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Populistas: New book chronicles rise of Latin America’s 21st century strongmen

These colourful, charismatic leaders placed the poor at top of their political agenda

latin american strongmen Evo Morales (left), Hugo Chavez (centre) and Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva in 2007 | Via Wikipedia Commons

Populista: The rise of Latin America’s 21st Century strongman, the just published (January 2021) book is about the poster boys of the Pink Tide who swept into power in the first decade of this century, promising a new Latin America. They were Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.

These colourful and charismatic leaders placed the poor at the top of their political agenda and tackled the stigma of poverty and indigenous identity. They pulled out millions of people from poverty and gave priority to education, healthcare and infrastructure building. They were lucky that the high commodity prices and demand at that time gave them ample funds for their ambitious projects. They won the elections easily defeating their oligarchic rightwing opponents. They supported each other and worked together for regional integration and collective strength. They challenged the hegemony of the US and the neoliberalism imposed by the pro-US governments of the region.

Yet within a decade-and-half, the party was over. Hugo Chávez died, leaving Venezuela in a disastrous mess. Lula went to jail, while Brazil suffers under a rightwing dictatorship-loving extremist president. Rafael Correa is in exile and banned from politics, facing corruption charges. Evo Morales had to flee the country into exile after his bungled attempt to prolong his term. Ortega has made a mockery of the Sandinista revolution with his family dictatorship.

Will Grant, the author of the book, gives a fairly objective narration of the rise and fall of these Populistas and the impact they had on their countries and in the region. He has given biographical sketches of these leaders and described the circumstances and background of their emergence. He has analysed the characteristics of the leaders, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses as well as their achievements and mistakes. He has made interesting comparisons between these leaders, pointing out their commonalities and contrasts.

Grant has lived and worked in the region as BBC correspondent and has personally met and interviewed these leaders at the height of their power and after their fall. He has also interacted with their admirers and critics. He has defined the Pink Tide as the period between the election of Hugo Chavez in 1999 and the death of Fidel Castro in 2016.

Chavez was a product of the angry reaction of the Venezuelans to the corrupt oligarchic rule, which left millions in poverty despite the massive oil wealth. Chavez harvested the people’s anger successfully and became the president in 1999, decimating the established political parties in the elections. He succeeded in poverty alleviation and reduction of inequality in the beginning. However, his priority changed after the opposition overthrew him in a brief coup in 2002 with the support of businesses and the middle class. He then focused on attacking the opposition and imperialism, polarising the country and the region. He weakened the institutions of democracy and created a corrupt power alliance between Chavistas and the military. When he died, the country was in a complete systemic collapse and had more poverty than when he came to power. The situation has become even worse after him. Over four million Venezuelans have fled the country to escape abject poverty and hopeless misery.

The election of Lula, a la the worker from a poor migrant family, as president of Brazil in 2002 was a historic milestone just as Obama’s victory was in the US in 2008. President Obama called Lula as “the most popular politician on earth”. Despite his poor background and lack of higher education, Lula evolved as a respected world statesman and leader of Latin America with his vision, diplomacy and charisma. Under his presidency, Brazil’s profile rose as a regional and global power. He left office in 2011 gracefully after two terms with high approval ratings and got his chosen successor, Dilma Rouseff, elected as president. But Rouseff's poor political skills and inept handling of the Car Wash scandal gave an opening to the opposition, which impeached her in a constitutional coup. Sergio Moro, the anti-Lula judge, bent the rules of law and justice to put Lula in jail, in a disproportionate punishment to prevent Lula from contesting the elections. Although Lula’s legacy has been tarnished, he is still personally popular while Bolsonaro has become a shame and disaster for the country.

Evo Morales made history by becoming the first native Indian to become the president of Bolivia. Although the Indians form over 60 per cent of the population, they were kept in a kind of Apartheid by the white minority, which controlled politics and the economy. The prejudice against the Indians was illustrated by the crass comments of Bolivia’s contestant for Miss Universe in 2004, Gabriela Oviedo, a blonde. She told the judges that not everyone in Bolivia was “poor, very short people and Indian”. To the utter disbelief and indignation of the audience, she reassured the panel she was “from the east, where… we’re tall, and we are white and can speak English”.

Morales empowered the Indians by lifting them out of poverty and opening the doors of government and business to them. During his presidency of 14 years, the macroeconomic fundamentals of the economy remained strong with an average of 5 per cent GDP growth. However, Morales got carried away by hubris and thought that he was indispensable for the country. He broke the term limits of his own constitution and tried to stay on by manipulation of the court. In the 2019 elections, when the results did not give him the minimum required margin for a first-round victory, the counting was stopped mysteriously for 24 hours, after which it was announced that he won with more than ten per cent. The opposition took to the streets and the army advised him to get out. It is a pity that Morales spoiled his admirable legacy by such an inglorious ending.

