Lies, deceit and betrayal: The perils of Latin America’s populism

Preach altruism, practice authoritarianism.
Preach altruism, practice authoritarianism.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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Around the turn of the millennium, prominent Latin America special­ist Scott Mainwaring highlighted the surprising endurance of democracy in that region after the transition wave of the late 1970s and 1980s. Dur­ing that interval, no democracy had permanently succumbed to a mili­tary coup or slid back into authoritarian rule. After decades marked by instability in numerous countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Ec­uador, this newfound democratic resilience came as a welcome surprise.

But at about the time Mainwaring was writing, onetime coupmaker Hugo Chávez was winning election to the Venezuelan presidency and beginning to move his country away from democratic rule. Venezuela had survived the rash of military coups that swept the region in the 1960s and 1970s to become a byword for democratic stability in Latin America. Economic deterioration, political ossification, and rampant corruption had brought sustained decay, however, and paved the way for this radical populist, former army officer, and would-be golpista (he had led a violent putsch that failed in February 1992) to decisively win the free and fair December 1998 balloting. Using plebiscitarian strategies to transform the country’s liberal institutional framework, concentrate power, and entrench himself, Chávez set about strangling democracy and putting competitive authoritarianism in its place. He remained as president till he died of cancer on 5 March 2013.

The Chávez phenomenon has had strong demonstration and conta­gion effects beyond Venezuela. Eager to overcome instability and ce­ment their own supremacy, Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia (2006-) and Rafael Correa of Ecuador (2007-) have emulated Chávez’s script. As did their political ally and financial benefactor, they have used con­stituent assemblies to augment executive powers, allow for presidential reelection, and weaken institutional checks and balances. From that po­sition of strength, they have made discretionary use of the law for politi­cal purposes. With this discriminatory legalism, they have attacked, un­dermined, and intimidated the opposition in their respective countries, moving toward competititve authoritarianism as well.

Similarly, strong informal pressures and disrespect for constitutional principles have enabled Daniel Ortega (2007-) to establish his hege­mony in Nicaragua. President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras (2006-2009) also sought to follow in the footsteps of Chávez, Morales, and Correa by convoking a constituent assembly and preparing his own perpetuation in power; yet coordinated opposition from Congress, the courts, and the military aborted this effort through a controversial June 2009 coup. Even President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina (2007-), whose fervent supporters take inspiration from Chávez, is eyeing constitutional changes and renewed reelection (she is now in her second term). Given Argentina’s weak and disunited opposition, this push for entrenchment, combined with continuing attacks on the press and the president’s per­sonalistic command over the state, has created alarm in civil society about looming threats to the country’s hard-won democracy.

That Venezuela had already fallen under nondemocratic rule was confirmed in October 2012 by Chávez’s unfair reelection, achieved with the help of intimidation tactics, tight restrictions on the opposition, and the massive misuse of the state apparatus. Since the third wave reached Latin America in 1978, the region had seen only occasional threats and temporary interruptions of democracy in individual nations. The recent suffocation of political pluralism in a whole group of countries is with­out precedent. For the first time in decades, democracy in Latin America is facing a sustained, coordinated threat. The regional trend toward de­mocracy, which had prevailed since the late 1970s, has suffered a partial reversal. Unexpectedly, democracy is now on the defensive in parts of the region.

With its electoral façade and progressive rhetoric about helping the excluded, the soft authoritarianism that is taking hold in parts of Latin America has an attractive face. It exerts an appeal on regional and global public opinion to which academics are not immune. The military dicta­tors of the 1960s and 1970s were ogres with no legitimacy who depicted themselves as stopgaps–house cleaners putting politics in order so de­mocracy could return. By contrast, Chávez and friends have claimed to institute a new participatory—and hence qualitatively better—form of democracy and to promote social equity and national independence. Rather than a short-lived detour, they seek to carve out a distinct devel­opment path purportedly leading to what Chávez called “socialism for the twenty-first century.” Their competitive authoritarianism appears not as a limited interruption but a permanent alternative to pluralist, representative democracy. This appeal is unusual among contemporary nondemocracies; it contrasts with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s more bluntly unsavory brand of autocracy, for instance. These “pro­gressive” claims aggravate the risks emanating from the recent turn to authoritarian rule.

