Peru's Populist Gamble
Complexity of Populism
Those in the United States who know anything about Humala probably have heard him likened to Chávez and Morales. Conservatives and progressives alike are prone to make such comparisons--some trying to paint a frightening picture of Humala as a follower of Washington's fiery antagonist in Caracas, and others expressing hope that he could be another Evo, a voice of the region's downtrodden.
For its part, the White House may have learned that it's better off keeping quiet. The Bush Administration's past denunciations of progressive candidates, like Morales, only boosted the popularity of those contenders among a Latin American electorate that views Washington with wary mistrust.
If it were to speak up, the Administration would no doubt group Humala under the rubric of "radical populism," a framework it regularly uses to describe its Latin American opposition. Officials like Gen. James Hill, former head of the US Southern Command, and Donald Rumsfeld identify populism not merely as a notable political trend in Latin America. It is, they say, an "emerging threat" to US security. Allowing for little discrimination between political movements, the charge of radical populism serves as a blunt instrument for Washington--one that can be wielded against all those challenging neoliberal economics.
This willfully obscures the complexity of Latin American populism. On the one hand, the ideology has a history of demagoguery, nativism and false promises for reform. This negative brand of populism was traditionally cultivated by dictators who tried to garner support for their military rule by fanning nationalist sentiment and channeling money into networks of patronage.
Populism can also be a praiseworthy impulse. In a region with endemic poverty, where the economic gap separating hillside shantytowns and colonial-style mansions has widened through two decades of neoliberalism, concern for the well-being of a country's impoverished majority is overdue. And in nations where small groups of elites work the levers of power, expanding access to the machinery of democracy is vital. Over half of Peru's estimated 28 million residents live in poverty, and while GDP growth has exceeded 5 percent in recent years, little of the prosperity enjoyed by multinational mining and energy companies has trickled down to reach the Peruvian people.
Humala surely qualifies as a populist, and one can hope that he will turn out to be the positive kind. Unfortunately, at present, even those who applaud the progressive democratic revival in Latin America do well to view his rise critically.