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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Poverty and inequality drive change in Latin America

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. In this week’s edition, we’re looking at politics in Latin America, where there’s been a distinct turn to the left and a collapse of the political centre. And we’re also looking at the revival of authoritarian and populist politics around the world. My guest this week is perfectly placed to talk about both topics. He’s Moisés Naím, a Venezuelan economist and journalist who’s now based in Washington. Moisés has had a very varied career before moving to the US. He was a government minister and director of the central bank in Venezuela. In the US, he made his mark in journalism as editor of Foreign Policy magazine for 14 years, and he’s just produced an excellent book on authoritarianism around the world called The Revenge of Power. I caught up with him at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, where Moisés was chairing several sessions on Latin American politics. So why is Latin America and the wider world seeing a revival in populism?

News clip
[Reporter speaking in Spanish]

Gideon Rachman
This weekend saw a significant presidential election in Colombia. After the first round, a radical leftwing candidate, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter, is in the lead with just over 40 per cent of the vote. He’ll go into a second round against the populist rightwing candidate, Rodolfo Hernandez, later this month. On the campaign trail, Petro’s been met with great excitement.

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[People chanting in Spanish]

Gideon Rachman
Here he is promising an end to inequality and the violence that stopped the country.

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[Petro speaking in Spanish] We can’t continue with these inequalities, the lack of rights and liberties with the permanent exclusion of the majority of our people. We can’t continue in this eternal and infinite violence that seems to devour our entire society.

Gideon Rachman
The second round of the Colombian presidential election on June the 19th will be tight, but if Petro wins, he’ll be in line with regional trends. In many countries, economic distress has spilled over into popular protests and even violence on the streets. This was a recent demonstration in Peru against rising fuel prices.

News clip
For days, chaos in Peru . . . Road blocks on fire as protesters throw rocks and sticks at police.

Gideon Rachman
The left currently holds power in five of the seven most populous South American countries: Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Argentina and Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as Amlo, has given new impetus to the populist leftwing style.

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[Obrador speaking in Spanish]

Gideon Rachman
A victory for Petro in Colombia would continue what some call the pink tide. And if President Jair Bolsonaro, a rightwing populist, is beaten by Lula Inácio da Silva, his leftwing challenger in a presidential election in Brazil later this year, the left would be dominant across South America. So I started my conversation with Moisés Naím by asking him how he accounts for the revival of the South American left.

Moisés Naím
There is great disappointment with the performance of the economies, the social situation, the pandemic. Latin America has been hard hit by the pandemic, one of the worst regions in the world. So the disproportionate pain and suffering, collapsing health systems, collapsing political institutions, traditional political parties. So, there is this malaise about the situation. And whenever you have that and the strong anti-political mood in the country, you have populist leaders that promise to get rid of all the nasty, horrible, exploitative leaders of the past and bring a new beginning to the country and take care of the people.

Gideon Rachman
And in Chile and Peru, for example, that was preceded by quite a lot of social turmoil and protests in the street and so on.

Moisés Naím
Yes, throughout Latin America you have people taking to the streets. But that, again, is a global trend because political parties are not providing the vehicles for expression. So the streets are on fire in a lot of countries because people are taking to the streets because they don’t find any other ways of having the opportunity to get listened by those who have power.

Gideon Rachman
And within this context, I mean, how important is Colombia specifically?

Moisés Naím
Quite important, because it’s a benchmark. It has been historically an ally of the United States. And now one of the leading contenders, Gustavo Petro, has been very explicit about his criticism of the United States, his mistrust of the United States. So here we can have a government that is also offering profound changes in the institutional setting of the country. So when you have that and you have one candidate running for office in a traditional way, another that is essentially running on the platform of regime change.

Gideon Rachman
Which brings us to, in a way, the subject that you’ve been writing about in your recent book, which is how authoritarian governments come to power, often through democratic means. How concerned should we about I mean, I’m sure all these leftwing governments are different, but that they are not going to be just like a standard social democratic leftwing swing of the pendulum, but you will get actually new Cubas or new Venezuelas? Is that possible?

Moisés Naím
Well, not using Cuba and Venezuela as examples. They are now bad brands. They are brands that no one wants to be associated with. You don’t want to run saying that you promise to become Venezuela. To the contrary, many of these candidates and we’re talking about the candidate in Colombia, Gustavo Petro, who was very close to Hugo Chávez and very close to the Venezuelan government, who has been distancing from that alliance because it’s a bad brand. It’s a brand that has failed. You could also argue that it’s very hard to run on a platform that promises you to become Cuba. You can’t use Cuba as a nostalgic kind of message in terms of socialism and humanism and anti-Americanism. But at the end of the day, what people want is performance. But mostly in a lot of Latin American countries, what people want is to get rid of those that who have been in charge because the outcomes have not been successful.

