The Types of Populism in Latin America

There are several types of variations of populism in Latin America. Whether it be rooted in a historical context, or it is originated because of other reaons. The existence of populist political parties in Latin America are historically rooted post-Marxist institutionalized parties of the left (The Brazilian PT), left-leaning governments rooted in preexisting populist parties (Argentina’s Peronist Government), populist governments based on top-down political mobilization via charismatic leadership (Chavismo), and the leftist governments based on new social movements (Evo Morales in Bolivia).

One of the major things that I want to look at in this paper is the differing between the bad populism that has plagued Venezuela, and the successes of populism that we have seen in countries like Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina. Lula rose to the Presidency of Brazil because the populist movement he attracted, and many Brazilians, other than the opposition party, Lula favorables in Brazil were very good. Under Lula, Brazil devloped their economy into a global economy and Brazil became known as a BRIC country, he also lifted millions out of absolute poverty. Dilma did not have the same success as Lula, but much of that is political posturing by the opposition party. Uruguay and Chile have some of the strongest democratic institutions in Latin America. So there has been some successful cases of populism in Latin America.

My hypothesis aboout populism is it can be dangerous when democratic institutions are weakened because of a concentration of power, change in constitution, and a decrease in checks and balances. This is what has happened in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The type of populism that has been going on in Venezuela has spread to countries like Ecuador and Bolivia. I don’t think populism in general is dangerous to the institution of liberal democracy, but I think that populism can be used to raise important questions in a democrcacy and address problems such as economic inequality, technocrats, elite politicians, and a messy swamp. Populistic mobilization happens when too much power is concentrated among the elites and large companies control politicians, nationalism wavers, or a cultural change occurs such because of immigration. If we look at the rise of Trump, Brexit, these are the types of themes we see.

What is Populism?

A big part of my paper is not only understanding the type of populism that is prevalent in Latin America, because populism exists all over the world. Populism has also existed for many historical periods, it dates back to the 30s in Latin America, and within the 19th century it existed in Europe. However, what is Populism? Is it a ideology? Is it a political party? Is it a social movement?

Yes and no is the answer.The challenge of defining populism is at least partially due to the fact that the term has been used to describe political movements, parties, ideologies, and leaders across geographical, historical, and ideological contexts. Indeed, “there is general agreement in the comparative literature that populism is confrontational, chameleonic, culture-bound and context-dependent” (Gidron and Bonikowski, 2013). Populism can be every one of these. Much of the discourse on populism is centered around the problems of conceptualizing populism. Populism can be left and it can be right, it can be liberal and it can be conservative. Populism can be Trump and populism can be Lula from the PT party in Brazil. One of the main problems is populism has been thrown around so much in many different contexts within political science, sociology, and economics.

Though Latin America has been regionally trending towards left-leaning populism for many decades, there has also been right-wing populists in Latin America in Mexico and Guatemala. Populism has occured in both institutionally strong countries, and in countries where institutions are weak and economically marginalized.


This has been the toughest part throughout this paper. Latin America is a different type of populism in a different context, and it is as recent as 1998 with the election of Hugo Chavez, and since then Latin America has been facing a major trend of populism. However, it is different populism compared to what we see in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world. How populism is used is also different. In Latin America it is not so much an ideaology, where in other countries it can be defined as an ideaology. But, in Latin America, populism is seen as a social movement and a political discursive style.


What was the most interesting/useful/surprising thing you learned in this class? Have your views on democracy changed since we started, and if so, how?

This class has raelly enhanced my ability to understand the internal politics of democracies, but at the sametime, it helped me understand the flip-side as well. The most interesting and useful part of class for me was when we did the graphs about the breakdown of a authoritarian regime, and we traced the process all the way to hopefully a democracy. I learned that it is a lot harder than it looks to achieve a sense of democracy. It was also very interesting to see the breakdown democratic institutions and how those can lead to authoritarian regimes.

I have seen this specific process in my term paper, the case of Venezuela has proven that though it can be tough, the breakdown of democratic instutions can fall. Under Nicolas Maduro, this has certainly happened as many different democratic mechanisms have gone to the wayside. I believe the section we did on the breakdown of democraices and authoritarian regimes really supplemented the section for me on studying the case of left-wing populism in Venezuela.

My views have definitely changed a bit on democracy. At the beginning of the class, though I knew democracy was not perfect by all means, I believe anytype of democracy was the best and it should be an end of all means. But, my suspicions of democracy have turned out to be true, it is a lot dirtier than previous thought, and can still be used to consolidate power. The cases of democracy we have seen, or hybrid regimes, have proven to be very low on the democratic index. After reading about the China case, I have been asking the question if the people are very happy with economic freedoms, and what China allows, does democracy matter in that type of context? If the CCP can keep the people of China happy, then maybe democracy doesnt matter as much to the people. So those are some questions I have been pondering as we have learned more about deomcracy.

