Populism in Argentina, Chile and Mexico

Populism is a significant aspect in politics as it determines the party that rises to power, due to the amount of influence that party has over the citizens. The open-minded belief that ordinary citizens have a voice versus a select few, is empowering to the citizens, therefore continually having been used by politicians to gather support. In the case of three Latin American countries — namely Argentina, Chile and Mexico — populism helped them transition from one government party to another to lead the country, after it seemed that the former government had failed them.

In the case of Argentina, populism was used by politicians as they made a shift in the type of government; military dictatorship to a democracy. To give a few examples, one of them would be of how Raul Alfonsin came to power. In the aftermath of the Falklands War in 1982, the inflation had risen to 200%. In addition to this, the junta also decreed an amnesty for itself after its involvement in the Dirty War (Caramani 2011), basically conveying the message that all war crimes would be let go of, without penalties for the accountable authorities. Playing on the disappointment of the public who had suffered in the decade-long Dirty War, as well as been upset by the loss in Falklands War, Raul Alfonsin from the Radical Civic Union won the elections based on his reputation of being a human rights defender and his promise of executing people involved in Dirty War. However, this change did not ensure a brighter future for Argentina. Under Alfonsin, unemployment and poverty were on the rise and income fell by 25%, causing people to lose faith in Alfonsin and eventually electing Carol Saul Menem. Menem’s slogan was “Argentina a vuelve tener peso” which basically translates to “Argentina will have weight again” (Caramani 2011), which helped his campaign great deal. This example also shows us of the way populism was effectively used, as Menem played on people’s emotions by instilling a sense of nationalism in them and a hope that Argentina will evolve into a financially and politically stable country, where people can finally be content and peaceful. The two examples show us of how both these political figures appealed to the general populace by standing for the rights of these people as well as trying to advance the country for them, which had been supposedly ruined by the previous people in-charge.

In Chile, populism was seen in the form of division among the various political parties rather than one charismatic leader, that tried to gain control over the country. The main conflict was seen between the Christian Democrats and Allende’s Popular Unity (Unidad Popular — UP). However, there were also other unions in the picture such as labor unions and the Radicals. All parties involved fought to have their ideals implemented and stood for different things, although UP won at the end. Once Allende and his party came into power, many reforms in areas of health, education, welfare and price controls were made, which could potentially stimulate the economy. In addition to this, Allende also kept the allegiance of the middle class and sectors of business by targeting his reforms only at landowners, foreign capital, and the largest private capitalists, especially those resisting his revolution (Caramani 2011). This shows how populism worked about in the competitive Chile as Allende had to make reforms to target to all types of people in ways specific to each group for winning favor. He had to appeal to the middle class, a group of people who probably made up for most of the population. But there were also some reforms that could only be geared towards landowners and private capitalists, so he could have backing from financially powerful people and keep his political party running and economy running. In addition to this, he had to also please those resisting his revolution so as to have his opposition under his control too and have his political party still functioning.

Finally, in Mexico populism was seen through the fact that ordinary citizens had to practically fight the authorities in power, namely the PRI. To give some background information, PRI controlled Mexico for decades and some sectors within PRI desired a closer economic relationship with the United States. Owing to this, PRI reduced the power of populists to make it appear to the US that Mexico was ready for integration. This soon grew into the PRI becoming repressive and suppressing student movements. A notable incident was when students protested on the expenditures spent on the 1968 Summer Olympics by the government despite internal problems such as illiteracy and poverty, causing the paramilitary to open fire and kill hundreds of student protestors in Plaza of Tlateloco: “Hundreds were slain, and hundreds more were wounded, in front of a shocked national television audience” (Caramani 2011). This was also called Mexico’s Tiananmen Square. This event demonstrates that while in populism we mostly think of different political parties and politicians supporting the power of ordinary citizens, sometimes ordinary citizens must band together and come forward themselves, rather than having a representative. Populism is not always about having different political parties fight for the belief that citizens have power, but it is also about the people taking that power on their own.

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