The Rise of Latin America’s 21st Century Strongman


Source: Ginnette Riquelme/Reuters

Will Grant, Populista: The Rise of Latin America’s 21st Century Strongman. Head of Zeus, January 2021.

Price: £25.00 (~USD $35.00) | Length: 512 pages

Will Grant is the Mexico, Cuba, and Central America correspondent for the BBC, currently based in Havana, and the author of Populista: The Rise of Latin America’s 21st Century Strongman. In Populista, Grant narrates the history of the rise and fall of the Pink Tide by tracing the biographies and political trajectories of six of its most emblematic and consequential figures: Hugo Chávez, Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Daniel Ortega, and Fidel Castro. Drawing on his extensive experiences as a foreign correspondent in Latin America, Grant provides an informative retrospective on the Pink Tide era, demonstrating how the combination of charismatic political leadership and inflated oil prices facilitated the emergence of perhaps the most significant Latin American political phenomenon of the past quarter-century; and how the eventual collapse in commodity prices inaugurated a new era of economic crisis, sociopolitical instability, and (in the cases of Venezuela and Nicaragua) outright authoritarianism. The following interview between Global Americans and Mr. Grant—covering his book, the Pink Tide, the Latin American left, and other social and political currents impacting the Western Hemisphere—took place in February 2021.

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Note: The following transcribed interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity in written form.

Global Americans: During an interview in a prison visiting room in Curitiba, former President of Brazil Lula da Silva tells you: 

“I think it’s necessary to separate populism from popularity […] you can have 100 percent of popularity without being a populist. I don’t consider myself a populist. I consider myself a leader who dared to govern with the people, who was not afraid of the people.” 

Later in the book, you sit with former President of Ecuador Rafael Correa in a café in Belgium where he argues against what he alleges to be a double standard with respect to the application of the ‘populist’ label: 

“If you’re popular in Spain or Germany, you’re a great politician. If you’re popular in Latin America, you’re a populist.” 

You identify and explain a number of other common characteristics and themes that bind together your subjects, so if I may: why Populista, as opposed to Izquierdista, Socialista, Nacionalista, or even—given how effectively you argue that the Pink Tide represented the triumph of charismatic, individual-driven politics over party-oriented politics—Egoísta?

Grant: I called the book Populista not necessarily because I’m trying to say all these people were populists, and certainly Lula and Correa make a very interesting point—one that’s quite hard to argue against. Sometimes I joke that the book title has “populista” with two Spanish-style exclamation marks in front of it and after it, but it perhaps might have been better to have question marks at either end. I’m not trying to sit here in judgment, saying, “This man is a populist, and this woman is a populist, but this one is not.” That was never my role, nor do I see that as my role in the journalism of my day job at the BBC. Nevertheless, ‘populist’ was the sort of label [that my subjects] were hit with. There is, therefore, a little irony or a little playfulness in the title. That said, it is a valid exercise to examine the populist characteristics of some of the [political movements] that we are talking about. For instance, they all, to some extent, employed the populist’s classic trope, in which he decrees that “I am the people and the people are me; so, ergo, you have to vote for me because I am you.”

Another thing to bear in mind is that I was not necessarily writing just about six men per se, but broadly about how they and their political projects came into being, why they became who and what they became, and how they metamorphosed and evolved over time. They may have started with the best of intentions—and I do believe, in most cases, they did. Lula, [former President of Bolivia] Evo [Morales], and [late President of Venezuela] Chávez, for instance, came from poverty and intended—at least when they set off on their political projects—to improve the lot of the poor, to improve the situation of those communities that they themselves came from, and of those millions of families around their respective countries living in similar circumstances. One only needs to look at Lula’s trajectory— how he moved from lathe operator, to union member, to union leader, to running a political party based upon workers and trade unions, to eventually, after three attempts at running for the presidency, reaching that highest office—[to see the roots of his political vision]. Alternatively, in the case of Morales, one can see his evolution, from his joining the coca growers’ union to becoming the first Indigenous president of a majority Indigenous nation. 

