Q24N — Populism, “an unwanted child of democracy,” is here to stay. It is present in the youngest democracies of Latin America, but also in the oldest and most consolidated ones, such as those of Europe and the United States. Central America, far from escaping this political phenomenon, has a wave of its own.
This is what the authors of the book El Populismo en América Central (Populism in Central America) point out, a product of the work of 16 academics who studied each of the countries of the isthmus and offer their analyses in this work.
María Esperanza Casullo and Harry Brown Araúz, coordinators and also authors of the book, spoke with CONFIDENCIAL and the Esta Semana program about this wave of populism in Central America with the governments of Nayib Bukele, of El Salvador; Xiomara Castro, of Honduras; and Rodrigo Chaves, of Costa Rica.
Political scientists point out that there is no vaccine or antidote against populism, that currently on the continent there is a competition between left and right populism and that, given this, defenders of democracy must aim to build a better version of that system. politician who manages to solve the major long-standing problems that afflict the populations and bring them the social well-being that they so long for.
How do you define what populism is? Is it a style of government, a political system, does it have an ideological identity of the left or the right?
María Esperanza Casullo: Populism is, above all, a way of doing politics, a way, if you want to simplify it, of making people follow you, vote for you, accompany you in your Government.
There are configurations that are more typical of the left or the right, but, in general, these movements, these governments, are quite hybrid, they mix elements. They can even have more left-wing areas, be redistributionist, and (at the same time) have more right-wing areas such as, for example, having a fairly retrograde gender discourse.
How does it manifest itself in Central America? Is a populist regime a threat to democracy?
Harry Brown Araúz: Populism is the product of a relatively long democratic period for Central America.
The populations have had time to articulate their demands and are aware that they can present these demands to their governments, to their economic and political elites, but these demands are not satisfactorily met.
And it is not only that the problems are not solved, but sometimes it seems that they will never be solved. Therefore, to a large extent, voters are looking for options that present them with future projects or, in some cases, like Costa Rica, projects from the past, returning to a past that they believe had been better. In the case of Costa Rica it has to do with the longing for the small welfare state that they had in that country.
What characteristics did you find in the figure of the Honduran ruler Xiomara Castro?
María Esperanza Casullo: Clearly it is a populist leadership. We find, perhaps for the first time, many populist women leaders in the region and in the world.
In the case of Xiomara Castro it is a dual leadership, which can also be related, for example, to Juan Domingo Perón and Eva Perón, in Argentina, where it is the couple that governs (along with her husband, former president Manuel Zelaya), but , investigations tell us that the figure of Xiomara Castro was important in winning the elections, as a person who came from outside to restore the damage that the coup d’état (in 2009) had done.
Bukele: radical populism
What about the case of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who has 90% popular support? Is he populist, authoritarian or democratic?
Harry Brown Araúz: Bukele’s case is not only the most important in Central America, but certainly in Latin America to date, and it is one of the ones that generates the most curiosity in the entire world.
It is the only case of radical populism in Central America. This radicalism has to do with pointing out an external enemy, which is what he calls “the international community.”
Of course, he is very popular, and he decisively won the legislative election about two years ago and it has to do, not only with the satisfaction of (solving) some problems, but with the future project (that Bukele presents with his unconstitutional re-election ). This generates tension in populism on the side of democracy that has to do with republican institutions, with the democracy of the institutions; but he is complying with the other part, which is popular democracy, with what the people want.
In this case, populism is an exacerbation of democracy, which is very difficult to resist, even for democracies themselves.
In Costa Rica, President Rodrigo Chaves is accused of having a populist style, but there are solid democratic institutions. Is Chaves’ regime a populist regime?
María Esperanza Casullo: When you use the word regime you are already talking about a fundamental change in the rules of political competition, in the institutionality. A new regime generally implies, for example, writing a new Constitution. And there are governments that may be admittedly populist, but it does not mean that there is a new regime.
For example, Hugo Chávez inaugurated a new regime in Venezuela, but I would not say that the Kirchners, in Argentina, inaugurated a new regime. It was a Government that had certain characteristics, they lasted 12 years, they lost the elections and left.
I wouldn’t say, until now, that it is a regime. Costa Rica is a very interesting case because it also shows that populist leaders can appear even in fairly solid party systems, not only in weak systems.
But Chaves is a figure, a populist leader…
María Esperanza Casullo: Yes, yes. And there are recognizably populist elements in his antagonism; we also saw the figure of the “outsider”, who presented himself as coming from outside politics.
But, populism is also a political style, it is a way of doing politics, and the effect it can have is a matter of degrees. That is, it can have a lot of effect, completely change the system; or it could be a Government with certain characteristics for a period, that loses and leaves. And that has more to do with the strength of the opposition parties, the strength of the institutions, of civil society.
The Ortega Murillo regime: authoritarian and neopatrimonialist
What about the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo? Is it a populist regime? We see that it does share many of the characteristics of this type of regime.
Harry Brown Araúz: In the case of Nicaragua, the two specialists clearly say that Daniel Ortega is not a populist. There are specialized publications that characterize it as such.
What are the reasons that colleagues Radek Buben and Karel Kouba give for not characterizing Daniel Ortega as a populist? (Ortega) uses external enemies from time to time, he criticizes the United States, but it is not a recurring use, economic policy respects neoliberal recipes, including some redistribution to the poor. There is a lack of charisma, there are sporadic public appearances.
