Populism in Latin America

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Populism in Latin America

The most important characteristics of urban populism in Latin America are the basis in the urban centers, the application across social class, and the presence of a charismatic leader. (Conniff) To some extent, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela have all experienced populist governments at various times, but the specific characteristics thereof varied greatly from time to time and nation to nation. Although some superficial similarities did manifest, the underlying characteristics of populism were different in all Latin American Populist movements.

(Conniff) In Mexico, as with many other Latin American nations, the exploitive nature of the relationship between European capitalists and the Mexican government led to a sort of neo-feudalism, where ownership of the production institutions (mines, refineries, railroads, etc. ) belonged with foreign investors while the local population worked as wage slaves for the large factories. (Conniff) Local control was limited to the maintenance of large plantation-type establishments, called haciendas.

(Conniff) However, these haciendas developed from pure agriculture to light industry, and in the process, created a middle class of educated workers who could aspire to more than the work of farming or wage labor. (Conniff) This took place largely because certain hacienda owners, such as Francisco Madero, took it upon themselves to establish the beginnings of urban infrastructure in the northern towns near the haciendas. (Conniff) He established schools and healthcare for the working class, and began to threaten the established foreign capitalists by employing his own local facilities for refinery work.

(Conniff) The availability of these amenities spawned an entire class of educated, but landless society. They included professors, lawyers, military professionals and doctors(Conniff). The nature of the local industry produced a management class, as well as engineers, administrators and supervisors. (Conniff) In the remainder of urban Mexico, the government, under dictator Porforio Diaz, drove millions of small share-hold farmers off of their lands to work in the lucrative (for the owners) sugar haciendas, or to go to the city and become urban wage slaves.

(Conniff) Thus, urbanization of the population was forced by a government that did not respect property rights. (Conniff) As Diaz grew older, and faced a decision on succession, a number of factors began to combine to force a populist-style revolution. (Conniff) The economy, driven down by foreign recessions, was in poor shape. The haciendas could not make enough food to feed people, and unemployment and financial ruin faced locals who depended on export revenue for their prosperity. (Conniff) In 1910, Modero asked Diaz to resign, rather than pick a successor.

(Conniff) Such a successor would likely continue the favoritism of foreign interests that Modero and other local industrialists opposed. (Conniff) The resulting melee’ and clash for power was not resolved until the 1920 election of Alvaro Obregon. (Conniff) Obregon typified the quintessential elements of populism by first, being popularly elected. He also transcended social classes, appealing both to the Unions and the native Yaquis revolutionaries. (Conniff) As a gregarious and bluff personality, he had the personal charisma that is often associated with a populist leader.

(Conniff) Obregon established his populist bona fides during the times of upheaval in the 1910s. (Conniff) He led an occupying force into Mexico City, where the people were starving, and ransomed the Clergy. (Conniff) He used the money to feed the poor of the city. This helped him gain the underclass as allies in his movement, completing the populist characteristic of being cross-social. (Conniff) As a popular leader and populist politician, Obregon’s legacy did not last long into his presidency. (Conniff) As is often the case with individuals in the seat of power, he became more conservative.

(Conniff) He turned his back on his poor and common followers, cut deals with the Church, and pandering to the wealthy elite to retain his position and wealth. (Conniff) Twenty years later, Lazaro Cardenas took up the mantle of populism in Mexico. (Conniff) He began in the rural areas and small communities, and rapidly developed a devout and reverential following of those who admired his strong personality. In this way, his style broke with the typical view of populism, which is a largely urban movement.

(Conniff) As president, Cardenas’ populism created a permanent impression on the psyche of the Mexican people, which has led to a political system that, while abandoning some of the substance of populist rule, will not easily abandon the spirit of populism. (Conniff) Thus, unlike many other Latin American nations, Mexico survived the time after the reign of charismatic populist leaders with a government solidly planted in the foundation of protecting the people. (Conniff) In Chile, populism never attained the lasting toehold that it did in Mexico.

There are many reasons that this may have been the case. Like Mexico, Chile was compelled to throw off the imperialism of a distant power, but unlike Mexico, Chile’s leadership was rooted in the notion of expansionism, giving unparalleled prominence to military leadership. As a result, much of the 19th century was spent under the rule of military leaders and pseudo-democracies. None of these governments represented populism in that they were only concerned with the ruling and voting classes, and ignored the population of common people.

Largely ignored by its larger and more prosperous neighbors, Chile proceeded in this manner until an early attempt at a more populist movement in the 1960s. (Remmer) Despite the brief prominence of a Christian Democratic party, given the time period and the geopolitical context, it should not be surprising that populism in Chile came about in the form of a Marxist regime under Allende. (Remmer) Allende embraced few of the characteristics of populism. (Remmer) The Marxist theory emphasized social division, and though he nationalized industry and attempted to redistribute wealth, Allende never made a personal, charismatic appeal to the people.

(Remmer) Falling short of a full populist movement, the Chilean government under Allende drew the ire of the rich and powerful, upset the United States, and never benefitted the people at large the way they promised. (Remmer) Despite waning national support, Allende won reelection in 1972, prompting a violent coup on the part of the military leadership under Augustan Pinochet. Pinochet ruled Chile with an iron fist. (Remmer) He embraced conservative and reactionary values and used terror as a means to achieve his ends. (Remmer) Facing popular rebellion during an economic downturn in the late 1980s, Pinochet agreed to hold elections.