But nevertheless, all six men were guilty of a certain degree of hubris, and there was a point at which power, for all of them, became intoxicating. In particular, in the cases of [President of Nicaragua] Ortega, Chávez, and Evo, that desire for power became an unflinching refusal to relinquish power. This is where the populist logic becomes particularly [dangerous]; when a leader can no longer necessarily win at the polls. When [the constitution] effectively said, “Your time is up,” these leaders sought to change the constitutions to stay in power. When a leader has convinced himself that he alone embodies the will of the people, he can easily conclude that he has the inalienable right to stay in power since he and his political project are uniquely [correct]. And how have they maintained that power when a large sector of the population disagrees? Ultimately, it comes down to repression and violence, as you see in Venezuela and Nicaragua. 

It is in these cases that I think that some of those populist [characterizations] are valid. What I’m attempting to do with the title is to throw out the label for people to see and make their own judgments—about whether or not these were perfectly democratic men, who were in power by the right of the ballot box and should still be there; or if they morphed into something altogether more sinister. (I would argue that, in certain cases, they certainly did). And I think, over the course of the book, you can see the fault lines—the differences between the book’s subjects as well as the similarities—which was largely my original intention. When the so-called Pink Tide first happened, I found that a lot of very smart editors, including some at the BBC, seemed to just be lumping them all together a little bit too easily. That was always something that rankled me and that I wanted to try and unpack. 

Global Americans: I was hoping you could elaborate somewhat on your decision to include Fidel Castro as the subject of one of your chapters—given that his ascendance to power predates the rise of the Pink Tide by at least four decades—and your decision to conclude the book with Castro rather than beginning with him. You describe Castro as the “very […] political compass” of the Pink Tide and the broader Latin American left. How did the Cuban Revolution manage to function as a common pole for political tendencies ranging from the labor-oriented social democracy of Lula and his Partido dos Trabalhadores to Chávez’s braggadocious anti-Americanism? And what role, if any, do you see Cuba and the Cuban Revolution playing for current and future region-wide leftist projects? Over four years since Castro’s death, has Cuba lost its historical ability to unite otherwise fairly disparate strands of leftist and ‘populist’ projects in Latin America? 

Grant: I made this decision partly because of how it fits well with my own trajectory as a journalist and because I’ve always felt that you need to write about what you know best. I’m speaking to you from Havana now, where I’ve been based for over six years. (I spent three years in Venezuela and several years in Mexico in addition to the six that I’ve spent in Cuba, and I’ve also covered Latin America from Miami and London). So, I do know the authoritarian left very well, and I think that [the chapter on Castro and Cuba] wasn’t just tacked on as a kind of afterthought, nor is it based on some kind of argument that Castro is behind all of [the Pink Tide]—that he was some kind of puppet master, and everybody else was just his marionettes. But one cannot write about the left in Latin America without proper reference to Cuba, because it remains the touchstone for [left-wing political movements] of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. When I got my Masters, they pressed upon us quite carefully that you cannot always view Latin America through the prism of Washington, but you nevertheless have to appreciate Washington’s influence over the region. I think, equally, that you could say the same about Havana when it comes to the Latin American left, and particularly with regard to the years of the Pink Tide, from 1990 onwards. I don’t actually think that it is right to relegate Castro to being a mere Cold War figure when you look at the influence that he had on, for example, Chávez personally, over Chávez’s political trajectory, and on Venezuela more broadly. There was a time when the region really began to be divided into those who were part of a kind of Caracas-Havana axis and those who were with Bush in Washington, and the former started to outweigh the latter by a significant margin. There were a couple of summits where I remember thinking just how isolated Colombia under [former President] Álvaro Uribe really was because he was, in essence, the only leader who was outright allied with Washington over Chávez and Castro. 

