Dishonest businessman telling lies, lying businessperson holding fingers crossed behind his back
14 September 2017

Regional view: Populism on the rise in Latin America

Latin America prepares to experience an intense wave of elections during the next months that will be decisive for the continent. While the region awaits what will happen in Venezuela, countries like Chile, Honduras, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil will hold presidential elections till 2018. Populism is more present in this political scenario against all odds, and instead of falling apart is more alive than ever.

Beyond its swinging ideological movements through Europe or the Americas, populism has started to produce similar leadership formulas wherever it sets up shop. The new populist leaders have charisma, authoritarianism, political incorrectness and the metonymy of taking their part in the whole, just like they share an aversion for nuance, Manicheism—or stark division into good and evil—a visceral rejection of a political class they consider merely a power mafia, and the surprising ability to capitalize on all types of protest votes to use them to their own benefit.

Luisa García, is partner and COO for Latin America of LLORENTE & CUENCA.

Claudio Vallejo,  Senior Director of the Latam Desk at LLORENTE & CUENCA .


The outcomes of different electoral votes since 2015 have caused the perception to spread that populism and populist-demagogic movements, at both ends of the spectrum, and at their peak in Europe and the United States (Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Podemos, Syriza…) are actually beating a retreat in Latin America. Latin American elections over the last two years, beyond the specificities typical of each nation, would seem to reveal and confirm this ebb.

In these pages we will understand populism as a way of interpreting the political game in which populists claim for themselves the total representation of a “people” formed only by the supporters of the populist leader, while the opposition lacks legitimacy and is likened to being unpatriotic. This approach, far from being in decline in Latin America, continues to be very present, now brandished not only by parties, movements and leaderships related to “21st century socialism,” but also by forces whose stance is on the right of the political spectrum and that now has greater options for winning elections and for obtaining electoral impact. (Video in spanish)


These new populisms, whose immense majority arise on the fringes of “21st century socialism,” continue to be replete and loaded with authoritarianism, committed to protectionism, charismatic leaderships and rejection of institutions and institutionalization. As political expert Andrés Malamud stresses:


“Populism promotes a direct relationship between the leader and the masses. To evade parliaments and political parties, populist leaders build antinomy and take their stand on only one side: that of the people. The generic name for populism is Manicheism. More than institutions or the elite, the enemy of populism is nuance.”


Populism in Latin America has historically proven to have a great capacity for resistance, and skill at continuing to mutate over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. Susanne Gratius described how the initial, or “classic,” populism existed in the 1930s and 40s (Juan Domingo Perón and Getulio Vargas). It had a revival, when many analysts, experts and academics considered it dead, in the form of neoliberal populism in the 90s (Carlos Menem, Alberto Fujimori and Abdalá Bucaram) that led in the last decade to “new populism,” now shaped as “21st century socialism,” and whose main reference was Hugo Chávez. Thus, populism has continued to show its ability to resist disappearance, maturing on suitable terrain: political and institutional crises, as well as the economic and social crises that end up becoming excellent breeding grounds, ideal for their germination, growth, development and even mutation.

Some of the new world populist paradigms (Donald Trump, the ultra-right populism of Marine Le Pen or the left-wing populism of Podemos) cannot be explained without the previous crises (political and socioeconomic) that these countries have gone through. Likewise, the crises of the 30s and the changes in the social model (urbanization) and economic model (industrialization) are behind phenomena like Peronism in Argentina and Vargism in Brazil. The current crisis, with structural proportions and that kicked off in 2008, is the backdrop that explains the emergence of phenomena like Trump in the United States, Le Pen in France and Podemos in Spain, as well as Golden Dawn and Alexis Tsipras—at least until he took office as prime minister—in Greece.

” Populism has continued to show its ability to resist disappearance, maturing on suitable terrain”

Populism may seem to have been extinguished (it happened in the 60s and 70s in Latin America) or receding (current situation in Latin America), but it contains a message that ends up seeping back through the cracks left by cyclical crises and traumatic socioeconomic changes.  After the crisis of the 80s (the “Lost Decade”), the “neopopulism” of Menem and Fujimori arose; after the “Lost Half-Decade” (1997-2002) Chavism appeared and the “21st century socialists.”  Now, as Emili J. Blasco points out:


“There is a change in the economic situation, which is being reflected in political changes. This does not mean that it will transfer to all countries. Some governments will go through bad times and others will be definitively done away with, although I don’t think we will see the end of populism at this time.”



The defeat of Kirchnerism in Argentina’s presidential elections in 2015, of Chavism in the legislative elections in Venezuela this same year, and of Evo Morales in the referendum in Bolivia started to create this false sensation that populism was and is in decline and withdrawal, in a region in which the majority of election results have defeats for governments close to or linked to “21st century socialism.” The growing difficulties of Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela since 2016, or the tight victory of Lenín Moreno in Ecuador in 2017 have only confirmed this feeling, beside the fact of the overwhelming re-election of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

In reality, what is happening on the Latin American political panorama is the downslide of a “certain” way of governing. In 2015, Mauricio Macri’s victory over Peronist Daniel Scioli started to open up a new stage in the region, marked by the influx of center-right governments. A trend that Jimmy Morales’ victory against “social democrat” Sandra Torres in Guatemala, and the triumph in the Venezuelan legislative elections of the Democratic Unity Roundtable over the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) only strengthen this idea.