(Remmer) The Democratic Christian party won the election, and placated Pinochet by guaranteeing his safety, pardoning the murders of his regime, and keeping him as commander of the armed forces. (Remmer) Under these conditions, Chile has been since striving to succeed as a young democracy. (Remmer) Populism never really caught on in Chile for a number of reasons. First, although the Spanish were ousted in the 1700s, royalist influences reigned well into the 1800s. Second, the urbanization associated with populism failed to materialize on a large basis.

(Remmer) Also, the military was seen as the best path to political dominance, given the aggressive foreign policy of the nation. When populist-type sentiment finally won out, it did so in the form of a Marxist government that was only marginally popular to begin with, and that did not have the support of the military. (Remmer) The consequence of this was a reactionary coup by the military, followed by a brutal dictatorship. Only when the personality cult of Pinochet had died, did the seeds of democracy, and accompanying populism, begin to take hold. The fate of populism in Argentina took yet another path.

In contrast to Chile, and even more so than Mexico, populism found its champions in two movements: the early radicalism, and the later-day Peronism. (Tamarin) In the 1890s, the radical political party was formed in Argentina to combat the cronyism, and old-world mentality of the government. (Tamarin) As with many populist movements, the basis of their appeal was with equity of political participation across social class, themselves being largely patrician cast-outs. (Tamarin) The group devoted itself to the task of opening the government and taking it away from the Conservative power base.

(Tamarin) They accomplished that beginning with the urban middle class, and gained power as the economy engendered an increase in urbanization. Thus, by 1905, the movement took on the character of a massive populist uprising. (Tamarin) Tapping into the frustration of the middle class who have been kept out of elite circles of government and education, Hipolito Yrigoyen led the party, called the Radical Civic Union (U. C. R) on a moralistic crusade to universalize suffrage and promote representative democracy.

(Tamarin) Yrioyen cultivated a cult-like following, calling himself only El Jefe, referring to the political fight as la causa and their allies as coreligeonarres. (crusaders) (Tamarin) Once in power, this group reverted to its own elitist roots. It grew autocracy, suppressed labor movements and decried socialism as materialistic. (Tamarin) The leadership became a new generation of elite. The leadership, under Yrigoyen, had to eventually choose between competing interests of the upper-middle industrialist class and the labor class as unionizing and collective labor movements proliferated.

(Tamarin) Yrigoyen was forced to side with one or the other, and he chose the industrialists. (Tamarin) He cracked down on labor unrest with police and recinded his policy of tolerance with respect to labor uprising. (Tamarin) Yrigoyen’s power was limited to urban middle-class, and his personality cult was overthrown in a military junta in the 1930s. (Tamarin) The reactionary military restored the old oligarchy, which remained unchallenged until the rise of Peron in the early 1940s. (Tamarin) Peron’s movement represented a more idealized populism.

The rapidly-growing labor class looked to a person who promised a more moral government and thrust Peron into leadership without a massive organization of support. (Tamarin) Thus, Peronism as a populist movement, began with the personality cult of Juan Peron, and his wife, Eva. (Tamarin) He quickly consolidated his base among the laborers, and used his military connections and powers of persuasion to convince industrialists that the strength of labor was essential to the overall economic development of the nation.

(Tamarin) In the meantime, Peron collected and redistributed wealth in an economic climate boosted by WWII and its aftermath. (Tamarin) Once the economy slumped, Peron’s programs of social welfare became perceived as socialist redistribution of wealth. (Tamarin) Additionally, Peron’s desire to shift focus to encouraging industrial growth and foreign investment was seen as opposition to his own economic nationalism. (Tamarin) His popularity waned enough that by 1955, a military coup that ousted Peron was met with little public outcry.

(Tamarin) In Venezuela, a modern-day would-be populist has emerged in president Hugo Chavez. (Kornblith) Relying on the cult of personality, coupled with grandiose gestures in the international community, and a public embracing of socialism, Chavez has been attempting to replicate the success of earlier Latin American populists. (Kornblith) However, the time period in which such a political stance might have swayed the majority of a population seems to have passed.

(Kornblith) Chavez came to power well after the industrialization of his nation, and no corresponding massive movement to cities has occurred to bolster urban support. The reliance of the economy on a waxing and waning oil market has also made things difficult, as has the need to trade primarily with Eastern Hemisphere powers. (Kornblith) After barely surviving a recall attempt, and winning two elections in a 60-40 split, Chavez has illustrated that division, rather than unity, is the defining characteristic of his rule.

(Kornblith) The relative success or failure of populism in Latin America seems to hinge on the extent to which urbanization leads to a massive labor pool, who trust a dominant personality to effect change on their behalf. Populism is more of a means to an end than an end itself. It signals a recognition by those in power that the labor class must have some level of influence in matters of state, even if those interests are largely illusionary. The stronger the populist movement, the stronger the democracy that can follow.

Where factionalism trumps unity, and the persona of the populist fades or dies, populism cannot progress to democratic reform. ? References I have used the references you provided, but cannot cite them properly as they lack the necessary information to do so. If you provide me the info: Author, year, article, publication, volume and number. I can do this for you. Plus, I used the following for the info from the book below for the Chile part. PARTY COMPETITION IN ARGENTINA AND CHILE Political Recruitment and Public Policy, 1890-1930 Karen L. Remmer UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS Lincoln and London 1984


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