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Populism in Latin America

Features Of Populism

It has been easier to cite examples of populist leaders than to clearly demarcate the features of populism. To begin with, as a macro-explanatory framework, populism is often applied in a too general, and therefore vague, fashion. Attempted definitions, such as the formula: Populism = leader √ charismatic bond + elections √ followers, are imprecise and explain little, obscuring most of what deserves debate. Part of the problem has to do with the conditions of most populist movements: specific in time and place, associated with crisis and with political transition. Another error directly equates populism with a "leadership style." This leads to a plethora of biographies of outstanding populists, where "charisma," another slippery term, becomes a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of populism, not in the sociologist Max Weber's sense of an attributed social authority, but as an essentially psychic fact. This ignores the collective nature of all such populist movements.

Argentinean demonstration by supporters of Juan Perón, Vicente Lopez, Argentina, 1972. Populist dictator Juan Perón rose to power in 1946, riding a wave of popular opinion he had fostered among Argentina's working class and labor unions. CORBIS/BETTMANN

A further temptation when defining populism is the almost tautological appeal to the "popular," which at once makes a virtue of "the people" and mystifies what it should explain. Locating a given movement in "the people" (as a collective national-popular will) fails to differentiate between politics as social and cultural practice (the work of politicians) and a given constituency, particularly in terms of the idioms, exchanges, and representations that produce and maintain relationships between leaders and followers, along with their contingent relation to social and historical context. In fact, simplified moral narratives of "the people" typically characterize political (and some scholarly) backlashes against populist regimes, where the lack of a doctrine and the demagoguery of an irresponsible leader are assumed to ignite a disorganized explosion of the masses, thus destabilizing the state. These arguments justified military coups in Argentina in 1955, in Brazil in 1964, in Panama in 1968, in Peru in 1968, and in Bolivia in 1964, among others.

For the many reasons cited above, it is less constructive to insist upon populism as an identifiable political type, philosophy, doctrine, or style, in short, any "ism" succinctly defined. Rather, populism, the term, is itself implicated in the history and struggles of Latin America, a charged point of reference for diverse political relationships, practices, strategies, and sets of representations, in specific times and places, where new political constituencies are introduced. Called both "premodern" and "progressive," populism is a relational rather than categorical fact of Latin American politics.

Neopopulisms in Latin America since the 1980s, both in government and as effective opposition movements, have surprised many. Neopopulists like Argentina's Carlos Saúl Menem (1989–1999), Brazil's Fernando Collor (1990–1992), and Peru's Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000) all combined populist charisma and neoliberal structural adjustment policies to address their nations' economic stagnation, demonstrating unexpected affinities between neopopulism and neoliberalism. Both rely on mass support of the poor, distance from intermediary organizations (like political parties), attacks on the "political class," strengthening of the state, winning of support through bold reform, and targeted benefit programs. Neoliberal neopopulism has been criticized, however, for confusing "consumer" with "citizen," where collective demands are articulated primarily through individual cost-benefit analyses, the market, voting, and the sale of labor.

Further populist developments deserving mention are the region's many New Social Movements, primarily in nations with significant indigenous populations such as Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Brazil, and for which Mexico's EZLN (1994–present)—also called the Zapatistas—has been a model. These movements often rely on grassroots agrarian unionism, frequently combine antineoliberalism (such as rejection of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement) with defense of national sovereignty, the call to expand citizenship rights, and the use of spectacular direct-action protests. Less preoccupied with charismatic leadership than with a new locus for "the people," these movements have switched the emphasis from "peasant" to "Indian" and from "class" to "culture," while embracing a plebiscite or assembly-style democracy to critique the exclusionary state. La Confederación de Nacionalidades Indigenas in Ecuador and MAS (Movement toward Socialism) in Bolivia are current examples. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez (1998–) is a hybrid exception, mixing an authoritarian caudillismo with effective use of the popular referendum. These movements demonstrate the symbolic power of populist tactics, as an opposition dedicated to the region's political renewal.


Auyero, Javier. Peronist Survival Networks and the Legacy of Evita. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Conniff, Michael, ed. Populism in Latin America. 2nd ed. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.

Dix, Robert. "Populism: Authoritarian and Democratic." Latin American Research Review 20, no. 2 (1985).

Knight, Alan. "Populism and Neo-Populism in Latin America, Especially Mexico." Journal of Latin American Studies 30 (1998): 223–248.

Torre, Carlos de la. Populist Seduction in Latin America: The Ecuadorian Experience. Athens: Ohio University's Center for International Studies, 2000.

Robert Albro

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPopulism in Latin America - The Practice Of Populism, Features Of Populism, Bibliography