The current authoritarian trend in Latin America is not regionwide: Major countries such as Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and now Colombia seem safely consolidated as democracies; Costa Rica and Uruguay boast espe­cially high democratic performance. But the unexpected ease with which a coordinated nucleus of competitive authoritarianism has emerged must give pause. To see even Argentina, with its tragic history, being lured by the siren song of personalistic plebiscitarianism is worrisome indeed.


As Steven Levitsky and James Loxton and Raúl Madrid have em­phasized, Chávez and his friends used populism to entrench their pre-dominance and install competitive authoritarian regimes. Populism, understood as a strategy for winning and exerting state power, inher­ently stands in tension with democracy and the value that it places upon pluralism, open debate, and fair competition. Populism revolves around personalistic leadership that feeds on quasi-direct links to a loosely  mass of heterogenous followers. Bypassing or subjugating intermediate institutions such as firmly organized parties, the leader—often a charismatic figure—establishes face-to-face contact with large numbers of citizens. In earlier decades, mass rallies were crucial; nowadays television allows populists to reach their followers “in person.” Chávez hosted a regular Sunday talk show. The leader in turn ascertains “the people’s will” through frequent popular votes and opinion polls. To show vigorous leadership, seem indispensable, and boost followers’ loyalty, populist politicians are fond of constantly attacking enemies, at least rhetorically. In this way, the leader blames others for the problems that have allowed the leader to take power and act as the savior of the fa­therland. The leader is the star of a drama in which “the people” struggle heroically under the leader’s direction against selfish, corrupt enemies at home and abroad.

As a political strategy, populism can have variegated and shifting ideological orientations and pursue diverse economic and social poli­cies. Contemporary Latin America has seen populist presidents from the right, such as Argentina’s Carlos Saúl Menem (1989-99) and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), and populists of the left such as Chávez, Morales, and Correa. Many populist leaders have embraced economic nationalism and state interventionism, yet others have imposed free­market reforms. In a particular twist, the Peronist Menem dismantled the protectionism-based developmental model that his own party’s populist founder, Juan Perón (president from 1946 to 1955, and then again from 1973 to 1974), had installed.

Populism will always stand in tension with democracy. The logic of personalism drives populist politicians to widen their powers and discre­tion. Because these leaders sustain their influence via personal appeals rather than intermediary organizations, they see any institutions outside their control as obstacles to be bypassed or overcome. Determined and politically compelled to boost their personal predominance, populist leaders strive to weaken constitutional checks and balances and to sub­ordinate independent agencies to their will. They undermine institution­al protections against the abuse of power and seek political hegemony.

Correspondingly, populist leaders treat opponents not as adversaries in a fair and equal competition, but as profound threats. Branding rivals “enemies of the people,” they seek all means to defeat and marginalize them. Turning politics into a struggle of “us against them,” populists un­dermine pluralism and bend or trample institutional safeguards. Populist leaders also put strong pressure on independent forces in civil society and strive to control the media, especially television. All these attacks, depicted as a defense of the people against rapacious elites, are also meant to strengthen leader-follower bonds and thus to compensate for the lack of organizational mediation. The absence of institutional disci­pline in the populist movement prompts the leader to recharge the base’s loyalty through heroic activism. In all these ways, the populist notion of politics as an “all or nothing” struggle damages democracy.

Populism, whether of the left or the right, is a threat to democracy. Yet in Latin America today, the graver and more sustained danger is coming from the leftist variant. Chávez set the model. As soon as he was elected president of Venezuela, he set about revamping the country’s institutional framework. First, he called a constituent assembly. Then, to dislodge the established political class that he charged with selfish­ness and corruption, he successfully pushed to close the recently elected bicameral Congress, where his followers held only about a third of the seats. Thanks to a reengineered electoral system, Chávez dominated the constituent assembly that boosted his powers, ended the ban on consecu­tive terms, and created a new unicameral (and hence easier to control) national legislature. These institutional victories—plus the promise of socioeconomic change—lifted Chávez and his camp to victory in the 2000 elections. Moreover, he took control of the courts and other in­dependent institutions, such as Venezuela’s electoral commission, and soon had a stranglehold on all branches of government.