Castro, therefore, is a figure who transcends the image of the 20th century Cold War icon and actually reflects a significant part of the orientation, formation, and understanding of not just the Pink Tide, but all of contemporary Latin American left-wing politics. He’s the one to whom [all left-wing Latin American leaders] will be held up to, on some level. So that was really my thinking in designing the book, to begin with Hugo Chávez coming to power, and end on the death of Castro. That does make a nice sort of historical, narrative arc, but one could bookend these things very differently: for instance, with [former President of Peru Alberto] Fujimori in Peru. These are not hard and fast things, but to me, those made rather neat little bookends, ones that I felt would make it intelligible to the reader. I remember when I was covering Fidel Castro’s funeral, and the memorial services, and the general outpouring of grief on the island. That was occurring just as Donald Trump popped up as president-elect––shortly after he had won, but before he had taken over from Barack Obama. That [transition] represented a shift in the region because, over the past four years, we have seen a very different set of questions by political leaders in the region about where their priorities lie and with whom they want to align themselves. 

Global Americans: Do you think that Cuba today—which is no longer under the direct control of Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and designated successor—still possesses its power as a “touchstone” for the hemispheric left?

Grant: That’s the other reason that I wanted to end with Cuba, because it is the archetypal image we have at the moment of a dream running out of steam, a revolution literally surviving on fumes. It’s been very difficult for the Cuban authorities to bring the latest generation of young men and women—who the government claims, very confidently, are just as revolutionary as were previous generations when Fidel was at his peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s––with them. But this is simply not the case. The truth of the matter is that [the Cuban regime] has hemorrhaged a lot of support internally because priorities are changing. People are now far more concerned with the need to provide for their families in the most basic of ways, and they’re finding [the regime’s] control over their daily lives to be an absolute stranglehold, rather than a support network. It is a critical time in Cuba’s political reality and political history; that is another reason why I wanted to conclude the book in this way. 

As a reference point, Cuba is changing; it is perhaps losing its luster for some [on the left], but I think it still remains the point of contact, especially as it has remained (at least ostensibly) socialist or communist throughout even the “special period” of the 1980s. Certainly, Cuba is experiencing its toughest moment of the 21st century. Yet, politically, you can’t see it changing because of the infrastructure and control over the state apparatus that the party has created over time. So that is why, perhaps, Cuba remains such an important country to include [in a book like Populista]: because it is an important lesson in what might be the [future] realities for some of these other nations. Certainly, one could see Nicaragua and Venezuela, for instance, going along a very similar trajectory, given the kind of rhetoric coming from [President of Venezuela] Nicolás Maduro and Ortega. 

Global Americans: In the years since you began writing your book—and, in some respects, even in the months since it was published—some political developments across Latin America have arguably suggested the modest resurgence of the Pink Tide. For example, the elections of Alberto Fernández (and Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) in Argentina; Luis Arce in Bolivia; and even Andrés Arauz, the protegé of Correa, who several weeks ago finished first in the first round of the presidential election in Ecuador. While the first generation of Pink Tide leaders have perhaps concluded their active political careers—Lula, for instance, remains barred from participation in electoral politics [Editor’s note: since this interview took place, a supreme court justice nullified Lula’s convictions, restoring his political rights and once again enabling him to stand for political office]; Correa, whatever influence he may exert on Arauz, remains in exile in Belgium; and Morales was only recently allowed to return to Bolivia from his exile in Mexico and then Argentina—are we perhaps seeing the emergence of a ‘second generation’ of the Pink Tide? 

Grant: I had to avoid using too many nautical references in the book, but, certainly, this is a story about tides. [This political phenomenon] was called the Pink Tide, which gives one the impression of watching some kind of tidal wave, some kind of left-wing tsunami. But if it is a tide, it both comes in and goes out—it both ebbs and flows—and it may well be returning at this stage. I think that it would be wrong to suggest that these things are simply cyclical, and that what goes around comes around, but certainly, we should expect things to come and go, to ebb and flow. I think, however, that we won’t necessarily see another moment like the one that I wrote about. At the end of the book, I point out a particular moment in 2007, at the height of the Pink Tide, where all of the leaders [profiled in the book] were present as presidents of their nations—Correa, Ortega, Chávez, Lula, etc.—at [the 2007 Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Chile]. I don’t think we will see another moment quite like that, no matter what these different characters who you’ve mentioned do. 