Gideon Rachman
Is Mexico perhaps more of a model because Amlo there is this, you know, democratically elected, very much to the left, you know, has been sympathetic to Venezuela and Cuba, but it is a big significant country.

Moisés Naím
He is one of the most popular presidents in the world. He has a huge popular support. He has a daily television show where he just talks about everything and anything and that has helped his popularity. He, that he imitates, you know, Hugo Chávez had a show like that. And, of course, several others are using that tactic and it pays. But inside the country, he is adopting policies that around the world have been tried and tested and have failed. Yet he embraces them.

Gideon Rachman
Such as?

Moisés Naím
Well, he is, for example, building with government money an oil refinery at a time in which all the oil refineries are rethinking their businesses. There is a movement towards decarbonising economies. So that’s one. Why would you want to build another refinery? Second, why are you paying for it? Why don’t find some private company that will do it for you and you tax that company if you want. So this is just one example, but he has plenty of other examples that are old, that have tried and tested. And I have called this ideological necrophilia. You know, necrophilia, of course, we know, is a perversion that some people suffer that is complete love of cadavers. Well, there is a political version of that which is complete love for bad ideas, bad policy ideas. Tried and tested once and again in the same countries, in different countries, and they always fail, but they somehow come back.

Gideon Rachman
And yet, as you say, he is popular.

Moisés Naím
He is very popular because he continues to offer two things. One is a notion that he was representing the normal people that has been exploited by a voracious, horrible elite. And he’s there to protect the interests of the normal people that has been mistreated. And secondly is to essentially say that any problems that the country has are just a legacy of the past, that he’s trying to solve them. But, you know, he inherited a dramatically bad situation.

Gideon Rachman
Do you anticipate Mexico running into some trouble?

Moisés Naím
Well, economically, yes, there is no doubt. You know, foreign investment and investment in general, private investment in Mexico is not healthy. And there is all kinds of signs that the economy will need some repair and it will not be in good shape.

Gideon Rachman
And what about your own country, Venezuela? I mean a very tragic story, and yet a lot of these few Latin leftists seem at least quite sympathetic to the Maduro government, or at least opposed to American efforts to isolate.

Moisés Naím
Well, remember, there is always support for David against Goliath. And here, David is Venezuela and Maduro, and Goliath is the United States and its sanctions and its attempt to dislodge David that is Maduro, from power. This is a very classical thing. But again, no one is promising a running on, you know, vote for me and I’ll give you Venezuela. Much to the contrary, leaders are distancing from Maduro and his government. And then the story of Venezuela cannot be understood without understanding the very important role that Cuba plays in Venezuela. What Hugo Chávez developed with Fidel Castro was beyond an alliance. It was a fusion. And he, they were very explicit that in trying to make it one revolutionary country. And, you know, there is some nostalgia for the past and the anti-Americanism continues to be there among certain social groups. But most politics in these days in Latin America are not based on attitudes towards the United States. The centrepiece of all the debates is what’s happening in the country and the dire social situation and denouncing those who have been in charge as responsible for the bad situation that most people living on.

Gideon Rachman
And before we move to how this fits into your kind of pattern, global pattern that you’re looking at, Brazil obviously also has a big election later this year. How do you see that panning out? It looked like Bolsonaro was really in trouble and that Lula was going to win. But now, it’s not over a bit, isn’t it?

Moisés Naím
There are two worrying things. One worrying thing is, Bolsonaro keeps saying that he will leave only when God tells him to leave. So there is a great concern among Brazil observers and Brazilians about the risk that questioning the elections and, you know, repeating that what we have seen in the United States with Donald Trump. There is that and there is that is, at the beginning, you know, it felt like for sure that Lula will win over Bolsonaro. Now it is a toss up.

Gideon Rachman
And Lula himself, I mean, remains a very controversial figure. I remember when Obama, he was a great mate of Obama’s, and Obama embraced him and said, I love this guy. He was then sent to prison for corruption. Do you think a second Lula, in this new context, what would he be like? Do you think he’d be like the old one?

Moisés Naím
Well, from what he already said and from his statements, you can see that, you know, he’s angry. He feels that he was unjustly jailed. That he was innocent. So he’s in a very feisty mood.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. So looking more broadly at the themes you bring out in your book, I mean, you talk about the three P’s. One of them is the revival of populism. Latin America has always been kind of big on populism. And you’ll see the big revival now.