The Case of Venezuelan Populism

This weeks class and in the past some of our discussions have centered around populism and the role of a populist agenda within a democracy. Venezuela followed a similar theme throughout Latin America, which was throughout the 1970s they entered a wave of democratizationm and it was a true democracy according to Freedom House and other democratic indexes. However, when Chavez came to power in the 90s, the democratic indices scored the democracy in Venezuela very low because of the type of populism Chavez was imposing onto his people.

Bermeo and Zakaria both touch on populism and the polarization of cultures within a country and how it can lead to a authoritarian regiem. I believe they can be applied in this certain situation within Venezuela because the breakdown of democratic institutions played a central role in the rise of Chavismo. This is certainly a question and theory we must take into account when analyzing the case of Venezuela.

Populism Vs. The Elites

To what extent to you find yourself now persuaded by Bermeo’s argument that while ordinary people might be occasionally passive in the face of creeping authoritarianism, it’s generally elite behavior that tips the scales? Or do you find Zakaria’s argument about the cultural polarization of contemporary Western societies to be a worrisome sign of popular erosion of democratic values?


Both arguments make great points about the state of democracy in the world. With growing pressures amounting about the breakdown of democracy because of what many believe to be populism, and then Bermeo’s argument centers around the fact that lay citizens do not play a minuscule role, if any at all in the breakdown of democracy.

Zakaria argues that it seems like many of the people are moved not by the political campaigning or situation in-country, but they are mainly moved by the external shocks to the system. When I look back at some of the more populist campaigns more recently such as Brexit and Trump, I do not see a good campaign led by charismatic leader focused on the issues. I see the candiate using events going on in life and how people are effected, for example, Trump harped on illegal immigration and the spread of “radical islamic” terrorism at home. Then whenever something happened in the world that shocked the system of people, like the attacks in Nice and Paris, France and the aiport explosion in Belgium, then Trump would use this in his campaign. Is this the breakdown of democracy and transition to authoritarianism?

On the other hand, Bermeo makes an argument that elites tip the scale more behind the scenes then any other factor because simply there is more at stake and they are self-interested. I think it has been clear, whether authoritarian or democracy, that political elites play a central role in the process of government. Bermeo’s empirical data from 1959-79 analyzes Brazil and Uruguay when it comes to the fall of democracy and if ordinary people played a role in the fall of democracy, and they didn’t play a role whatsoever. The elites involved in the background tipped the scale in favor of authoritarianism.

I am more persuaded by Bermeo’s argument when a country is faced with the test of authoritarianism. However, I do not exactly discredit Zakaria’s argument, I believe Zakria’s analyzation plays a central role in the collapse of democracy. I think the culture polorization can effect democracy in a negative way, and maybe people don’t stand up in the face of authoritarianism when faced because of culture polarization. This is also a tenant of populism, Chavez was able to hold into power because of programs that garner support.

Redifing Venezuelan Question

A big part of my paper that I need to redefine is my paper and how I am addressing the populism in Venezuela question. Originally, I was asking the question about how populism in Venezuela effects democracy in the rest of South America, but I am pretty sure I cannot measure that in a class like this.

So I want to talk about Venezuela in a much broader context and the effects it has on democracy. I think a more appropiate question would be measuring the effects Chavismo populism for a defined defintion of democracy, using Freedom House, and then whether it was good for the Venezuelan people or not. I think those questions I can answer with the literature and using the mainstream literature on populism, democracy, and Venezuela. Because even Venezuelan populism is very different compared to mainstream populism.

I will continue the quest for a better question.

Are Their Different Types of Democratic Ice Cream?

Democracy to the majority of the Chinese citizens is economic development, prosperity, and improvement. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I am not.

This is what I was alluding to a couple weeks ago in class when one of the students asked about our measurements for the democratic index. A student asked why we used HDI and other economic variables, and our answer was because output variables I believe are just as important as freedom of speech. The student said based off what we measured, then Qatar would be a strong democracy because they have the highest GDP per capita income in the world. I jokingly said back yeah, maybe Qatar is a democracy. Obviously, Qatar is not a democracy, just like China is a democracy, but if the people are happy how things are. . . maybe it is not a democracy, but it means something and a unique case study.

I am not surprised the Chinese people define deomcracy as economic prosperity. The interesting part as well is even the Per Capita Income in China is very low, they are performing very well as an entire country, but there are still low levels of income within country and those incomes will only increase as time goes on. If that happens, the CCP could last multiple decades, if not hundreds of years. The only chance where I see vulnerability in the Chinese government is their economy and if it backtracks. Obviously there is more at play such as culture and history, but in recent times, the CCP has thrived on economic opportunity.

