How Latin America Emerged from Its Populist Decade

A New Generation of Technocrats Is Embracing Rational Orthodoxy Over Ideology

There’s hope to the south.

As Europe and the United States are grappling with the rise of bombastic populism, the region that’s long excelled in the genre above all others—Trump may be trying, but he is no Hugo Chávez or Juan Perón—appears to be moving away from it. And if Latin America can shake the virus, there may be hope for all.

After more than a decade of populism creep, the region has been fighting back. Latin America has a new crop of political leaders—and, perhaps more importantly, a new generation of activists and government technocrats—setting checks and balances and elevating the moral tone in politics. Over time, the demagogic populist regimes of the 2000s have given way to practical, even boring economic leaders, most notably in Brazil and Argentina. They are not without fault—Mauricio Macri’s family comes with baggage, and Michel Temer’s gender attitudes are somewhat Trumpian—but their administrations are working on strengthening institutions, injecting orthodoxy into the economy, and leaving ideology behind.

Elections will make 2018 a key year for democracy in the hemisphere, as Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and (fingers crossed) Venezuela will decide whether they want to continue to embrace rational governance or take a U-turn into the past. Interestingly, the choice in the region is no longer between democracy and outright dictatorship. It’s between meaningful democracy and authoritarian populism. Even under the latter (as exemplified by the Chavistas in Venezuela and their acolytes in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua) lip service is paid to the ideal of democracy, and to the observance of its essential trappings. Take the authoritarians’ widespread reliance on referenda—a self-serving populist means of manipulating the public will.

Across the region, the Organization of American States (OAS) is invited to observe national elections to ascertain whether or not they are free and fair. Often considered a dysfunctional multilateral institution, its electoral observation team is one of its saving graces. After over 20 years, they’ve moved past rubber-stamping election outcomes to analyzing the quality of representation. They look at gender, hoping to pinpoint not only how many women run for and win elected positions, but also how many women volunteer in elections (many), and how many have full-time jobs in the electoral institutions (few). The OAS also assesses media activity before, during, and after elections, answering questions such as: “Are the local media independent institutions or beholden to economic or political elites?” “How balanced is news coverage?” and “Do media outlets respect electoral law and regulations”?

Electoral observation missions have not succeeded entirely in ridding the continent of demogogic populism, but they have helped show Latin Americans that quality of representation and strength of institutions are important factors in a democracy. This will be important in years to come to ensure that populism does not trickle back in to the countries that have managed to kick it out.

This not your grandfather’s Latin America anymore. The region is bucking populism and strengthening democratic institutions and the quality of representation at all levels.

Checks and balances are also being set up by idealists working from within. Hidden behind the curtains in governments throughout Latin America are 40-somethings that grew up under hyperinflation and the democratic opening. Some studied abroad, and all are dedicated to serving their country. These technocrats are principally responsible for the economic reforms in Mexico—in telecommunications, energy, fiscal services, and education; anti-corruption pushes in Brazil; freedom of information efforts in Argentina; and human rights advances in Colombia.

Take Aristóteles Nuñez, the 47-year-old Mexican technocrat who until recently oversaw the SAT, Mexico’s equivalent of the IRS. He grew up in Tepito, a poor neighborhood known as a black market hotbed. The 1985 earthquake left Nuñez homeless for a while. He went on to one of the top public universities in the country. For the first three years of the Peña Nieto administration, Nuñez worked tirelessly to solve a decades-old problem in Mexico—how to get people to pay their taxes. He established a partnership with the IRS, so that Mexicans could no longer hide their savings on the other side of the border. He hired big data firms to comb through digital financial transactions and flag potentially worrisome amounts. He implemented systems that automatically deposited tax returns in citizens’ bank accounts—if you know the government will give you money back, it’s easy to get in the habit of declaring annually. He took out three-page advertisements in the most popular daily newspapers and listed the names of people and firms who were the most egregious tax-evaders. Naming and shaming gets the work done really quickly.

And what do you do when you are an architect, and your beautiful touristy colonial town hasn’t had a mayor for four years because the last one got caught red-handed in a corruption scandal? You run for office and open the door to newcomers who might want to live in your town and improve it. Susana Asensio, mayor of Antigua Guatemala (pop. 45,000), has welcomed digital nomads from around the world to live in Antigua and run their entrepreneurial initiatives out of ImpactHub and other shared workspaces. Asensio
is also working with the U.S. embassy on women’s entrepreneurship initiatives.

