Populism in Latin America isn’t the conventional definition that may be thought of: a leader empowering the poor or oppressed in order to receive more votes. Though this is true to an extent, the Latin American definition that more genuinely fits is that populism is the making of constitutional changes through assemblies and voting that ultimately weaken the power of judges and legislators. Putting the power into the hands of an elected executive. This process is risky, however, because it eliminates the checks and balances that holds people of power accountable. Why would the people be willing to vote on a system like this? Factual evidence presented states that only 43% of Latin Americans polled trust judges and legislators. Compare this to the 69% of people that trust the church and 60% who place trust in the armed forces. Seligson wanted to investigate whether leftist favoring people are less supportive of democracy. The previous data supports the notions. People on the left side of the political spectrum are less likely to believe in their country’s political system (democracy) and favor an alternative (populism). To shift left means that something must have been leaning to the right (or centered) already. This is the case for the leftist shifting. Worldwide, the political stance is a 5.56 on a 1-10 scale with 1 being far left and 10 being far right. The Latin American region isn’t far off from the world average being at 5.77. Examples include Venezuela at 6.32, Chile at 5.22, and Mexico at 6.55. Studies that were conducted in 2004 and again in 2006 suggest a shift to the left with nine of the South American countries moving to a populist system. The information on the rebound to leftism came as a surprise considering that in the early 1990’s neoliberal reforms were sweeping throughout Latin America to further sustainable growth and economic prosperity. The neoliberal reforms, also, included economic projects such as privatization, trade liberalization, deregulation, and abolishing of the state interventionism. However, it was only found to have controlled inflation with no evidence in terms of growth. Disappointment and continuous poverty had people calling neoliberalism a failure. Although these governmental changes has occurred, the political average for the region still remains to the right.
This shift to leftist thinking can be attributed to a couple of reasons. Weyland believes that the sudden shift to the left is due to large amounts of natural resources being discovered throughout Latin America. Looking into the past, the advent of the oil industry in Venezuela in the 1970’s had provided wealth to the area. This wealth did not last long due to the weak political system that was in place at the time. Through a long decline in the economy, countries experiencing the same government issues as well as Venezuela wanted “sustainable” growth.
After years of neoliberal policy, Latin American countries saw progress in the control of inflation, but no improvements in terms of growth and creation of jobs. Coupled with these lack of improvements, was the continual poverty, so people were calling neoliberalism a failure already. At this point, there was an availability of a large amount of raw materials in most of the countries. Looking into more current times, Bolivia for example, plethora’s of natural gas reserves were found over the recent years creating a hope for enormous revenue. Bolivian leaders took this opportunity to gain the trust of the masses through promises of a more flourishing future by using the revenue brought in form the natural gas. The more reserves that were discovered the more leftist the country become. Weyland, also, believes that a movement for indigenous mobilization and state deficiencies contributed to the leftist change. O’Neill has a different reasoning behind the adjustment, corruption. He states, “poverty and inequality were once the great mobilizers, corruption is likely to become the new lodestar for aspiring populists”. Elected officials within the Neoliberalism governments have been filling the court systems and agencies with their own nominees. They are passing laws and editing rules that turn the tables on other opponents. Politics have been quested in relation to stolen funds and public money investigations. Latin American’s have already turned on officials that have been proven to have stolen public money and taken bribes. Over 60 percent of Brazil’s Congress and political members have been charged with crimes of corruption. Due to this, millions of Brazilian citizens have filled the street in protests. However, it doesn’t stop there. Guatemala has had several protests in hopes of having their president step down as he was proven to have stolen millions of dollars in public funds. Honduras has experienced a similar situation in which they sit in anticipation to see if their corrupt president will leave the office.
André Manuel López Obrador of Mexico is using voters’ hatred against the present government to fuel his own presidential campaign. Acting as a fully invested populist, he vows to tackle poverty and social welfare; along with, putting a stop to current negative political actions. Seligson believes in many different reasons for the switch to the left. The first being attributed to democracy. The development of democracy in Latin America has given rise to a more freely operated system. Without the serious threat of the military, the citizens of these countries are able to vote and debate at will. With this in mind, more party systems have been able to develop causing rise of new ideas and possibly better ways to run the country. Trust in the democratic system is old thinking and the way of the future is populism. This brings to light the people of the future, the young generation. Seligson mentions that the older generation have gone through the political spectrum of leaders and don’t get caught up in the newest fad that hits the polls. For this reason, the older people tend to sway to the right when they vote. However, the young people of this region are very likely to support populist beliefs. They deliberately contribute to populist measures at the expense of democracy and the freedoms that are accrued with it. The lack of economic growth during the current democratic period as well as the continual democratic disappointments have spawned this way of young person thinking. Unlike the older generation, the young haven’t experienced anything other than democratic failures. Likewise, this economic downtime affected the poor to a great extent.
A data set analyzed by Seymour Martin Lipset suggests that the poor and less educated support a shift left, in favor of populism. A study done by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) suggests that in most Latin American country’s leftists are noted as being more tolerant than rightists. This would gain the support of the lower class and minorities because the basis of this survey was that “tolerance” was measured as the “willingness of respondents to grant to opposition minorities basic civil liberties, such as the rights to vote, run for office, protest, and speak freely”.
As Latin America has dealt with populism for quite some time, it is safe to say that other countries could learn from their experience. It’s been proven that long-term economic growth is restricted by populism. Decreased spending on education and health care comes as a price to unpredictable policymaking.