Xi is a very interesting character as well in China, over the decades each Chinese Communist leader has made certain gains with the Chinese public. The book does mention these certain concessions, and it says that there is a possibility concessions are running out, what else could they concede? Xi is currently undertaking one of the largest anti-corruption campaigns in Chinese history that is always plagues local governments, the military, and a biased economy. But, as far from I can tell reading from some local newspapers about the anti-corruption campaign, it has been very well recieved in China. (

It has been well-recieved by the masses, but like the article says, the military and other political elites are unhappy, which makes sense because they benifitted the most from corruption. This however is a concession that the Chinese people appreciate because it can create more economic opportunity for everyone, not just elites. So, it seems that ecoomic advancement and opportunity is the most important to the Chinese people.

Over the next couple decades it will be interesting to see what types of concessions the Chinese government makes for there people. I believe eventually they will have to tackle the problem of internet freedom. Currently in China there is not freedom of internet, not just social media, but also some academic sources are shut down. As a growing intellectual power as well, the people of China may demand more internet freedom because this can also lead to economic opportunity.

So, to conclude, though Qatar and China are not democracies per say, maybe this type of government could be more acceptable to the people. If the majority of the people of a country are happy, can that be seen as democracy and the will of the people? China is definitely an interesting case as time goes on.

Venezuela Under Maduro

Interestingly, the paper I am writing centers around the populism that has been forming under Chavez and then was transffered to the current President, Maduro. I thought this was important to note as I was writing my paper on if populsim in Venezuela is bad for democracy in other countries in the region. It may not be the exact reason or a threat, but there is a growing block of left-leaning populist countries in this region. The recent election in Ecuador does not help the situation as the party of Rafeal Correa did win the election, which also ensures asylum for Julian Assange.

Most recently, Maduro concentrated even more power in his own hands and his Vice President. They dissolved the Supreme Court and created even less checks and balances on the power of the President. In the last month this has happened, and also Maduro giving the Vice President full power over dictating the budget, re-allocating, and this is the same Vice President that has been linked by the United States to being involved in the drug ring.

Though I will conclude with some of the most recent grabs of power by Maduro, my paper will focus more on the power grab orginially by Chavez that led to the foundations of concentration of power under Chavez. By all means, this is not a re-correction of Democracy, it could be if the people were into power, but its not. Chavez used the failings of the previous administration to push his own agenda, and then once in power, his populist message was answered with the decrease of democratic foundations such as checks and balances, voting mechanisms, and freedom of speech.

These recent events in Venezuela are evidence that there is a concentration of power into one mans hands. Though it is a populist message that some of the people believe in, it is not democracy. Chavismo was not a re-correction of democracy. It took advantage of the failings of the previous administration and the poorest of the poor in Venezuela. The paper will go into more depth, but I thought this was important to mention as a piece of the paper.

Just Enough


Strengths: I think some of the strongest parts about the Chinese is their economic development and allowing just a bit to satisfy the people of China. Reforms under the CCP since Mao has allowed China to slowly develop, but it has also allowed them to control their power in China. Economic development I believe has been one of the single most important factor in the CCP reataining power, and why I believe they are a unique case to the modernization theory. It has also been their ability to be self-interested in giving in a little and making concessions to the Chinese people.

I believe the weakness of the Chinese government is their lack of modernization when it comes to the democratization process and also the free-flowing information. However, this could be not a weakness because there are many Chinese students that study abroad all over the world, and they return to China and there seems to be no contentious problems in other parts of the region such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.

It will be interesting to see how far the Chinese government is willing to bend to make concessions with the citizens of China. However, the culture and economic development I believe fits well with the unique case of China and modernization theory.

Populism-Friend or Foe?

The ultimate question of my research centers around popuism in Venezuela and if it hurts democracy in the region. Getting the answer to that question is the most important, however, this has also led me to many more questions about populism.

Does populism really give power to the people?

Is it a friend or foe of true democracy?

Are we always deemed to be ruled by the elites no matter what?

These are some questions I wish I could answer after reading extensively on populism. But, one thing I feel like I have answered is populism definitely hurts democracy, and more than that, it hurts the quality of life for people, even though the majority of them do not benefit from populism. Populism is supposed to return power to the people, but it has only been used for soft-line autocrats take power for their own benefit. Even worse, the people do not realize it. Mainly because there are specific tactics that buy people off. Chavez has employed this tactic during his reign, he would invest some money in social programs as an allusion to the people that they were being helped, unlike before. We see the same stuff with Correa, and Morales. The different between Lula in Brazil is his Cash Transfers like Bolsa Familia actually had wide-ranging effects on reducing poverty and wrote these CTC into law.

One thing that I do feel like I can conclude on, is populsim can be used for both the right and the left political idealogues. For example, I believe in Latin America they use the left-leaning populism, that may seem similar to the right-wing, but it is different in how they govern. Some of the right-wing populists I would consider are Donald Trump, Marine La Pen, and Nigel Farage. However the right-wing populists employ tactics such as anti-immigration, less money being used for waste, and pulling out of the global economy, so they may be not as effective. The left-wing populists of Latin America can employ social programs to literally buy even the poorest of votes, but they have no teeth.


I know this is everywhere, but this is some thoughts I have been having regarding populism in general that I wish to study more.