Chávez and his supporters, along with some academics and intellec­tuals, claimed that Venezuela had become a participatory democracy. Common citizens, so long neglected by traditional politicians, could at last have a direct say in their own governance. There is some truth to these claims when it comes to local decision making and social-program implementation, but they are unconvincing as applied to the crucial arena of national policy making.

There should be no mistaking that Hugo Chávez made every im­portant decision and thoroughly determined his country’s political course. No aide could rein him in, and the people lacked the capacity to advance their collective will independently. The absence of firm popular organization and of transparent decision-making procedures precluded effective bottom-up influence. Political initiative emanated from the leader, not the citizens. Chávez never changed any signifi­cant plan due to popular resistance. Even when he lost, as in the 2007 constitutional plebiscite, he simply redoubled his efforts and pushed through to his goals. Rather than driving decisions, the populace was the object of Chávez’s populist strategies and tactics, as can be seen from the rapid rise and decline of chavista movements such as the Bolivarian Circles. Talk about direct democracy cannot change con­temporary Venezuela’s status as a prototypical case of personalistic populism. Chávez’s handpicked successor Nicolás Maduro, who won an April 2013 special election to the presidency, is perpetuating this top-down style—witness the strikingly opaque machinations that sur­rounded Maduro’s assumption of presidential powers during the later stages of Chávez’s illness.

Chávez’s success in revamping Venezuelan politics and fortifying his personal dominance turned his strategy of constitutional reform into a script that other populist-leaning left-wing leaders followed. The core of the Chávez method is to use plebiscitarian mass support in order to transform established institutions, dismantle checks and balances, con­centrate power in the hands of the president, and promote immediate reelection. Like their Venezuelan role model and generous patron, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Manuel Zelaya in Honduras (till he was stopped) called for constituent assemblies with the aim of boosting the presidency’s powers and paving the way toward indefinite reelection to that office. Bolivia and Ecuador’s respective histories of acute instability—including interrupted presidencies—and consequent hopes for “a fresh start” guaranteed strong popular support for the new chief executives. With this majoritarian backing, personalis­tic leaders undermined liberal, pluralist institutions.

In Bolivia, the Morales government shut the opposition out of deci­sive stages of the constitution-drafting process. The charismatic leader then won his foes’ agreement to a referendum on the tailor-made char­ter by promising not to run in 2014. But he soon went back on this vow; a typical populist, he is determined to cling to power. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa got his constituent-assembly election by engineering the irregular removal of more than half the members of Congress. By in­voking popular sovereignty, this populist leader managed to defeat his adversaries and rewrite the rules via a new charter that greatly increased presidential powers.


Once these populists of the left established predominance, they used their unfettered control over all branches of government to limit debate, strike at opponents, and drastically tilt the electoral playing field. These maneuvers dismantled democratic accountability and eliminated safe­guards against arbitrariness. Hegemonic presidents called frequent ref­erenda to garner plebiscitarian acclaim, but always with arrangements in place to ensure that these ballot-box exercises never gave the opposition a fair chance to win. When adversaries did manage to claim a victory, as happened occasionally from 2007 to 2010 in Venezuela, Chávez em­ployed all kinds of shenanigans to render it meaningless. In late 2010, for instance, he crippled a newly elected parliament with significant opposition representation by having the outgoing assembly, where his supporters had exclusive control, delegate extensive legislative powers to him.

In these ways, left-wing populists have slowly but surely smothered democracy and entrenched competitive authoritarian rule in several Latin American states. Their brand of soft authoritarianism violates basic prin­ciples of democracy by placing controls on the media and the opposi­tion while the government electioneers using state resources. Even when presidents command high popularity, as left-wing populists often have, contests held under such profoundly unfair conditions cannot qualify as democratic. Where the parameters of political choice are so badly dis­torted, majority support cannot compensate for serious infringements of pluralism and competitiveness.