On a larger scale there’s Sérgio Moro the 44-year-old judge who upended the political system in Brazil. Based in a relatively small town in the southern part of that vast country, Moro has investigated corruption allegations within the national oil company and uncovered a vast network of kickbacks involving the three main political parties. Politicans have had to step down, with some going to prison. Beyond that, there has also been a moral reawakening in the country. On one hand, the Brazilian people are disillusioned with the political system; on the other, they’re hopeful that this will change Brazil for the better. It has been a transformative three years for Brazil.

Anti-corruption initiatives pushed by civil society groups are also making gains. The most obvious example is #Ley3de3, an initiative promoted by Juan Pardinas, 45. Pardinas is director of the IMCO think tank in Mexico, which is committed to advocating for the removal of structural obstacles to a more economically competitive and affluent Mexico. #Ley3de3 promoted transparency and open government, and sought to make public servants more accountable to the public by releasing their tax forms and financial disclosures. Proposed by the citizenry, the bill received over 600,000 signatures and was widely popular among businessmen and industry associations. The final version of the law, watered down as it will, was signed by President Peña Nieto over the summer. The challenge now is its implementation, and civil society is on the administration’s heels to get it done quickly.

Other NGOS like IMCO are cropping up throughout Latin America, helping strengthen institutions. Brazil has the Congresso em Foco monitoring congress and Agência Lupa, a fact-checking institution. Colombia has Bogota Cómo Vamos, a data-driven citizen initiative keeping the federal and state governments accountable.

This not your grandfather’s Latin America anymore. The region is bucking populism and strengthening democratic institutions and the quality of representation at all levels. The U.S. and Europe could benefit from some of the pro-democracy practices developed in Latin America. Indeed, this U.S. election is the first that the Organization of American States will observe. Media conglomerates, electoral officials, and pregnant chads beware.

Jana Nelson, a former State Department official in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, is currently Vice-President of Speyside Corporate Relations, based in Mexico City.

This essay is part of a Zócalo Inquiry, Is Populism Destroying Democracy?
Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Eryn Brown.
*Photo by Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press.
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  • Wow! The level of anti-democratic discourse, unquestioned imperialist privilege and white supremacist stereotyping in this Zocalo exploration of populism is really a new low. The idea of comparing Trump to Chavez is astonishing. Chavez was popularly elected multiple times and carried parliamentary and constitutional revision elections favoring greater democratic participation multiple times and successfully overturned a US-back military/elitist coup. The tide of reactionary restorationist regimes in Latin America that started with the Clinton orchestrated coup in Honduras and that has continued with various other electoral, parliamentary and military regime changes in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with reasserted US hegemony in the region and its effective use of aligned elements in local elites that control corporate media. The vast poor majority of the population of Latin America, mainly of indigenous and African descent have gotten a taste of dignity and power and will reassert their capacity to shape the destiny of America. Donald Trump represents the exact opposite — the grievance of privilege and a discontented and decaying Empire.

    • CDMXfan345

      First, white supremacy? Please educate yourself on what that term means. There’s nothing about that in this article. As for Chavez, he was popularly elected because he was good at creating coalitions (credit where credit is due) but the way in which he did so has cost Venezuela dearly. Even you can’t deny that the country is in shambles.

      Re-asserted hegemony, you must be joking! The United States hasn’t engaged Latin America at all in recent years..and instead, average people have decided they want to be rid of populists like Cristina and Maduro. Likely, because they are ineffective at governance and consistently use simplistic and dishonest anti-West, anti-“imperial” rhetoric to persuade voters.

      Additionally, you must not be following the political situation in the United States very closely. The white working class voter does not feel that they have any privilege, and thus is angry at being neglected by the elites. It is the exact same reaction to the populists you speak of.

      Also, please don’t confuse dignity and power for the “oppressed” with Maduro, Kircheners, and their ilk. That’s an insult to the very same people you claim to be speaking in favor.

  • transdeuce

    Like Mr. Novick (previous commenter), I’m disappointed by the opinions expressed in this Zócalo series. While the articles incorporate valid concerns about the difficulty of striking the right democratic balance, the combined effect is a dismissal of the many valid critiques motivating populist movements and an acceptance of the elitist, plutocratic status quo.

    In this piece, Ms. Nelson present Michel Temer’s rise to power in Brazil as the unproblematic result of an anticorruption movement. Suffice it to say that many close observers have come up with a much different interpretation, which sees Temer and his cabinet as seeking to shield their own corruption, and that of their allies, from prosecution.

    Meanwhile, although Chávez and other leaders of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution are not without fault, Ms. Nelson elides the many flawed but nonetheless democratic initiatives they have put forward, not to mention the deeply undemocratic behavior of the elite opposition.

    The picture presented here is detrimentally simplistic.

    • CDMXfan345

      There we go again with this “dependency” narrative. “Democratic initiatives”…get real. Look where Venezuela is today.