chávez’s untimely death from cancer in 2013, and the biggest exodus in the modern history of Latin America.

The conditions were created for some dangerous characters to take over. In Venezuela, Chávez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, has strengthened his autocratic rule while in Brazil, the pendulum has swung from left to far right following the election of former army captain, Jair Bolsonaro.

Populism has been the defining political issue in this early part of the 21st century. As it becomes so ubiquitous, so prevalent in democracies around the world, there’s much to learn from the experience in the Americas. Whether Honduras or Havana, Caracas or, indeed, Washington, the people know all too well the dangers of one man’s ambition to hold absolute power. 

Will Grant’s ¡Populista! is out now (Head of Zeus, £25)