I began to write these lines while listening to a speech by Hugo Chávez at a summit of the Andean Community of Nations in Lima, Peru, some time in 2005. As inspiration for this article, the speech helped crystallize my thinking. Populism in Latin America has a lot to do with discourse, rhetoric, and symbolism, and I came to understand many things about this kind of politics that are not to be found in the literature. I want now to describe the inherent tensions and contradictions of old and new populism in Latin America, especially as they relate to democracy. I will then consider the emergence in recent years of a new social democratic left characterized by an unambiguous commitment to democratic institutions. For there is not one (populist), not two (Marxist and populist), but at least three lefts in Latin America (populist, Marxist, and social democratic). Hugo Chávez may be the most visible and strident Latin American political figure, but he is not the most representative. In fact, he is the exception rather than the rule.
In significant ways, the history of Latin America in the last century can be described as a search for responses to the crisis of oligarchic rule that took place in the 1920s and 1930s. Populism appears as the most salient response within the context of the waves of democratization and authoritarianism that we have known in Latin America for so many decades. Somehow we are still in the process of “desoligarquización” that started at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is perhaps what explains the emergence of “neopopulism” in recent years, especially in the cases of Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. But these cases should not obscure the complex and diverse reality of Latin America, including the emergence of a new social democratic left, different from both Marxism and populism.
Populism emerged in the middle of an authoritarian wave, if we are to follow Samuel Huntington’s account of the three waves of democratization: the long wave, from the 1820s to 1920s, the short wave from the 1940s to the 1960s, and the current “third wave,” starting in the mid-1970s in southern Europe and the late-1970s in Latin America. The 1930s and 1940s saw the emergence of populism in Latin America, characterized by negative attitudes toward liberal-democratic institutions and liberal capitalism—in Europe, Nazism, fascism, and Stalinism; in Latin America, corporatism and populism. This context of a widespread discrediting of liberal-democratic institutions makes for a fundamental difference from contemporary neopopulism, which appears in the midst of an unprecedented wave of democratization in Latin America and around the world.
At the core of the emergence of traditional or classical populism was the crisis of oligarchic rule and the emergence of the “social question” as the newly mobilized popular and middle sectors sought “their pla...
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