New book takes broad look at 21st century Latin American populism

By Juan Carlos Gomez

Bogota, Jan 18 (efe-epa).- Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Cuba’s Fidel Castro are key left-wing figures in recent Latin American history who share much in common and whose policies and government programs have left – and continue to leave – a lasting mark on millions of people across the region.

They were leaders and/or forerunners of the so-called Pink Tide (a historic moment at the start of the 21st century when the left held sway over a large swath of Latin America) who sought to chart a new future for their countries and pull them out from underneath the United States’ long shadow.

Will Grant, a BBC correspondent in Latin America since 2007, told Efe that those years spanning Chavez’s rise to power in 1999 to Castro’s death in 2016 saw the emergence of a strong populist tendency among the left that even inspired leaders on the other side of the ideological spectrum, such as Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Grant lays out his arguments in an expansive yet entertaining new book that was recently published in the United Kingdom by Head of Zeus and titled “¡Populista!: The Rise of Latin America’s 21st Century Strongman.”

In an interview with Efe from Mexico City, Grant discussed the conclusions he has reached about Latin America’s recent history based on his experiences covering stories from both inside the halls of government and the region’s poorest slums.

Question: Where did the idea and the need for this book come from?

Answer: I’ve witnessed the process of what’s known as the “Pink Tide,” and I think many had thrown everyone together as if they were the same thing: Chavez, Evo, Lula, Ortega … as if it was all the same experience. To me, that seemed very mistaken. You know, there are serious differences between all of them and their political projects, and I remember being very frustrated about how some very smart editors, both within the BBC and outside the BBC, would sort of link them all together, make out that they were some kind of homogeneous group of people, that this was just some monolithic moment in Latin America, whereas in fact there are huge differences. Not just between say Lula and Chavez as actual men and the experiences they had to reach power, but actually between their political projects, between their supporters too. It’s not enough to simply say that they’re poor and they were looking for a strong figure. No, the contexts which brought them to power were very, very different.

Q: One of the characteristics of these governments is that they’re sustained by one man. Is that the principal aspect of populism?

A: I think that’s really key in Latin American politics. That’s the figure of a strongman, stronger than the opposition, where everything flows from top to bottom even though they say the opposite … It’s one of the elements that links all of the figures in this book. It’s a very notable characteristic in the Americas of the 21st century. I think some of the key characteristics that link all of these men are to do with the very simple idea that they put out there that they were the pueblo and the pueblo were them, they were the people and the people were them. And they used to milk this idea as much as they could to get the backing at the polls.

Q: Chavez and Bolsonaro appear on the book’s cover. Is Brazil’s president a good example of these types of leaders? Is he an heir of this type of populism?

A: The cover has provoked quite a bit of debate. I’m not saying that (the leftist) Chavez is (the rightist) Bolsonaro, not at all. I’m saying that populism is not a right-wing or left-wing ideology: it’s just power. There are examples in Venezuela or Nicaragua where it’s very difficult to call them leftist as such. The example of Bolsonaro is interesting. There are elements of the populism of this century: support from an evangelical movement, an effort to connect with the people, the negation of the opposition, disdain for the media, the discrediting of science.



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