Discuss two forms of populism in Argentina, Chile, and Mexico. Include in your discussion the role of the church in the success or failure of populist uprisings and governments.

The era of populism in Latin America is relatively lengthy and multifaceted. There are many different leaders of varying backgrounds throughout Latin America that represented a populist ideology. These leaders can be placed along a spectrum that ranks populist leaders according to how they govern the people; do they use military force to foster populism or do they allow an organic progression of populist ideas? Respectively, we might call these “hard populism” and “soft populism”. In order to demonstrate this spectrum of populist leaders, I will discuss Juan Perón from Argentina, Salvador Allende from Chile, and Gustavo Díaz Ordaz of Mexico.

Perón began his ascent to political power as a young man in the military that swiftly rose through the ranks of the Argentinian military. He played a part in the 1943 coup that overthrew the previous unsuccessful government, and rose to political power by taking modest positions within the government and appealing to poor. In 1946, Perón was elected president of Argentina. He appeared to be a true populist leader as he passed legislation that favored the working class by increasing their wages and providing benefits. He also created large projects within the public sector to generate many jobs for the poor and unemployed in Argentina. Near the twilight of his first presidency, Perón seemed to be falling out of favor with quite a few groups- one of which was the influential Catholic Church. After the death of his second wife, Eva, Perón became infuriated with the Church for refusing to decree Eva a saint; this pushed Juan Perón to push for the separation of church and state. Soon after this defiance of the Catholic Church, Argentina began to descend into political turmoil as rioting broke out. Eventually, he realized regaining his approval ratings and a less tarnished reputation would take time and he resigned in 1955. He sought refuge in Paraguay and other Central American countries. Perón depended on the large following he and Eva had accumulated during their glory days as President and the First Lady in order to eventually return to Argentina and act as a political leader again. Overall, Perón rose to power from a military background, while not often calling on the military to handle domestic disturbances. His political and economic ideas allied him with the large working-class majority of Argentinians, however his choice to sever ties with the Catholic Church, effectively eliminated him as a respectable politician in Argentina. In terms of this spectrum of populism where one end is populism enforced with military backing, and the other is populism encouraged and not enforced, Perón might lie somewhere in the middle- more a moderate populist in these terms.

Allende respectably rose to power through the democratic process of election. After his fourth bid for election, Allende was finally made President of Chile in 1970. Once in office, he began his hasty attempts to enact social and economic reforms that put him in favor with many of the poorer, working-class. The Catholic Church was quick to dissociate itself from Allende as he was seen as a socialist that looked down on Catholicism and religion in general. Without the support of the Catholic Church and a growing dissatisfaction with the economy of Chile, Allende stood little chance of defending himself against the swift, harsh military coup in 1973. Before Allende could carry out his six year presidency term, he was killed in the bombings on the Presidential Palace, and an authoritarian military-based government led by Augusto Pinochet assumed political power to steer Chile away from socialism or communism and towards democracy and a laissez faire economy. Allende’s strict adherence to the law, while admirable, was viewed indirectly as weakness by not suppressing increasing protests against the government. Ultimately, the Chilean military (and the United States) saw Allende as far too close to communism for comfort, and the fact that there were protests sprouting up and his disapproval the Church’s role in politics, were simply factors to fall back on and justify the coup in the interest of the people. In terms of our populism spectrum, Allende would fall to the “soft populism” side where he encouraged and did not enforce populism to grow within the country.

Lastly, was Gustavo Díaz Ordaz from Mexico. He was a politician that gained momentum within the PRI party. The PRI party can be seen as populist because many of the laws and reforms that were put in place by the PRI were to benefit to people of Mexico; he passed land reforms and politically involved peasants. Despite the fact that the PRI party had not previously been seen as violent or authoritarian, it would quickly be seen as such under Díaz Ordaz. Student protest were growing larger and larger and the PRI party grew to believe that permitting such protests any longer would be accepting defeat of their cause and appearing weak. In 1968, as a large gathering of people flocked to Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, where they were met during their peaceful protest with tanks and open gunfire. Díaz Ordaz has ordered the premeditated killing of as many Mexican citizens in the Tlatelolco massacre as necessary. Perhaps the only saving grace of Díaz Ordaz that allowed him to finish his presidential term without being assassinated was the fact that he was very devoutly allied to the Catholic Church. While the Catholic Church did not condone Díaz Ordaz’s methods of achieving order, it recognized that he was a leader that saw the Church’s place in politics. While the Catholic Church was a powerful entity in Mexico, it could not unashamedly ally itself with a man that approved the murder of the Mexican people like that of a rancher who slaughtered cattle for the beef. His nod to the Catholic Church’s presence in politics could only go so far, and Díaz Ordaz disappeared from the public eye for quite some time before resurfacing as the unpopular Mexican ambassador to Spain- unpopular in both Mexico and Spain. Díaz Ordaz was a candidate of the PRI party, which grew from populist ideas and reforms, but later acted on a more authoritarian level by enforcing his type of government on the people by quashing peaceful protests with excessive force. In terms of our spectrum, Díaz Ordaz would be an almost extreme example of “hard populism” where he imposed his politics on the people and did not permit any different ideology by utilizing aggressive military action.


Hellinger, Daniel. 2011. Comparative Politics of Latin America: Democracy at Last? New York: Routledge.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Salvador Allende.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/biography/salvador-allende (October 31, 2016).

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Juan Peron.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/biography/juan-peron (October 31, 2016).