Populism, in its version ascribed to “21st century socialism,” is undergoing clear shrinking, much more pronounced since 2013 after its undoubtable progression starting in 2005. Hugo Chávez was very much alone in Latin America for six years (1999-2005), besides his alliance with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. In the middle of the last decade, the Chavist project started to win allies in the region: Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2005, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 2006 and Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2007. Since 2009, Chávez’s “anti-imperialist” and anti-neoliberal proposal (expressed in ALBA, in Petrocaribe, etcetera) continued to expand, with new allies like Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. Further, he had the sympathy of Lula da Silva in Brazil and similarity to Kirchnerism in Argentina.

University of Salamanca professor Manuel Alcántara recalls that the success of Chavism and other movements with these features was due to the existence of factors that contributed to their triumph. Like the period from the end of the 90s to the first decade of the 21st century, at present Latin America continues to be marked by some of these shortcomings that fed—and continue to feed—a new revival of different types of populisms:


according to Manuel Alcántara


Quoting professor Alcantara, from the University Salamanca, the onset of the new millennium suffered:

“A severe crisis in the political representation system, which translates not only into a loss of society’s trust in political parties, and rejection of them, but also of traditional professional politicians.”


Similarly, today we are also witnessing a distancing between representatives and the represented: extreme mistrust of the “political class,” unbelief in parties and traditional participation routes, as well as lack of trust in governments. As José Woldenberg, professor at the UNAM Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, states for the case of Mexico:

“Like never before, I am seeing people with very little hope. You get the impression that for many, civic duty ends after voting (…). Clearly, we have a deficit of citizen responsibility as a country. Very few Mexican citizens regularly participate in an organization, whether human rights, electoral observation or environmental defense, and are only a minority.”


Indeed, only around 40 % of the Latin American population expresses satisfaction about the democratic quality of their respective countries, according to a study by the Chilean consultancy Latinobarómetro. It is what French political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon describes as a democratic malaise, characterized by the growing loss of importance of elections, the lesser centrality of administrative power (and its public policies) and the lack of connection they feel with public servants and institutions.



Although the region is not going through “a severe economic crisis” like during the Lost Half-Decade (1998-2003), the current effects of deceleration and slowdown have called into question the “oil company-export model in which the political class had the right to profit from rentier distribution channels.”

The Lost Half-Decade engendered the third populist wave (“the new populism”), and the current stagnation the region is suffering from creates a breeding ground (dissatisfaction at an inefficient state and a stagnant economy that offers fewer opportunities for social improvement) for a new populist wave to arise, now situated on the right of the political spectrum.



Alcántara states that, after the Lost Half-Decade, “a severe conflict in the way of setting out relations between the economy and society became clear, as well as in the role assigned to the state to handle them.”

In the present situation, the social mobilizations led by the emerging middle class (those that have taken place in Chile, Brazil and Guatemala) are applying pressure to obtain more effective and efficient states that channel their demands towards better public services (transportation, security, education and health) and greater transparency.



Two decades ago, according to Alcántarathe failure at shrinking the enormous inequality was recorded and had even deepened, partly due to disappointments from the application of the structural reforms model backed by international financial institutions.”[1]

This overall context is what explains the current and future survival of populism, even though it is turning up under other guises and with different characteristics. Indeed, emerging center-right alternatives (Mauricio Macri in Argentina) are coexisting in the present situation with center-left parties and coalitions (Michelle Bachelet’s New Majority government in Chile) and two types of populist-leaning movements, as Alcántara summarizes in this chart:



Along with the governments that arose in the last decade in the heat of the explosion of Chavism, although with their own characteristics and individual features (Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Correa in Ecuador), forces survive that clearly espouse the most recent populist tradition. They are the remains of what Susanne Gratius described as the third populist wave, or “new populism,” hegemonic in the last decade.

AMLO, a favorite for winning the Mexican presidential elections in 2018, deploys a demagogic discourse that in itself contains the features of this type of populism. For example, the dichotomous and Manichean presentation of a reality permanently divided between “good and bad,” like when he points out and accuses the traditional political class of corruption:  “All of them have turned their backs on our movement and I foresee the arrival of new betrayals, because betrayal always joins hands with many others, and never arrives alone, although those who betray are the zealots, the corrupt, and not the people.”

The Lopez Obrador discourse has been constructed on the foundations of creating a common and easily-identifiable enemy: the “power mafia” (the traditional parties and the political class). A “mafia” that has betrayed the people, a mythologized creation and symbol of Republican purity, for whom the leader (in this case AMLO) is its representative and embodiment. After the election in Edomez this June, López Obrador has seen his favoritism for the upcoming elections next year strengthened.

