Latin American Populism

Latin American Populism
Latin American Populism

Populist movements flourished in many Latin American nations from roughly 1920 until the mid-1960s. Populist regimes took a variety of forms in diverse national contexts, even within Latin America.

Variations within populism were particularly pronounced because populist movements were based on ad hoc responses to circumstances rather than on any coherent or consistent ideology. Nevertheless, populist movements within Latin America did share several defining features.

Overwhelmingly urban based, Latin American populist movements were characterized by multiclass, nonrevolutionary coalitions that aimed at the development of domestic industry, the redress of popular grievances, and the peaceful integration of the urban masses into a political arena hitherto controlled almost exclusively by elites.


Populism in the Latin context had preconditions of both rapid urbanization and the rise of welfare states, both of which contributed to new understandings of the state's role in addressing social issues. In most cases the leaders of populist movements were charismatic figures who employed a personalist style of leadership to garner support.

Examples of populist leaders include Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Colombia, Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre in Peru, and José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador.

Unlike its rural counterpart in North America, populism in the Latin American context was predominantly urban based. Occasionally, as was the case in Peru, plantation workers might be included in the movement if they worked in close proximity to the towns.

Populism was largely a reaction to the phenomenal growth of cities between 1880 and 1930 and the social dislocation that resulted from this so-called metropolitan revolution. Although these factors were not sufficient to ensure a populist response, they did create an environment favorable to the proliferation of populist movements.

Significant agrarian reforms occured in Mexico under the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40). Cárdenas's agrarian policies were atypical of populist leaders, however; much more typical was his support for organized industrial labor in Mexico's cities.


Eva Duarte de Perón. They did not have supporters, they had followers who felt a close connection to them.
Eva Duarte de Perón. They did not have supporters,
they had followers who felt a close connection to them.

The meteoric rise to power of Argentinian populist leader Juan D. Perón was due in large part to the charisma of Péron and his second wife, Eva Duarte de Perón, both of whom made extensive personal contact with workers throughout Argentina. Populist leaders frequently took advantage of advances in media technology in order to deliver their message to the populace.

Pedro Ernesto, mayor of Rio de Janeiro and leader of Brazil's first populist movement, was among the first to explore the political potential of the radio as a means of mobilizing large segments of the population, as was Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Colombia. In addition to making use of the airwaves to reach his followers, Gaitán also produced his own newspaper.

In later years the Brazilian Department of Press and Publicity became a major source of propaganda on behalf of Getúlio Vargas, who embraced populist politics in the final decade of his career. José María Velasco Ibarra, five-time president of Ecuador, used various forms of propaganda to project a populist image throughout his lengthy career.

Social Base

Another defining characteristic of Latin American populism was its multiclass social base. Although many of the movement's objectives appealed primarily to the working classes, supporters were recruited from all levels of society. Unlike socialism, which aimed at the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, populism sought the political integration of the masses without fundamental change to the social structure.

Particularly in the early years of populism, known as the reformist or consensual era, members of the middle and elite classes often supported populist movements as an effective means to curb lowerclass agitation. In many cases the middle classes stood to benefit materially from populist reform as well.

The expansion of social services, for example, created thousands of professional jobs, while policies aimed at promoting industrial growth appealed to a broad spectrum of society. Peru's Aprista movement, founded by Haya de la Torre in 1924, exemplifies the type of multiclass coalition that characterized Latin American populism.

Populism became especially prevalent in Latin America during the 1930s and 1940s, in the wake of the stock market crash and the worldwide Great Depression that followed. The virtual collapse of several Latin American export economies during the Great Depression prompted policy makers to impose high tariffs and consider methods of diversifying the Latin American economy, thus reducing dependence on the international market.

Although populism followed no consistent ideology, Latin American populist movements tended to include the expansion of state activism in order to promote accelerated industrialization. Several populist leaders, including Perón in Argentina and Vargas in Brazil, established state-owned enterprises in areas formally controlled by the private sector.

In the case of Argentina, the Fabricaciones Militares was founded in 1943 to manufacture military equipment but quickly expanded to include such nonmilitary enterprises as mining and real estate. The Peronist regime also pursued the nationalization of crucial sectors of the economy such as public utilities, transportation, and foreign trade.

Vargas for his part attempted to lay the foundations for industrial growth by infusing capital into projects to improve the nation's infrastructure and by organizing state marketing systems, in addition to developing state-owned petroleum and steel enterprises.

Although specific policies were not without their critics, the populist desire to strengthen domestic industry was certainly shared by a broad spectrum of society. The labor movement typically supported a protectionist policy, while middle-class industrialists as well as the military championed economic nationalism and domestic industrial development. As long as the economies continued to expand—as, for example, during the wartime and immediate postwar export boom in 1940s Argentina—such support was relatively easy to maintain.

Zero-sum Game

Populist governments were able to dispense benefits to certain segments of society without reducing the incomes of other sectors. A much different picture emerged in the later phases of growth, when populist regimes faced a zero-sum game: Without an absolute rise in national income, policy makers were forced to decide whether to become genuinely redistributive.

To do so was to risk alienating the middle classes, while failure to do so meant the loss of the working-class support on which populist regimes likewise depended. Either way, a broad-based coalition became increasingly difficult to maintain in the later years of the movement.

The results of economic stagnation, growing inflation, and increased social tensions were disastrous for Latin American populist leaders. Gaitán, who was widely expected to accede to the Colombian presidency in 1950, was murdered in downtown Bogotá before he could take office.

Velasco, who had dominated Ecuadorian politics for nearly five decades, was forced into exile at the end of his fifth and final term. Perón also went into exile after he was ousted by a military coup in 1955. He spent the next 17 years in exile before returning to Argentina in 1972.

Perón was elected to a third presidential term the following year but was rendered nearly powerless by out-of control inflation and factional violence; he died in 1974. Cárdenas's presidency ended amid dissent and controversy, and Vargas concluded his second term (1951–54) by committing suicide. By the late 1960s the armed forces had outlawed populism in most of Latin America and established military regimes instead.

Several factors can be adduced to help explain populism's failure to live up to its initial promise. Above all, the changed economic circumstances following World War II rendered the policies difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.

Several Latin American countries faced economic crises in the early 1950s due to rising inflation and lagging economic growth. Promises of continually expanding social benefits could not be met in a period of relative economic stagnation, at least not without exacerbating the already rampant inflation.

At the same time, the very nature of populism as an expansionist movement and a great mobilizing force contributed to mounting instability as a larger and more confident working-class electorate pressed the populist regimes for more increasingly radical redistributive policies.

In some cases the regime's capitulation to such radical demands prompted the middle classes to withdraw their support from what was formerly a multiclass coalition. Elsewhere the fear of widespread uprisings, particularly in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution, provided the armed services with a pretext for launching military coups to oust populist leaders.

Although the prevalent instability in several Latin American nations can be regarded as the unfortunate legacy of populism in that region, the movement had positive repercussions as well.

Above all, the populist era ushered in mass participation in the electoral process on an unprecedented scale. The vote was extended to lower and working-class citizens as well as to women, and these formerly marginalized groups were drawn into the realm of public discourse and debate.

Additionally, the effort to integrate and unite various classes through an inclusive national identity fostered a revived interest in native culture that has continued to the present day.