The strategic environment of Latin America is in the early phases of a profound, negative transformation reflecting the combined effects of three of the most powerful global forces of our era: (1) the spread of a new, populist model for capturing democratic states with vulnerable institutions and transforming them into authoritarian regimes with expanded levels of elite-sanctioned criminality; (2) the Covid-19 pandemic’s profound, multi-dimensional, long-term blow to the region; and (3) China’s advances in pursuit of its economic ambitions, which have profound economic and political consequences for its partners. Each of these factors has been the subject of considerable discussion in both the media and academic forums over the past year, but the significant consequences for the region of their mutually reinforcing effects are only just beginning to be understood.
Populism in Latin America, on both the right and left, has always been nurtured by corruption, inequality, and lack of opportunity. Those endemic factors lead populations to lose confidence in the ability of traditional politicians and parties—and democratic governments and governance—to address the challenges of their countries. During the twentieth century, the lifespans of populist governments—including those of Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Juan Perón in Argentina, and José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador, among others—were consistently truncated due to the negative economic dynamics their policies unleashed, which resulted in protests, instability, and institutional counter-reaction.
The new twenty-first-century style of populism pioneered by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, which has since been adapted in Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Argentina, is arguably more dangerous and virulent than its predecessor. First, its model for capturing the state and sustaining populist elites in power is more effective: after increasing and exploiting popular frustration with corruption and economic performance to take power through electoral means, the new populists exploit societal ambivalence toward democratic procedure to transform those democratic institutions from within. In Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, the new leaders have arguably tended to progressively eliminate checks and balances on power, such as by appointing loyalists to administrative, legislative, and judicial organs. At the same time, the new elites alter procedures so as to decrease transparency and facilitate corruption, generating a new ruling class whose wellbeing and future liberty is tied to continuation of the populist leadership. These leaders change laws and often enact policies whose practical effect is to undercut the independence of the media and the economic base of those who would challenge them. To further protect the regime against the military (which has regularly intervened in Latin America’s history to stop such changes), they prioritize loyalty over capability in military promotions, foment conflict within and decentralize military structures, and otherwise make it more difficult for security institutions to act collectively against the regime. They co-opt the military leadership, creating armed groups of loyalists, and may build relationships with criminal and insurgent groups to give them independent stakes in the regime’s survival.
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