Adiós Castillo: Why Latin America Is Ready To Close The Era Of "Cheap Populism"
The impeachment and arrest of Peru's Leftist president can be taken as perhaps a conclusive signal to the region that populism — from the Left and Right — may have run out of gas.
Modern populism, or "neo-populism," began in Peru with the election in 1990 of President Alberto Fujimori. The notorious arch-conservative leader, who smashed a Maoist rebellion, was a pioneer of the pseudo-arguments one hears to this day within the anti-political circles of populism. He wanted to forge a direct link with "the people" by simplified policy proposals, whipping up emotions and sidelining public institutions. He promised firm government and an end to corruption, only to turn into another violent and corrupt strongman.
Others of his type — in Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador — sought to keep power with the help of favorable economic winds, but eventually (virtually) all fell in the same way, like dominos. And now, we've seen it again in Peru, with the ouster and arrest of former President Pedro Castillo.
It's worth recalling that in the first decade of this century, all South American countries of the Andean region were dominated by the populist phenomenon, whether from the Left or Right. Peru and Venezuela succumbed to blatant authoritarianism though Venezuela's Hugo Chávez was the only one to entirely subdue the country's institutions.
The institutions survived in Peru, but have failed to generate stability. This instability, which isn't restricted to Peru, is in part due to the personal or charismatic politics that have de-legitimized political systems and allowed ex-presidents to dominate politics and even regain power through someone else. It happened in Bolivia with Evo Morales, in Colombia with Álvaro Uribe and almost in Peru, on the two occasions Fujimori's daughter nearly won the presidency.
Vain politicians, degraded parties
In Peru and Colombia, right-wing populism unleashed Leftist counterstrikes to free the political systems blocked by vain politicians and degraded parties, and enact changes sought by the majority. The action-and-reaction dichotomy was clearly evident in the last elections of both countries, where conservative and Leftist populists faced off in the second round of tightly-fought elections.
But Colombia is not Peru. Firstly because it has institutions inclined to create stability through a hyper-presidential system, and because its political class is better trained and prepared for government than someone like Peru's Castillo — who was recently sacked by parliament.
The specter of recent events in Peru is a warning to our opposition, and the government itself.
Unlike Castillo, Colombia's Gustavo Petro is not engaging in populist politics, but has broached a reformist agenda similar to the program of Gabriel Boric in Chile. Again, unlike Castillo, Petro has skillfully managed his coalition in parliament and negotiated with opposition sectors (most notably big farmers and landowners, usually cited as the Left's nemesis No. 1).
Pedro Castillo talking to his supporters after being elected as Peru's president in June 2021
Breaking the populist mold
Castillo's departure could signify the end of the Latin American Left's epoch of facile populism, and solidify the current push in a reformist or social-democratic direction. Peru may seek better relations with the United States and work to reduce inequalities and backwardness with pragmatic economic measures, rather than socialism.
But this new Left's success in overcoming the populist and authoritarian mold will also depend on the fertile ground it will need to consolidate itself and practice better governance. This is especially the case in Colombia, as Brazil and Chile have already successfully experienced governments of the Left.
The specter of recent events in Peru is a warning both to our opposition, which has questioned the legitimacy of Petro's reformist program, and the government itself. Colombia isn't Peru, but can sometimes resemble it a bit too closely.
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