BOGOTÁ — Years ago, toward the end of Lula da Silva"s first term (2003-2007) as president of Brazil, I remember reading a perplexing article. It was about Lula's son, Lulinha, who had apparently become a multi-millionaire in the span of just a few years.
It is always possible, if highly improbable, that someone could enjoy that kind of success without breaking the law — though ethically, in any case, it sounds outrageous. I thought, if the Brazilian people weren't batting an eyelid at a former Sao Paulo zoo employee stuffing his pockets with cash this way, who was I to become indignant thousands of miles to the north? Well, now we know that the unsightly mole was hiding a festering tumor inside the Brazilian state.
One cannot deny that the Latin American populist Left, ableit with certain ups and down, enjoyed a real golden age. There may even be some minor chapters of the story yet to be written. But looking back, we get the sense that the public, in supporting Lula and the other leftists in question, seemed to be of the mind that as long as the leader benefits me and my people, why shouldn't he or she enjoy a piece of the cake?
As supporters in the last century said of their beloved leader in Argentina: "Thief or no thief, we love Perón."
But in order to benefit large sectors of the population while helping oneself to cash, the populist requires abundant money. There is a clear contrast here with the social-democrat who finances the state with taxes, and thus undertakes the difficult task of taking money from people and especially the rich. Doing so is complicated and unpopular, which is why populists find taxes irksome. What they need instead is a bonanza — something to fill the state coffers with easy cash. Bonanzas, or course, aren't always reliable, you might tell the populist. Nonsense, he or she will say: Let's start spending!
Gen. Juan Perón (1946-1966, 1973-1974) was not the inventor, perhaps, but certainly a great promoter of Latin American populism. He understood that by being upfront about their extravagent lifestyles, leaders could better hide huge money transfers to secret bank accounts. His wife, Evita, dressed like a princess — clearly beyond the means of a presidential salary.
In Brazil, Lula and his cronies disposed of the ample funds of Petrobras, when oil was around $100 a barrel, and commodities were riding high. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) had no qualms about taking control of the country's enormous oil revenues, supplemented, it seems, with a bit of drug trafficking.
The Kirchner presidents, Néstor (2003-2007) and Cristina (2007-2015), took a generous bite from Argentina's exports boom, also taking control of the state pensions fund and printing money like they were opening the tap. Bolivia's Evo Morales, in office since 2006, laid his hands on the gas his predecessors had shamefully sold to Brazil at below market rates.
With Colombia, the exception to the rule, the populist streak was right-wing — under President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) — and fueled by modest revenues and military victories over the deluded Marxist rebels.
The latest events in Brazil are in line with past practices. The government is trying to emasculate an obstructive, investigative judiciary, even if reviewing the recent history of the Latin American Left, one sees that judges usually looked the other way when the Lulhinhas of this world were lining their pockets. Now, belatedly and slowly, they are reacting to put some rotten politicians in jail, including perhaps leaders and ex-leaders. So is the party over? Let's hope so.