Rafael Correa is the most highly qualified among the Populistas. He had done his masters in economics in Belgium and PhD in the US on the subject of globalisation. As president, he refused to pay the immoral debt of the country accumulated by the previous corrupt governments. Like Lula, he also left quietly with his head high after two terms and getting his chosen successor elected. But the successor turned against him and opened corruption cases against his former mentor. Correa had also made lot of enemies in politics and media with his intolerance, short temper and vindictiveness. He is now in exile in Belgium, the country of his wife. He has been banned from entry into politics by the Ecuadorian courts.

Daniel Ortega was part of the celebrated Sandinista revolution, which brought down the criminal and corrupt Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979. When the Sandinistas were in power from 1979 to 1989, the country was devastated by the Reagan administration through the Contra wars, economic sanctions and other destabilisation measures. Consequent to this, Ortega lost the elections in 1990 and he accepted the defeat with grace. After sitting in the opposition for fifteen years, he got elected in 2006 and is continuing since then through undemocratic manipulations. His former comrades have left him, disgusted by his betrayal of the revolutionary ideals. He is running the country like a family property with his wife, who has become vice president, and son, who is involved in corrupt business deals.

Grant has added a last chapter on Fidel Castro, who inspired these leaders and cleared the path for their rise as the revolutionary icon of the region. Castro had a huge influence on all the leftwing populists in Latin America who came after him. Each of them visited Cuba, sat at his feet and kissed the ring of the Communist elder statesman. Most received instructions or training on the island. Castro sent medical doctors to these countries to assist in healthcare. The five leaders provided political support to Cuba. Chavez provided subsidised oil to Cuba and Nicaragua.

Castro was infinitely more charismatic than Hugo Chávez, and a far-more sophisticated guerrilla leader than Daniel Ortega. He easily outweighed the popular appeal of Evo Morales and had a sharper intellect than Rafael Correa. He was more determined and iron-willed than Lula, and possessed more daring, political astuteness and audacity than all those leaders combined. He was also more ruthless towards his critics. He survived CIA assassination attempts, the Bay of Pigs invasion and crippling US sanctions.

What next for Latin America after these Populistas? Was the Pink Tide a passing political current or a genuine sea change? The answer lies in the fact that Latin America has the largest disparity in wealth and still there are millions of poor people whose conditions have become worse after the pandemic. These masses will continue to elect the Left who have the agenda for them. This is clear from the case of Argentina where the leftist Peronism has bounced back to power in 2019 after four year of centre-right Macri rule. It is a pity that the author has left out Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, who was the president of Argentina from 2007 to 2015 and was part of the Populistas group. The Peronist Left has taken strong roots in Argentina with a solid electoral base. The candidate and party of Evo Morales have been elected with a decisive and clear mandate in the 2020 elections in Bolivia. Morales is now back in Bolivia from exile. The socialist and nationalist agenda of Morales is continued ably by President Luis Arce, who is a pragmatic technocrat. The Left has come to power for the first time in Mexico in 2018. The radical and maverick leftist Lopez Obrador has the perfect credentials to be in Will Grant’s List of Populistas. The leftist candidate Andres Arauz, the protege of Correa, is leading in the opinion polls for the presidential elections to be held on February 7. If he wins, he is expected to pardon Correa and reinstate him in the country's politics.

While the Left will stay in Latin America as long as poverty and inequality exists, it cannot survive on the basis of its ideology alone. If it does not deliver or if it gets corrupt, complacent or overbearing, the masses will vote them out as evident in the recent elections. This is the case in Uruguay, which has elected a centre-right government in 2020 after the 15-year rule of the leftist Broad Front even though the Front did well in administration without any major scandals or failures. It is certain that the Leftist regimes of Maduro, Ortega and Castro will be voted out if free and fair elections are held in their countries, where the people are suffering. As the Latin American electorate matures, the voters might give chance to both the left and right alternately to get the best out of both. The Chileans have elected leftist Michelle Bachelet and rightwing Sebastian Pinera alternately in the last four elections.

Grant’s book is a valuable addition to the knowledge and understanding of Latin American politics, which has fascinated the world with revolutions and dictatorships in the past. It is a useful read for the Indian comrades who adore unconditionally the Latin American revolutionary icons with romantic nostalgia. I remember seeing the posters with the images of Castro, Chavez and Che together during a district-level conference of the communists in Idukki district in the interior of Kerala some years back. For such Trinity worshippers, this book should be even more interesting.

The author is an expert in Latin American affairs.

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