Colleagues who did the research on Nicaragua mainly characterize it as a neopatrimonial authoritarian regime. It is not populism, but rather it is directly authoritarianism.
Is the case of Daniel Ortega that of a populist who transitioned to a merely authoritarian leader?
María Esperanza Casullo: Yes. One of the chapters of the book on Cuba, by the author Rodolfo Colalongo, (explains that) if one looks at the example of Cuba, one could say that at the beginning of the Revolution, Fidel Castro’s speech had populist elements: this external adversary, this call to the people to mobilize, this vindication of the Cuban people, of the national character… but later that was left behind and I think this is also another interesting point that our book offers, that people and regimes change, or They adapt, or alter, or can go from being one thing to another.
How do you characterize the political system that in Guatemala they call the “pact of the corrupt,” which at this moment threatens a coup d’état, as denounced by the elected president, Bernardo Arévalo?
Harry Brown Araúz: In Guatemala, which is a very defective democratic regime, there has always been concern that it would move towards authoritarianism. In the chapter written by Jeraldine del Cid Castro and Luis Padilla, they say that in Guatemala there is no populism because democracy is tremendously exclusive. Although there are expressions of populism in the streets, not necessarily in the Government.
And in the case of Bernardo Arévalo, who is not a leftist, he is rather a centrist with a somewhat technocratic style, perhaps to scare a part of the population, it has been said from the Guatemalan right that he is a populist, but he is not not at all, he is a centrist ruler who apparently has a democratic vocation.
How is the Central American populist wave different from other manifestations on the continent?
María Esperanza Casullo: The first thing we can see is that what was called the wave of pink populism at the beginning of the 21st century, with Hugo Chávez, was a little more homogeneous, in the sense that the presidents (who were part of the wave ) were talking to each other. There was a certain closeness felt.
In Central America, there is a smaller wave. We identify three clear cases of populism, but there are certain differences. It is not so clear that it is a wave or from the left (or right), it is not clear that it is so homogeneous. It is also unclear that there is so much circulation of content or closeness between the presidents.
And it has certain limitations. Although the figure of Nayib Bukele is an important case, because he provides a kind of imitation model, which everyone wants to be successful, unlike Hugo Chávez, Bukele does not have his own resources with which to seek to do politics in other countries.
Throughout Latin America, the system is moving towards a competition between populisms. In our countries, left-wing populism are appearing to confront, and sometimes quite harshly, right-wing populism. It is a relatively new phenomenon.
We think of Brazil, with (Luiz Inácio) Lula and (Jair) Bolsonaro; We think of Argentina, between Peronism and the appearance of figures like (Javier) Milei, with strong political polarization and strong antagonism, where all political actors use this tool or this strategy of populism.
You say in the book that populism is defined against an oligarchic elite. Who are those elites in Central America?
Harry Brown Araúz: The other, the adversary of the Central American populists, is, basically, neopatrimonialism. They are pacts, they call them pactism in Honduras, in Panama they call them consensus.
They are those agreements between politicians that, on some occasions, have family characteristics, which is why we also talk about patrimonialism, that prevent the entry of other political actors into the competition, that capture the capabilities of the State and that are the ones that end up being opposed by the new populist leaderships that promise the population greater openness and the possibility of consolidating the country’s projects in each of their societies.
But don’t populist regimes end up becoming a new political elite?
Harry Brown Araúz: To some extent that is what is happening. In the case of Honduras, where pactism was accused, the Juan Orlando Hernández regime was called a dictatorship, and that the damage in Honduras was the 2009 coup d’état, but even so, President Castro’s project includes the creation of an Anti-Corruption Commission, there is also a very strong accusation that the country is being run by a family. There were opposition demonstrations recently and the main song was “Afuera el familión.” That is also neopatrimonialism.
Populism: product of the failures of democracy
What are the antidotes or vaccines against populism in Central America?
María Esperanza Casullo: There is none. What the current situation teaches us is that populism is a possibility, it is a kind of unwanted child of democracy itself.
It is no coincidence that these regimes appear when the region is experiencing a very long period of democracy, 40 years of democracy, and when I say region I do not just mean Central America, but all of Latin America.
But, also, if you look back a little, you see that populism is everywhere in the world. For 100 years we talked about populism as a uniquely Latin American pathology, but there are very viable populist presidents, or candidates, in the United States, Canada, England, France and all European countries.
Old, well-established democracies and young, underdeveloped democracies are in the same boat.
What can those who see populism as a danger to democracy do?
Harry Brown Araúz: It is not enough to file a complaint. It is very important, it is part of democracy, but what we have to do is present to the population viable country projects that give them a future, projects that are consolidated and that unite the population behind what they are expected to do. democracy.
Populism is a product of democracies that are failing because we have thought that democracy is only strengthened with better parties or better elections, with justice that works. That is obviously important, it is necessary, but, above all, what the population is waiting for is well-being.
María Esperanza Casullo: An element that connects in this type of (populist) leadership is the perception that there is courage. We are seeing it in Argentina these days that they tell you: “I want a change, I don’t care what change, I want someone who has the courage to change something.” And I believe that this is a call to develop democratic courage, a courage of democracies themselves, because sometimes our democracies are reduced to saying: “you cannot improve education, it is very expensive; “You cannot improve health, it is very difficult, we do not have the resources.”
It seems to me that this idea could be interesting: developing democratic courage, as we had to make democratic transitions 40 years ago. Now we have to transition to a new, better democracy, not just try to shore up the beams of what we have.