Understanding Latin American Populism

del Tronco, José. 2013. “Desconfianza y accountability ¿Las causas del populismo en América Latina? Latin American Research Review 48:2, 55-78.

Political science is not known for having complete agreements on some of its most fundamental concepts. The study of Latin American politics is no exception, and one concept that has generated plenty of definitions, operationalizations, and debates is that of populism. Carlos de la Torre, Torcuato di Tella, Kurt Weyland, René Antonio Mayorga, Daniel Hellinger, Patricio Navia and Ignacio Walker, and many others have put their two cents into the question of what is populism, the associated aspect of what episodes from Latin America’s topsy-turvy political history count as examples (from the “classical” examples of Argentina under Perón and Brazil under Vargas to “neopopulist” leaders like Fujimori in Peru and Chávez in Venezuela), and what are the causes of its appearance. All those scholars agree on one thing: Nobody can make sense of Latin American politics without paying close attention to its populist traditions.

The present article does not delve into the controversy of how to define Latin American populism — that is, it does not intend to make value judgments on all the definitions that are out there (conversely, Hellinger, de la Torre, and Mayorga, to mention some examples, do so in separate analyses); indeed, the concept is simply defined as both “a style of leadership and a strategy of representation” (55). Yet this definition, and particularly the aspect of representation, is the key for understanding del Tronco’s analysis: The main argument is that “in democratic regimes characterized by reneged mandates and the absence of… accountability, the probabilities for the emergence of populist governments increase significantly” (56) because “populist governments sustain their legitimacy in their capacity to improve the quality of political representation through a direct relationship between the leader and the people that permits – according to the expectations of citizens – effective and permanent accountability” (56). According to del Tronco, the cases of Peru (Fujimori), Ecuador (Bucaram, Gutiérrez, and Correa), Bolivia (Morales), Nicaragua (Ortega) and Venezuela (Chávez) (65) exemplify the ultimate cause for the appearance of populist regimes in Latin America — the void between principal and agent. Nevertheless, the article also warns that since populist regimes dispense with important mechanisms of political intermediation (ex. political parties and legislatures), they will eventually become inimical to liberal democracy insofar as they become immune to political control through institutional checks (horizontal accountability) and periodic elections (vertical accountability). To drive that point home, the article compares Venezuela under Chávez with post-transition Chile.

The main argument of the article is neither surprising nor entirely new, unless it also presented a path from point A (the principal-agent void) to point B (populist regimes) that other analyses have not considered. For instance, Mayorga also talks about the principal-agent void – i.e. the crisis of representation – as a cause for Venezuelan (neo)populism, although he puts more emphasis on shoddy government performance than on shoddy accountability. If the added value of the article is to suggest that accountability matters more than government performance (or at least exactly as much) in explaining Latin American populism, in comparison to other treatises on the subject, then that is unclear from how the narrative flows. In addition, Navia and Walker argue that the main cause of Latin American populist regimes is the explosive combination of charismatic leadership (which del Tronco does recognize as an element of populism) and weak institutional checks on government action. In other words, it is not that shoddy government performance and/or lack of accountability to citizens were behind the onset of chavismo, but that Venezuelan formal political institutions were too weak, to begin with, to stop the excesses of Chávez’s charismatic leadership (and, as the article does say, they would become even more powerless with the passage of time). This is a different argument from del Tronco’s, but neither does he address it nor does he make an attempt to convince us that his is a more nuanced and refined characterization of Latin American populism.

On the other hand, del Tronco does agree with Navia & Walker and Mayorga in that something has to be done to address the conditions that give rise to populist regimes — both the crises of representation and the institutional set-up that imposes horizontal and vertical checks on the government — if democracy is to be finally institutionalized in Latin America. To be sure, none of them make that argument explicitly, but it is undoubtedly what they imply. Paraphrasing Oscar Arias in an essay written for Foreign Affairs, there is little comfort citizens can take from democracy if it does not show that it works, and when it does not work that is when citizens will switch their support to populism. Nevertheless, Navia and Walker add that populism has its foundation in calls for redistribution, which brings another element that has to be considered and deepens the quandary del Tronco eloquently describes at the end of his analysis; that is, the region faces a dilemma: redistribution or institutional quality (75). It is in the middle of this scenario where Latin America currently stands.

In the end, del Tronco’s analysis succeeds in reminding us of one thing: Populism is so inextricably related to Latin American politics that we ignore so at our peril — inside the ivory tower and out.

Note: All translations were made by the author.


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