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Winds of Change in Latin America Are Chasing Populism Away

By: Miguel Angel Latouche - Nov 6, 2015, 12:38 pm
Populism has filled the political discourse with empty promises. Now, voters expect more than that. (El Venezolano)
Populism has filled the political discourse with empty promises, and the public is no longer buying it. (El Venezolano)

EspañolUntil recently, socialist hegemony in Latin America seemed unstoppable. Slowly but surely, a political discourse that sought “social inclusion” for the poor became dominant in a region with profound income inequality, where the benefits of economic growth had not reached all citizens.

Surely, alleviating poverty was urgent, and people’s needs had to be addressed. Only the foolhardy would claim that there was a real equality of opportunities among all Latin Americans and that no large social gap existed between the haves and the have-nots.

In practically every Latin American country, there are people who still live in absolute poverty, the inhabitants of the cities’ favelas and poorest neighborhoods, men and women with little or no access to education or health services or any of the benefits of our prosperous and globalized 21st-century society.

But even if those who spoke of the need for “social inclusion” had noble intentions, they still resorted to social resentment as a way to gain support for their policies.

Statist governments took advantage of poverty and of the deplorable conditions under which many people live; the cry of “social justice” was used to legitimize perverse forms of authoritarianism. Since the statists’ aim was to achieve government control over the whole of society, freedom of speech was restricted and populism took the place of real integration.

They tried to boost participation in politics and voting not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to gain and hold on to power. Across the region, the instinct of coercion lurked beneath the spirited defense of equality.

Thus, Rafael Correa severely restricted press freedom in Ecuador; the Kirchners resorted to a combination of messianism and mafia tactics to monopolize power in Argentina; the Chávez regime progressively uprooted the free-enterprise system in Venezuela. The assault on political freedom soon followed.

Was the rise of these statist governments and others a natural response to the supposed wave of economic liberalization of the 1990s? Were generally positive economic policies followed by equally positive social policies? In a certain sense, the progressives are right in focusing on people’s actual welfare rather than macroeconomic balances.

The problem is that, despite the soundness of the initial diagnosis on poverty, statist measures do little to cure the disease. Former Brazilian President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Zero Hunger Program worked, but only in the context of significant economic growth and investment in innovation.

In other cases, statist measures lead only to inefficiency and corruption. This is likely the reason why the poor’s living conditions have barely improved after more than a decade of progressive hegemony in several countries.

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Surely this explains why Latin Americans are rejecting statist populism. People now regard most progressive politicians as demagogues; citizens seem to understand that simply redistributing tax revenues will not create wealth through greater production. Mere words and promises are no longer enough.

This is why Latin American politics is becoming interesting. Dilma Rousseff’s government is severely weakened. In Argentina, an opportunity has finally arisen to put an end to Peronista hegemony. Statist parties also lost Bogotá’s race for mayor after 12 years in power.

Perhaps the old “left versus right” split has stopped making sense. No government can be effective without achieving a balance between economic and social development. The people are now truly in charge, and they demand transparency in finances, efficiency in performance, and fearlessness in action.

Translated by Marián Vázquez.