Latin American-style populism is gaining traction in Europe, just when states like Cuba and Venezuela may be heading toward moderation and sensible economics.
BOGOTA — The Latin American student traveling to European or North American universities is often surprised when faced with the fascination certain lecturers have for Third World revolutions. Indeed, some university departments are fond of organizing student trips to certain cherished socialist countries: call it "revolutionary tourism."
When I went to study social and political sciences at Madrid's Complutense University, the favorite destination was Venezuela under its late leader, Hugo Chávez. There were huge posters hanging from stairway railings announcing trips being organized to witness the Chavista "miracle" first-hand.
Compared to the monotonous and sleepy sessions of the European Parliament, many students here perceived political forces in Venezuela as so alive: no drab men in suits, forever mediocre and easily corrupted, talking of nothing but budgets and stability pacts. No, in Venezuela politicians were visionaries seeking the impossible. They would bring heaven to earth in a fell swoop, not waste our time with gradual, insipid reforms.
But something has changed since 2011. When the anti-austerity Indignados movement in Madrid took to the streets, it carried with it something of that distant fervor to what had previously seemed a quiet and stable patch of the planet, Europe. Curiously all this has been happening as President Barack Obama's administration moved closer to Cuba and paved the way for an anticipated restoration of ties with the symbol of Latin American revolution.
While Europe was starting to doubt all the consensual premises that brought it peace and prosperity for decades, Cuba was preparing for an end to the Cold War and to Latin America's tumultuous 20th century. Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro has lost his way — like a Cuban exile floating on a raft — in the waters of his own confusion and incompetence, while Colombia's FARC rebels can now barely discern their prospects.
Inevitably people are expecting change in the Latin American political cycle, as falling oil and commodities prices effectively pull the rug from under the feet of populist polities. It is a step toward the unheroic politics of pacts and deals.
In Europe however, populism is expanding with two opposing heads, the radical Left and xenophobic Right. They may look and speak differently, but the two heads share a trait in their disdain for the European Union. Europe is robbing their respective countries of sovereignty, easing the arrival of undesired foreigners or simply doing the bidding of that arch-villain, Angela Merkel. She is fanning the same resentments Obama is quietly putting out in this part of the world, and turning the European project into a target of attacks by politicians keen to return to a time of heroic feats, great events and clearly-drawn political lines.
Among such differing parties as Spain's Podemos — with contraditory postures on Europe — and the blatantly nationalist Front National in France, there is mistrust of a historic project that has blocked the impulses that provoked too many wars on the European continent. The European Union is living its worst moment. Let's hope we don't end up with Peruvian and Chilean academics traveling in the other direction to admire the glories of the "revolution" in places like Greece, Spain and France.