A possible López Obrador government would start off with a serious problem, arising from his populist sermon. His promises of change and regeneration create a revolution of expectations that would be very complex to fulfill and make real. López Obrador has created a party centered on himself (in reality a political power that is nothing without him) that has a scantly developed structure, as well as few and heterogeneous policies. This means that a possible López Obrador government would immediately crash up against the complex reality: he would not have a majority in the Chambers; he would have little backing among governors, as the majority are in the PRI and PAN; and he would face difficulties shaping a solid and coherent governing team.


If populism linked to “21st century socialism” has prevailed in the region since 1998, the “left-wing rentier populism” that we have seen since 2015 is beset by the appearance of another class of populisms situated on the right of the political spectrum. It has been strengthened by the international emergence of success stories to emulate, at least in part like that which is embodied by Donald Trump in the United States. This populism is characterized by one concrete feature, among other things: rejection of the political class in power (the majority linked to “21st century socialism”) and of traditional parties, which they feel are far from their roots. This component was no stranger to the three previous populisms, but it is extremely pronounced in this fourth stage.

I will brandish a politically incorrect discourse, challenging the established powers

In this regard and an advance of what was yet to come, the phenomenon of Jimmy Morales in Guatemala in 2015 was remarkable. Now, in the present scenario, there are other figures who could become populist leaders emerging from an anti-establishment right-wing. They include people like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Alejandro Ordóñez and, in some ways, Uribe in Colombia and Fujimori in Peru.

Leaderships who grow because there is a breeding ground: low economic growth and the social and political malaise felt about inefficient administrations. This favors protest votes against whoever is in power: in the majority of cases center-left or “21st century socialism” governments, which explains the about-face towards right-wing options and figures from outside the system.

At this time, the protest vote is being channeled in two different ways in the region. Either via candidates in the main traditional opposition parties, or via the support of outsider candidates.

The Trump phenomenon (as an example of successful personal and non-institutional leadership and with a message that mobilized an electorate that felt alienated from traditional parties) would ripple and expand throughout the world, also in Latin America. He becomes a paradigm to imitate and follow by people who, far from large parties, and popular due to their presence in the media, try to take office via direct and politically-incorrect discourses that are sensationalist and polarizing.  Further, the message is extremely personalist, pronounced from the right wing, but maintaining parallelisms to the methods, and partly the substance, of what was upheld by left-wing populisms until now.

“The Trump phenomenon would ripple and expand throughout the world, also in Latin America”

This “Trumpist populism” or “anti-elite populism” is gestating in the current Latin America situation. It will progress strongly in some countries, although other countries will flee from it forever, and in others it may remain as a larval and future project. The crisis of the party system burdened by corruption (Brazil), of societies highly polarized around certain topics (Colombia), or of countries in which disaffection is brewing towards an inefficient state and a political class that does not channel demands (Peru) are breeding grounds for the germination, maturing and success of this new type of populism.

However, there are more contenders for “Latin American Trumps.” Alejandro Ordóñez, the former district attorney in Colombia, strives to lead, or at least integrate, a large right-wing coalition,[1] starting from an anti-peace agreement, with the aim of preventing Santos’ continuance, or a turn to the left in the country:

“It is a proposal of conservative thought. It is a conservative revolution such as that led by Reagan and Thatcher. And now we can say that Trump is doing it, despite himself. What I have said is that orthodoxy and paradigms have been breaking, and not a moment too soon, in Western democracies. In the United Kingdom with Brexit, in France with Macron and Le Pen, who were not establishment, and in Colombia with the plebiscite of October 2nd. Trump is a benchmark for political affairs because he is one of the few politicians who does what he promises. He confronts the establishment. There are things we may not agree with in his personal life or eccentricities. What I aspire to be is to say what I think, do what I say and fulfill what I promise. I have thought what I think since I was a little boy. And I have never been ashamed of it, and I have never apologized from who I am. I will brandish a politically incorrect discourse, challenging the establishment. That will be my campaign.”

(Video in spanish)


Latin America is experiencing a new political cycle fed by economic prosperity and marked by three dynamics that move in parallel:

a. The weakening of options linked to the different regional left-wing parties

b. The greater strength of center-right options.

c. The survival of two types of populisms, whose survival will negate the hypothesis that these powers are withdrawing. This populism is close to the approaches of “21st century socialism” and another situated on the right, with a clear anti-elite message.

In short, demagogy and populism are far from falling into decline or being at the point of disappearing in Latin America. Indeed, everything points to its reappearance with different faces, as well as having a global presence, because there is a propitious context (economic stagnation), success stories to imitate (Donald Trump) and charismatic leaders who aspire to take advantage of the new populist momentum.

In reality, nothing new under the sun, as Moisés Naim would point out:

“The most interesting thing about Trump, as a political product, is not how exceptional he is, but how common he is in these anti-political times. Terrible simplifiers proliferate as society’s uncertainty and anxiety grow, which is why they are a global trend today. They are everywhere. But Trump is the most dangerous manifestation of this trend. And that in itself is indeed exceptional.”

This report has been produced by the analysis team of LLORENTE & CUENCA. 


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