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EL ESPECTADOR

Evolving Populism In Latin America, From Colombia To Mexico

The new presidents of Colombia and Mexico may fit into the populist mould, but their pledges and circumstances differ from those of their most notorious predecessors.

June protest against electoral fraud in Bogota, Colombia
June protest against electoral fraud in Bogota, Colombia
Andrés Hoyos

-Analysis-

BOGOTÁColombia's future is never clear, with storm clouds seemingly forever brewing on the horizon. Sure, they'll say that other countries face uncertainty, it's just more extreme here, with never a clue what might come a decade from now.

I am not just talking about prosperous states that have duly established virtuous, working dynamics, but also those mired in misfortune. I am quite sure for example that Haiti will still be in crisis in 10 years' time, and one is almost certain that also Venezuela won't manage to bounce back anytime soon. Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay meanwhile, just to keep to our region, will have vicissitudes but one doesn't expect exceptional situations there in 2028. Some other countries in the region like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, are like Colombia in their uncertain futures. In 10 years' time, they could be much better, or much worse off than today.

Javier Sicilia, Mexican peace activist, with President-elect AMLO — Photo: Diálogos por la Paz: AMLO

These countries have dynamic societies and economies, populations with potential and dysfunctional political systems. The uncertainty hovers especially around populism on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Right-wing populism does exist, but the versions on the Left are older and have a longer history.

Classical Latin American populism is a concoction of Argentina's late president Juan Domingo Perón, and an indispensable condition for its implantation was generous national revenues. In 1946, Argentina's public coffers were certainly filled to the brim and used to benefit one sector of the population, without regard for others — or for the sustainability of the model itself. Perón was toppled in 1955 so there was no time for a permanent distortion. A generation later, in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez implemented the model, financing it from 1999 to 2014 with oil revenues to the phenomenal tune of a trillion dollars. Today the country is short of food, medicines and practically everything. Chavismo has lasted for too long and will be remembered for the current debacle, not its years of plenty.

Radical populist, moderate or a mix of the two?

While Colombia's President-Elect Iván Duque will not, as his cabinet choices indicate so far, be a right-wing populist in the manner of his mentor, the former president and Senator Álvaro Uribe, in Mexico, the Leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO) will become president on December 1 on the back of an overwhelming victory. Needless to say he will not find the state coffers filled as Perón did, nor will he be showered with petrodollars, like Chávez. We do not know what kind of government he will run: radical populist, moderate or a mix of the two? The point of certainty however is that he will not succeed in resolving the problems he promised to solve.

Iván Duque, President-elect of Colombia — Photo: Inter-American Dialogue/

Here, in Colombia, the former socialist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro will seek to remain relevant for the 2022 elections. There are many questions on that horizon: On the one hand Petro now has the probable backing of some political heavyweights and enjoys the support of a big, youthful sector of voters, while the political center has no clear alternative for now. On the other, he depends a lot on how things will turn out up both north with AMLO, and on the quality here of Duque's administration. Will they keep a more or less moderate profile, or return to their respective earlier radicalism? Difficult to say.

Hopefully in any case, the third populist wave will be less harmful than the first two. That too remains a big question.

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