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From Aztecs To Internet, A New Latin American Critique Of Populism

Guatemala-born Internet activist Gloria Alvarez believes that today's protest movements contain, as politics always has, the seeds of future complacency, arrogance and corruption.

Icons and ideas live on
Icons and ideas live on
Fabian Bosoer

BUENOS AIRES — Guatemalan political activist Gloria Álvarez is more than just a pretty face. There is her engaging — if not always endearing — manner, and the eloquence with which she communicates her ideas. She has a non-conformist thesis with a provocative theme — denouncing populism — and represents an individual rebellion that social networking sites are helping to turn collective.

On a recent tour of Latin America, she filled the auditoriums at two private universities in Buenos Aires. As part of her work, she hosts radio programs and must manage a "media profile," but she offers much more than an attractive image. Just 29, she studied international relations and politics in Guatemala and pursued postgraduate studies in the United States and Italy.

She became particularly well-known in September when she addressed the Hispano-American Youth Parliament in Zaragoza, Spain. At least a million people have watched that expand=1] speech via video, and she has more than 51,000 Facebook followers.

CLARIN: Criticizing populism isn't new, so what's different about your ideas?
: It's true the speech doesn't say anything new — rescuing the republic from a populism that dismantles institutions, restricts economic liberties, bans free dialogue and the exchange of ideas, and wants everyone to go the same way. But it says it another way, from another place and with another force. It is a voice being heard through social networking sites, in a century that is empowering individuals as never before. That means questioning everything — rigid institutions, top-down obedience, dogmas and indoctrination. The social network sites let people talk, complain and denounce. We have all become potential prosecutors and journalists.

What is the rebellion against?
In Latin America, we have had five principles of oppression: privileges that benefit one lot of citizens over the rights of others; state mercantilism, oligopoly networks and monopolies that have impeded the economy's development; transfer of wealth, the mentality that puts wealth distribution before its creation; caste-ridden societies, bequeathed to us long before the Spaniards arrived, by the Aztecs, Incas and Mayas. That made it easy for the Spaniards to replace the chiefs and take their places. And Spain did not bring us Western notions of liberty, or republican and institutional government. Populations oppressed and abused by dictators and charismatic rulers have sometimes found their voice through those same dictators. Populism is really our past returning in new clothes: polarizing by manipulating the masses with the economic needs until now denied to them. That's why it is so successful in the region.

Liberalism too has had a less than virtuous past, at least when applied.
That's right. The so-called Washington Consensus was a failure. Privatization processes fueled crony capitalism and a lack of competition. Privilege was always there, in the background. These days, any socialist with intellectual integrity would accept that the only way to come out of poverty is by creating wealth and productivity.

What is your position on gay marriage?
I am completely for it.

And legalizing drugs?
I'm in favor, but without the state monopolizing its production or distribution.

As a libertarian, I think freedom means taking responsibility for our actions. So if you freely decide to have sex, and I mean freely and without any compulsion, then we have to accept its consequences. But that's my opinion. I can't expect all women to share my code or principles. So I would rather it were legal and regulated within an established framework, rather than covered or ignored as a social reality.

Twenty years ago, the leaders you criticize now represented a kind of rebellion against political systems that weren't helping society. Don't you think there are similarities between your message and what they said then?
Absolutely. These social movements gained power through votes. They were the response to the abuses of their time, but they wound up forming their own elite, their own corruption. And as we can see, they haven't had much success in eliminating the vices of the old elites. One elite has just made way for another. Which is why I think today's populist leaders are tomorrow's old politics — and tomorrow is practically around the corner.

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