Moisés Naím
Yeah, except that we see the revival in combination with all their trends. So, what we have seen in the past decade is an erosion of democracy around the world. In 2010, about 49 per cent of the world’s population lived in autocracy. Ten years after, it’s at 70 per cent. So we have seen a sharp drop of democracy. And all of the institutions that monitor democratic practices and democracy indices and all that will tell you that democracy is in its worst shape in 30 years, is doing really bad. And together with that, we have seen the ascent of leaders that I call the three P leaders. Leaders that get to power and govern, riding the waves of populism, polarisation and post-truth, combined together and adding all kinds of special circumstances for each country, but you end up using these three strategies together to obtain and retain power. And populism is one, but in this case, populism is often combined with denunciations of the enemy or of the rivals, you know. Polarisation to the extreme in which you don’t even accept the legitimacy of your rivals as political challengers. And that is a very nefarious kind of politics that then get, of course, amplified and energised and enraged by social media and what we have come to call post-truth.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, and this post-truth, as you say, is kind of a global phenomenon. Is it very closely associated, do you think, with social media?

Moisés Naím
Absolutely. Well, you know, we used to have propaganda. Governments trying to use all kinds of information, misinformation, disinformation, confusion, to try to get at their service of their cause and their staying power. But it was government that was propaganda. Now propaganda includes that, but transcends it because now everybody is doing it. It is not just governments. You know, people with a Twitter account are just also feeding their post-truth and fake news and the distortions and all that. So, again, the three elements, the three conditions or global trends that I have identified are old, except that they are now with us with new potency and with an amplified capacity to define politics. Polarisation has always existed, but again here it has acquired a new potency. Polarisation is like cholesterol. There’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. There is good polarisation, which is democracy, which is different groups, challenging and rivalling and competing until one wins an election. Well, we’re no longer there. In many instances, polarisation now is defined by identities, and your affiliation, and your firm commitment to your gender, your race, your religion, your region. Not unlike the relationship that followers have with sports clubs. Politicians and political parties and political causes always want followers. Not any more. What people want is fans that develop an emotional relationship with their leaders.

Gideon Rachman
Obviously you’ve now lived for many years in the United States. Do you and were you surprised and perhaps a little disturbed to see some of these political trends that you kind of left behind you in Latin America emerging in the Trump years?

Moisés Naím
Absolutely. And I was very concerned when I started seeing Donald Trump behaving like Hugo Chávez. Because I started saying, you know, I have seen this movie before but it was in Spanish, and it was in Venezuela. You couldn’t imagine two more different people than Donald Trump and Hugo Chávez, that completely different in background, in outlook, in circumstances, in everything, everything. Except that they used the three P’s adroitly and in almost identical ways. And so, yes.

Gideon Rachman
Then tell me what are those scenes that you thought you saw Trump and Hugo Chávez.

Moisés Naím
Well, there are many. The way in which he developed fans and not followers. And the ways in which he fed discourse, in which he deepened the polarisation, in which he did not tolerate and accept that rivals have a right to govern. And of course, very critically, the weakening of the checks and balances that define a democracy. Both had a very clear pattern of disrespect for the institutions, the rules, the laws that define a democracy.

Gideon Rachman
And of course one is nominally a rightwinger, the other is nominally a leftwinger, but they have a lot in common.

Moisés Naím
And that is why populism is not an ideology. Populism is just a tool that can be used by the left, the right and the north, the south, rich countries, poor countries. It’s just a toolkit.

Gideon Rachman
Mm-hmm. And I mean I guess, you know, fitting Latin America into the global pattern, you know, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Latin America, some of the democratisation, a lot of it preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1980s. You felt like you were getting away a bit from this style of politics, that you had a kind of cooler, more technocratic generation, people like Cardoso in Brazil and so on. Do you feel like now you’re stepping back in time?

Moisés Naím
Absolutely. That is a very apt description. That is exactly what’s happening. And so all the gains that democracy has achieved are sliding back.

Gideon Rachman
But to finish, I mean how far advance of that process, it’s a rather gloomy thought. Is it inexorable now, you think?

Moisés Naím
No, not at all. And I, again, a lot of what happened and a lot of the reason why the decline of democracy was so invisible because that drop from 49 to 70, in terms of people living in democratic countries, happened in very stealthy ways and people did not realise it. And so, you know, you cannot solve a problem that you have not identified. You, yourself have, you have written about these kinds of leaders. And now we have more and more people identifying this trend. And I am very hopeful that once what is going on is better understood, their rivals, the domestic rivals to each of these three P leaders will have more space to occupy the political space that there has been denied to them in the last decade.

Gideon Rachman
I mean it’s interesting, you know, the city you live in, Washington. Biden’s great theme is democracy versus autocracy around the world, but when he talks about it, he talks mainly about Russia, about China. Has America taken its eye off the ball in Latin America and kind of missed what’s happening?

Moisés Naím
Not just in Latin America. You know, democracy lives in a continuum where you have countries like Switzerland that is highly democratic and North Korea. Most countries are in the middle, in imperfect democracy that has some elements of dysfunction and so on. And those are the countries that are going to be in play in the next decade or so.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Moisés Naím, author of The Revenge of Power, ending this week’s edition of the show. And that’s it for this week. But I’ll be back next week, so please join me again for another edition of the Rachman Review.

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