Certainly, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has shown herself to be incredibly resilient despite the fact that, at one point, she was facing serious charges [of corruption and bribery] against her. Evo Morales is back in Bolivia, but at the same time, [Arce] is making it very clear that he is his own man and intends to act accordingly. And it is perhaps the same in Argentina, where yes, [Fernández de Kirchner] has a role as vice president, but President Fernández does [nevertheless] see himself as president. [With respect to] Ecuador, we will see how that one plays out; but again, I do think that Correa has the ability to be somebody who could make a political comeback in the future. I didn’t try to write in a way that suggested that the political lives of [my subjects] were over. 

I did not want to get caught writing the book as if it were a news piece, where [you are making updates] right up until the moment of publication, and then it sort of becomes outdated as soon as it’s published. Now hopefully, what I tried to do was to leave [the reader] with, for example, Lula in prison, saying, “I will see you all again very soon.” [I tried] to leave it on a note, where whatever happens, from the moment where I left it, is a possible outcome. 

They could all make political returns to the presidencies of their own countries, or they could remain in the political wilderness, or in prison, or who knows what. Hopefully, I’ve written something that will remain a relevant document, as it were, on these men and their political lives in the years to come. I wasn’t trying to suggest that this was a moment that was done; [rather,] it is a moment that will still continue to evolve. Really, [Populista] is a book about the political realities of the region, which continue to ebb and flow. What I do think, though, is that the Pink Tide moment was pretty unique, and for that reason alone, was well worth a comprehensive look. 

Global Americans: Turning to Mexico, I would argue that current President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) embodies many of the characteristics of the Pink Tide caudillos that you identify in your book: for instance, persistent rhetorical appeals to the most marginalized members of society (i.e., the poor, Indigenous Mexicans); a deep hostility toward the Mexican political and economic establishment, as well as toward the press; the cultivation of a salvific, regenerative, quasi-messianic persona (Morena, of course, is a shortened form of “Movimiento Regeneración Nacional”); a quasi-religious fervor among his most devoted supporters; and a personality-driven, self-centered political orientation that eschews traditional party organization and partisan politics. How do you view AMLO in the context of the Pink Tide? And—if you believe that he is largely treading the same political path as some of the subjects of your book—how should we account for the delay with respect to his rise to power in Mexico, some 15 to 20 years after the Pink Tide first crested in South America? 

Grant: In many senses, AMLO was the ‘almost man’ of the Pink Tide, coming very close to being a member of this cast list. Had he won [the 2006 Mexican presidential election], I think it would have been hard to ignore Mexico. If I would ever do another work on figures like this, then he would be one who would have to appear in some shape or form. However, AMLO is quite hard, at times, to simply paint as being on the traditional left. He’s a lot more socially conservative than a lot of people realize, for example. In this instance, he did not really fit the specifics of what I was looking at, given that he came to power after the death of Fidel Castro, and therefore was not a part of the period that I was interested in. 

But in terms of the figures around the region who were important in the left more generally, he was extremely significant. He clearly could have become president in 2006, and had he won—had the Pink Tide really gone all the way down from the Rio Grande to the tip of Patagonia—I think that would have been an extraordinary moment. It already was, but the fact that [former President of Mexico Felipe] Calderón ended up being one of the two stalwarts of the conservative right alongside Uribe meant that it wasn’t quite as all-encompassing as it would have been otherwise. Obviously, [AMLO’s] supporters say that that was a deliberate fix by the powers that be and the [political and economic] establishment in Mexico. I’m not sure to what extent that’s true, but Washington certainly sighed a big sigh of relief when [AMLO lost] in 2006, because they were literally looking at a point when it could have been—looking down at the political map of Latin America—virtually impossible to find a country in which there wasn’t some sort of left-wing populism in power. 

I would say, however, that AMLO is currently in power, proved himself to be incredibly friendly toward the Trump administration, and really has not been [the figure that he styled himself to be in 2006]. Maybe that’s because he evolved or changed slightly; maybe that’s because he just had an affinity with Trump; maybe that’s because he would have had that same affinity with Chávez. It’s hard to know, but I think that AMLO is a very difficult figure to categorize.  

