WHEN Latin Americans contemplate Donald Trump many think they have seen his like before. Only a few years ago populist nationalists exercised voluble sway over the region’s politics, from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez (pictured) to Cristina Fernández in Argentina and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Now Chávez is dead, Venezuela is in crisis; Ms Fernández is out of power and faces corruption charges that may land her in jail; Mr Correa has opted not to run for a fourth term next year. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who has populist tendencies, was defeated in a referendum this year that might have allowed him to remain in power until 2025. Even as populism is on the rise in Europe and the United States, it is in remission in Latin America.


Populist-nationalist strongmen have been a feature of the region’s politics since Argentina’s Juan Domingo Perón first came to power in the 1940s. Some have been nominally of the left, others of the right. All posed as saviours of “the people” and railed against “the oligarchy” or “imperialism”, in terms analogous to the political insurgencies of Mr Trump and Nigel Farage of Britain’s UK Independence Party against the “establishment”. They tended to ignore checks and balances on their rule, and to blur the distinction between leader, party, government and state. Their emergence owed much to Latin America’s extreme inequality of income and wealth, just as populism in the rich democracies has been stimulated by a rise in income inequality. In a region where labour unions were relatively weak, populism emerged as a route by which the swelling urban masses were brought into politics. To maintain their bond with “the people”, populists were often spendthrift. As inflation eroded wage increases, they did little or nothing to reduce income inequality in the long run.

The resurgence of populism in Latin America in the 2000s owed much to the economic stagnation and financial crises that hit the region in the late 1990s. Chávez and his ilk were extraordinarily fortunate to be in office just as the great commodity boom driven by China’s industrialisation took off. With plenty of revenues to distribute, they were popular. Now the money has run out. As China’s economy slows and rebalances towards consumption, Latin America is suffering its sixth successive year of economic deceleration. Because of the fiscal irresponsibility of their populist leaders, Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador are all in recession.

In several countries corruption has added to the desire for political change. 

After a long period of domination by the left, both populist and social democratic, in South America, the pendulum has swung back to the centre-right. New governments in Argentina, Brazil and Peru, for example, are keen on closer economic ties with the United States. For Latin America, the timing of Mr Trump’s victory could not be worse—at least if he implements his promise to retreat from trade agreements and impose protective tariffs. Populism has not disappeared altogether from Latin America. The chances of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a veteran populist, in Mexico’s presidential election in 2018 may improve if Mr Trump tears up the North American Free Trade Agreement and builds his promised wall along the border. But in many countries populism is on the wane. Liberal democrats have a chance of keeping it that way, but only if they do the hard work of boosting productivity and competitiveness that is needed to restore faster economic growth and maintain social progress.