CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

Populism and Social Policy in Latin America

December 14th, 2011

Lecture Synopsis

Kurt Weyland:
Populism and Social Policy in Latin America

Listen to the complete lecture here.

The Center for Inter-American Policy and Research at Tulane University welcomed Professor Kurt Weyland on December 7, 2011 to discuss populism and its relation to social policy in Latin America. Weyland, the Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Politics at the University of Texas at Austin, examined whether some defining characteristics of populism make it well suited as a strategy of social reform. To ponder the question, he compared the populist regimes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Alberto Fujimori in Peru with the center-left, non-populist regimes of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and the Concertación in Chile.

While the European model of social democracy is efficient in attenuating social inequality, Professor Weyland explained it is difficult to recreate this model in Latin America due to the urgency of social problems. The region has some of the highest inequality levels in the world and, despite some recent advances, its poverty levels remain high. It is this context that provides somewhat of an ideal environment for the emergence of populism and populist leaders. Because populism eschews the checks and balances of institutions, replacing them with the unmediated agency of a charismatic leader that centralizes power, regimes like Chavez’ and Fujimori’s can enact social programs rather quickly and broadly. However, such expediency comes at a price. Complex social policies require careful design and deliberate implementation if they are to be successful and sustainable over the long-term. The historical comparison shows that reforms took a long time to develop in Brazil and Chile and that their implementation was gradual and systematic. However, the policies that emerged were highly successful and managed to be sustained over time, even through changes in political leadership. The reforms pursued by Chavez and Fujimori, on the other hand, had limited impact, were highly politicized, and beset by corruption. Moreover, they lacked a solid base for sustainability because they were tied to personalistic leaders and non-permanent revenue sources.

Professor Weyland admitted that contrasting populist regimes with other administrations is difficult because a comprehensive model of populism may not exist. However, he insisted on the value of identifying the political aspects of populism and treating it as a strategy for mobilization. This helps explains why populism is not a phenomenon of the left or right, but occurs at both sides of the ideological spectrum. Populism may also be constrained to historical moments that favor voluntarism and personalistic leadership. Populist leaders need an adversary—hyperinflation, the oligarchy, terrorist guerrillas—against which they can unleash, and prove, their charismatic qualities. Because they lack a long-term support base beyond this, they must constantly mobilize their political base and reward it with tangible benefits. So, while populism entails the benefits of quick action and broad scope, its political characteristics are likely to produce social policies that are bombastic in their announcements but ineffective in their implementation, and whose fate is largely uncertain.

Weyland illustrated these pitfalls of populist regimes with examples of failed social policies from the Chavez and Fujimori regimes, contrasting them with highly regarded programs like Bolsa Família in Brazil under Lula, and the social policies of the Concertación. Professor Weyland claimed that a reformist, gradual approach is, in the long run, more successful for reducing poverty and inequality than a populist approach, as the few advantages of populist leadership are eventually outweighed by its disadvantages.