Global Americans: In the epilogue of Populista, you write that the downfall of the Pink Tide governments serve as “object lessons in the dangers of a government, indeed an entire political movement, built on the shoulders of one man.” However, I’d like to propose a sort of supplementary narrative of the Pink Tide era: perhaps the rise and fall of Pink Tide governments in Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc. can also be understood as a warning of the impossibility of breaking free from the economic paradigms that govern the globalized economy in the 21st century? The leaders of the Pink Tide, in some way or another, promised to inaugurate a new political and economic model—whether Chávez’s “socialism of the 21st century” or Correa’s sumak kawsay” (an Andean alternative to industrial carbon capitalism)—and promote new visions for inter-American solidarity and South-South cooperation. Nevertheless, the nations of Latin America found their futures bound to the fluctuations of commodity markets and the greater globalized economy, and “as the price of oil fell” and international markets for agricultural commodities dried up, the Pink Tide began to recede. In effect, then, could one argue that the Pink Tide governments ultimately set themselves up, from the beginning, to fall victim to the same ‘resource curse’ that has bedeviled the region since independence?

Grant: It is hard not to end up concluding that, on some level, and [Populista] does end up feeling like something of a lament for a missed opportunity. Those intentions that we talked about at the beginning—the sense of excitement, of possibility, of opportunity that really was the momentum behind the Pink Tide—that was what pushed people out in such huge numbers to vote for the Evos and the Lulas and the Chávezs of this world. They wanted change; they were desperate for change. They were exhausted by the political ‘Washington Consensus’; with the conservative, craven elites that were running their countries; the corruption, the mismanagement, the theft, the squandering, the wastage. They wanted something different. And then these men—particularly Chávez—burst onto the scene and really offered an alternative, an alternative that people were thirsting and desperate for. 

[The movement] ended up becoming this thing that was equally riddled with corruption, and that was based on such vastly high prices of oil, steel, beef, and soya and the need for demand from China. Those who were left most bereft when [the commodity bubble burst] were those same voters who were so inspired just a decade or decade and a half earlier. From my point of view, it does end up being a lament, because it promised so much; and while I’m wary of saying that it delivered so little, I think we can conclude that there are plenty of people in Venezuela, in Nicaragua, and elsewhere who are worse off today than they were before they started. A lot of good was done in the middle, at least for a period, but it just feels like a wasted opportunity, given how much money there was—and there was so much money. 

Just on the Venezuelan oil market alone, I remember writing when the oil price was pushing USD $125 to USD $140 a barrel, while production was still up to 3.2 million barrels a day. (Whereas now, it has fallen—with the lack of investment—to around 750-800,000 barrels a day, with the price obviously being through the floor). These men came to power with a comparatively low oil price, then saw it rocket while they were in power. The things that they were able to do—the programs that they put in place, the largesse with which they were able to do things around the region, the expansive ideas of motorways, airports, rail links, and universities that never materialized—[were possible only due to revenues from inflated oil and commodity prices]. The money went somewhere: it was squandered, siphoned off, lost, stolen, and abused. That, I think, is the great tragedy. Because, while people were pulled out of poverty for a time, the possibilities were there to really lay down the roots of something genuinely lasting, something that was more than a revolution in just name, something that was about more than the deification of the image of one man. 

While the Pink Tide needed some very charismatic men to make those moments possible—people wanted to vote for these strong men—it seems such a shame that it was not possible for something more lasting [to] be built. That said, these are political moments, and something could come around again. But when you look [at the movement’s] legacy in places like Venezuela right now, it is hard to not conclude that the moment was squandered, despite the advances that were made by Lula (e.g., the Bolsa Família) or Evo Morales (i.e., the importance of having an Indigenous president in a majority Indigenous nation). That is what I ended up concluding, on some level: there was a lot done that wasn’t necessarily about the financial, per se, but more about attacking the stigmas of being Indigenous [or poor, or mixed-race, in Latin America], and that is an important achievement in a region that, quite frankly, needed it. It is a decidedly mixed picture. 

Henry Bacha holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the University of Chicago, and has served as a Fulbright fellow in Brazil.

If you would like to recommend a book for review, please reach out to Global Americans editor, Benjamin Henderson at: [email protected]





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