During President Bush's most recent trip to Latin America (in March of 2007), Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez launched what many called a counter-trip. Following President Bush's route in the region almost exactly, Chávez, an anti-American populist, called on Latin America to stand-up to what he sees as imperial U.S. policy towards the region and adopt what he calls his socialist alternative. Peppering his speeches with anti-American rhetoric, including condescending expletive phrases directed at U.S. government officials, Chávez is emblematic of a new type of leader in the region; the anti-American populist, that has attracted the attention of an increasing number of policymakers, scholars, and journalists (even Barbara Walters of ABC News interviewed Chávez recently).
While Chávez is the most emblematic of these leaders, and receives the bulk of media attention, the phenomenon is not unique to Venezuela. The presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador as well as the leading left-wing candidate in Mexico's most recent presidential election have run populist campaigns, and the former have governed in a populist style. This article briefly outlines why populism and anti-Americanism are important, what they are specifically, and what conditions have led to their reemergence today.
To begin it is important to note what populism is, what anti-Americanism is, and how the two terms are related. Populism is a very broad term and, often evokes negative connotations. It suggests a pre-democratic way of governing, though its meaning in practice is often fuzzy and contested. For example, populism is often associated with economic redistribution and socialism, social equality, and some forms of nationalism. While this may be the case in practice, as discussed below, not all socialists or leftists, social activists, or nationalists are populists. For instance, many politicians on the left in Latin America today, such as the current Presidents of Brazil and Chile, are not populists.
Consequently, the most common definition of populism in political science today considers populism as a distinct political strategy where a personalistic leader tries to capture the vote of previously unorganized voters by shunning and/or outright disparaging existing institutions, by speaking directly to "the people."
In other words, populism is a way of competing in elections and governing once in office that largely eschews traditional forms of organization, particularly political parties, in favor of direct contact with a newly organized political mass.
Unlike populism, anti-Americanism is better understood. Anti-Americanism refers primarily to negative feelings or attitudes towards the United States government and, in rare occasions, its citizens. Therefore, By definition populism and anti-Americanism are somewhat unrelated. In practice, however, they are often closely linked, a relationship which began with the first wave of populism in Latin America from the 1930s until the 1950s, as discussed below.
Traditional Populism: A Return to the Past
Traditional populists – such as Juan Peron in Argentina (1946-1955, 1973-1974), Getulio Vargas in Brazil (1930-1945, 1950-1954), and Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico (1934-1940) - were nationalists who bypassed the traditional ruling elite and formed new movements of previously nonexistent voters.1 They captured a large part of the vote by appealing to new masses of urban industrial workers – a societal group that had formed in response to state intervention in the economy. The roots of populist anti-Americanism grew during this period as the state created government-run industries that resulted in a large industrial and unionized middle class.
The programs of state intervention were particularly key to building domestic economic independence since, until this time, Latin American economies had been reliant upon American companies, and international economic activity was based almost entirely on exporting raw material goods (such as fruit, coffee, and beef) to the United States and Europe.