While justifying their undemocratic moves with progressive claims, left populists have eagerly availed themselves of timeworn tactics of Latin American politics. Presidents in the region have long been known for efforts to distort electoral competition and unfairly perpetuate them­selves in power. In particular, they have applied discriminatory legal­ism and its maxim “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law!” As populist chief executives have commandeered all major in­stitutions including the courts, they have used formally legal authority in discretionary ways to promote their cronies and allies while punish­ing or intimidating critics and opponents in politics and society. With the government controlling all avenues of appeal and avoiding blatant violations of formal rules, those targeted find few chances for domestic recourse or the gathering of international support.

Here again, Chávez proved himself a trendsetter: He showed how skill­fully an elected incumbent can employ discriminatory legalism to stifle debate and push critics and opponents to the wall. With comprehensive control over Venezuela’s political institutions, Chávez closed a number of independent television stations and threatened the remaining ones; used trumped-up charges to jail or drive into exile recalcitrant judges and opposition leaders; and exploited oil rents and the state apparatus for campaigning. In these ways, he sapped the opposition’s chances of suc­cess and ensured himself frequent victories at the polls. If his adversaries did win against all odds, he used various ploys to limit the effects. After the opposition managed to win the mayoralty of Caracas in 2008, for in­stance, Chávez folded much of the city into a new Capital District under a handpicked commissioner who was given most of the power and fund­ing that had previously been under the mayor’s control. With such unfair tactics, this populist leader undermined democracy and skewed political competition.

Seeing how discriminatory legalism has served to entrench competi­tive authoritarian rule in Venezuela, the leftist presidents of Bolivia, Ec­uador, and Nicaragua have followed suit and imitated Chávez. In Latin America today, the strangling of pluralism and competitiveness is not confined to a single case. Instead, formally legal means to control the media, attack the opposition, and massively use the state for electioneer­ing are catching on in a whole set of countries as handy expedients for incumbents intent upon securing a lock on power.

In Bolivia, Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism have used trumped-up charges of administrative irregularities, corruption, ter­rorism, and genocide against numerous opposition politicians, imprison­ing some, driving many others out of the country, and intimidating the rest. The competitiveness that is essential to democracy cannot survive in such a hostile setting. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa has applied similar tactics, for example against the politician who challenged him in the 2006 election. Correa also seized on a 2010 police rebellion—painted by him as a coup attempt—as a pretext for cracking down on independent social and political forces. And he has intimidated the media by suing for exorbitant damages and stiff prison sentences over an opinion piece. Daniel Ortega has decreed many paralegal measures in Nicaragua’s weakly institutionalized polity and has put persistent pressure on inde­pendent NGOs. After extracting concessions from an opposition leader who had been convicted of corruption charges, Ortega packed the courts and then had his appointees on the bench exempt him from the constitu­tion’s ban on immediate reelection. Furthermore, Ortega’s supporters relied on manipulation and fraud in the 2008 municipal elections. In Ni­caragua, discriminatory legalism has shaded into systematic illegalism.

Even in Argentina, where democracy has so far survived populist pressures, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (often known as CFK) has started to follow a Chávez-like script. Businesspeople who publicly criticize her have found themselves targets of special tax au­dits. Media outlets that draw her ire—the newspaper Clarín is a particu­lar thorn in her side—have faced everything from antitrust investiga­tions to mob violence. Even as it has been bullying critics, the ruling group around Kirchner has been floating the idea of calling a constituent assembly to pave the way for a third CFK term. Argentine civil society, however, has pushed back harder against this scheme than civil society in a “Bolivarian” country would likely be able to do. Mass protests in late 2012 noisily opposed the extension of CFK’s rule, suggesting that Argentina will not easily be led down the Chávez path.

Kurt Weyland is the Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Politics at the University of Texas–Austin.

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