Trump Blazes Trail for Populism in LatAm

December 6, 2016

Miami, December 5, 2016: Brazil’s rightwing, pro-torture, anti-gay Jair Bolsonaro was one of the first politicians in Latin America to celebrate Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency. Predicting that the shock result heralded his own victory in two years time, he tweeted on US Election Night: “The winner fought against everyone and everything. It is going to be the same in Brazil in 2018.” Bolsonaro is among the early leaders in polls for the Brazilian presidency. His tirades against corruption, crime and gays and his nostalgia for the military dictatorship’s torture methods win him wide media coverage.

And to win in 2018, Bolsonaro may have to outflank a rival who also appears to display a range of Trump traits. Joao Doria is a hard-line, law-and-order business mogul famous in Brazil for his reality TV show. With no political experience, Doria soundly won the election in November to be the mayor of Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city.

In the past, it may have been easier to dismiss the chances of firebrand outsiders. But Trump has shown them new pages in the populist playbook. Across Latin America, the immediate concern from the U.S. election is over Trump’s policies – from trade to immigration to Cuba post Fidel Castro. But his longer-term impact may stem from what the region’s would-be populists learn from how Trump tapped into the worldwide currents of anti-establishment disatisfaction – and how he made outrage and insult central to his political brand.

The populist surge manifested in Brexit, the US election and the emergence of strongmen around the world exploiting economic resentment and scapegoats is unlikely to stop at Latin America despite the region’s failed experiments with its own caudillos. The same causes of discontent around the globe provide fertile territory for populists in Latin America. Their complaints that corporate elites align with a corrupt political class to horde economic gains resonate with the region’s voters. Trump learned from the U.K. vote to stoke fears with little regard for the truth. In turn, these populists can now imitate his anti-establishment, ethno-nationalist or law-and-order platforms to win supporters.

In Colombia, Alvaro Uribe stands to gain. The former president who practiced his own form of conservative populism during two terms, immediately tapped into the nationalist, law-and-order sentiment in Trump’s win. “Congratulations President Trump; narco-terrorism in Colombia and tyranny in (neighboring) Venezuela are the great enemies of our democracy,” he tweeted. Uribe successfully campaigned this year against a peace deal to end the hemisphere’s longest guerrilla war despite polls predicting the referendum would pass. Not only did he fuel security fears, but he managed to rally religious groups against the deal by wrapping the peace process in a gay rights backlash. With Uribe’s movement gaining momentum, he now needs a partner who will run for the presidency in 2018 while he wields from the legislature. The referendum and U.S. election results will only encourage Uribe to double down on his aggressive style.

In Mexico, Trump’s win plays into the hands of combative leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is best placed to harvest votes with an anti-American campaign for the presidency – again in 2018. Lopez Obrador will stoke nationalism against a U.S. president who dismisses Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers. Girding his supporters for the inevitable clashes with Trump, Lopez Obrador said: “Thanks to the work and sacrifice of our ancestors, Mexico is a free and sovereign country. It is no colony or protectorate and is not dependent on any foreign government.” The man who blockaded the capital for weeks in a protest against a previous presidential result claims to be the defender of Mexico. He contrasts himself with the ruling party that welcomed Trump to the presidential palace during his vitriolic campaign and failed to protest his plan to build a border wall – to the shame of many Mexicans.

For sure, Trump did not introduce rabid populism to the Americas. Latin America is known for its caudillos, stretching from Getulio Vargas of Brazil and Juan Domingo Peron of Argentina as the archetypal cases from the 1950s to Hugo Chavez who ruled Venezuela for 14 years up to his death in 2013. They were charismatic demagogues who tapped into economic anxieties, rallied support around nationalism and accumulated power by force of personality at the expense of institutions.

The irony is that Trump’s boost to populism in the region comes after Argentina and Peru voted in more technocratic governments and as caudillos elsewhere have been facing headwinds from their own failings. The starkest example is Venezuela where the authoritarian government, built on Chavez’s populist “Bolivarian” revolution, can barely supply its voters with food and medicine, never mind toilet paper. President Nicolas Maduro resorts increasingly to repression to stay in power despite governing over the world’s largest known oil reserves. Long-term, leftwing populists in Bolivia and Ecuador are also seeing their stars fading, unable to win the support needed to bid for re-election. But with Trump in the White House, the president-elect provides oxygen to these incumbents. They can fire up their voters with their tried-and-tested anti-American nationalism.

Fidel Castro’s death makes leftist authoritarians look even more anachronistic. But Trump, who greeted Castro’s passing by denouncing him as a “brutal dictator,” will provide an easy target for the anti-Yankee camp. Latin America broadly supported President Barack Obama’s historic warming of ties with Cuba and loosening of sanctions this year. But his successor has pledged to reverse the openings unless the island bends to his negotiating will. That posture will not only allow President Raul Castro to play the role of victim of the U.S. bully but also incite others to rail against the isolated and unpopular U.S. embargo.

Trump’s America-first policies will also mean he largely neglects the region, where with the exception of Venezuela US efforts to support democracy have played a key role in its overall political and economic renaissance. Absent US leadership, anti-democratic forces fill the vacuum. Trump may have made attacking Mexican immigrants central to much of his campaign. But, apart from references to Cuba and Venezuela, when he was chasing the hard-line Florida Hispanic vote, he barely mentioned the rest of the region. In contrast to his rival Hillary Clinton, he did not gather many experts onto his team to hear advice about Latin America. Trump’s own attitudes will blunt the United States’ ability to champion human rights and democracy in the region. A president who supports torture, tolerates xenophobia and brushes aside criticism of his conflict of business interests, is ill prepared to bolster alliances based on shared values. That means Latin America will largely be left to fend for itself – just as a wave of populists will be looking to emulate Trump and sweep to power.