Special Report

Exorcizing Latin America’s Demons

Its populist cultural norms are a killer.

By 2.28.14

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Given Venezuela’s ongoing meltdown and the visible decline in the fortunes of Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner, one thing has become clear. Latin America’s latest experiments with left-wing populism have reached their very predictable end-points. There is a price to be paid for the economics of populism, and no amount of blaming nefarious “neoliberals” can disguise cruel realities such as food-shortages, electricity-blackouts, endemic corruption, the disintegration of rule of law, utterly insecure property-rights, and wild inflation — all of which have helped Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador achieve the ignominious distinction of being categorized as “repressed economies” in the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom.

Certainly it’s not clear that Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela will lose power. As the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady has underscored, the Castros who run the prison camp otherwise known as Cuba will do whatever-it-takes to try and prevent that. Nor is it certain that Argentines won’t vote for yet another Perónist who promises to solve everyone’s problems via government decree when presidential elections come due in 2015.

But if crises are indeed opportunities, now is the time for those Latin Americans who recognize populism’s flaws to think seriously about what comes next. One mistake would be to imagine that all that’s required are different economic policies.

Obviously alterations in economic structures matter. Without, for instance, a dramatic shift of economic incentives away from the relentless cultivation of connections with politicians and bureaucrats, Latin American nations will continue to struggle. Likewise, mandated price-and-wage controls, government restrictions on currency and capital movements, the nationalization of industries, import-substitution policies, and the manipulation of official statistics will all have to go.

Unless, however, these moves are accompanied by significant cultural change on the part of not just elites but also the wider population, the full benefits of such transformations won’t be realized. They would also be in imminent danger of being reversed by the next populist caudillo who comes along, promising heaven-on-earth to his supporters.

The significance of attitudinal dispositions in helping nations move towards — or away from — freedom and prosperity has been well-documented in more recent decades by Nobel economists such as Douglass C. North and Edmund S. Phelps. They and others have illustrated how the priority accorded to different values in a given country does impact that nation’s political and economic choices. It was, however, the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville who best underscored culture’s significance in comprehending why some societies find it harder than others to embrace the habits and institutions of freedom.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that Mexico had formally adopted a written constitution almost identical to that of the United States. Mexico had proved, however, unable to overcome apparently chronic political instability. “The Mexicans,” Tocqueville lamented, “wishing to establish a federal system, took the federal Constitution of their Anglo-American neighbors as a model and copied it almost completely. But when they borrowed the letter of the law, they could not at the same time transfer the spirit that gave it life.”

By “spirit,” Tocqueville meant the habits and beliefs that prevailed in any one society. His point was that if American-style constitutional arrangements weren’t accompanied by certain patterns of behavior, the impact of such political structures was likely to be minimal. Likewise if there is a tendency to equate community with the state — which was certainly the case in Tocqueville’s France and, as anyone who has travelled throughout the region knows, is the disposition of many Latin Americans today — then people will be less likely to see Edmund Burke’s little platoons as the first port of call when addressing social and economic pathologies.

So what cultural dispositions need challenging throughout Latin America if the region wants to exorcize its populist demons? One is the widespread clientelismo that infects so many Latin American societies from top-to-bottom. Populist leaders exploit this cronyism, not least because they rely upon using government to dispense favors and largesse to their tame followers. That’s how they lock in political support, especially when the economy inevitably starts going south.

Another problem is the widespread tendency to think if only the “the right leader” can be found, everything will be fine. This is closely associated with the persistence of cults of personality throughout much of Latin America. Juan and Evita Perón have been dead for a long time. Nevertheless, despite the enormous political and economic damage they inflicted upon Argentina, you don’t have to look very far in downtown Buenos Aires to find pseudo-religious pictures and shrines to their memory. Likewise, images that deify figures such as Che Guevara (who was, we should remember, a cold-blooded murderer) and Hugo Chávez proliferate throughout the continent.

Yet another cultural challenge is the widespread use of the language of conflict by many Latin American political and social leaders. The reality that the interests of various groups sometimes clash isn’t of course specific to Latin America. What’s different in much of Latin America is the endless recourse by politicians to incendiary (often Marxist-tinged) rhetoric that pits groups against each other: poor against rich, mestizos against whites, rural dwellers against urban residents, employees against employers. It also results in differences in viewpoint being portrayed as all-or-nothing struggles of epic proportions. You find the same tone permeating the radical-liberationist discourse employed by ex-priests such as Leonardo Boff.

The problem is that while such language riles up and mobilizes thousands of people for what often becomes activism-for-activism’s-sake, it undermines in advance any real possibility for the ongoing prudential compromises that are indispensable in functioning constitutional democracies. Put another way, when you constantly denounce anyone who disagrees with you as a “fascist-oligarch-American-stooge” they’re unlikely to return your phone-calls.

Taken together, that’s quite a list of cultural dispositions. Obviously they’re not all present to the same degree in every Latin American nation. Nor are such patterns of thought and action unique to Latin America. Similar trends are present in, for instance, Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (what’s left of it), often in more virulent forms. Still, these phenomena do point to a culture in Latin America that’s more comfortable with putting its faith in charismatic personalities rather than institutions, which invokes state intervention far-too-often as the solution to most problems, and a widespread reluctance to concede that bad policy-choices by many 20th century Latin American leaders and the people who supported them helps explain much of the region’s checkered history of economic development.

Addressing these problems is ultimately Latin Americans’ responsibility. They are the ones who must engage in the difficult and often deeply politically incorrect task of stating that not all cultural habits have the same value, and that some should be dispensed with. That means, for example, acknowledging that there’s never a good time for demagoguery and that clientelismo is always wrong, regardless of whether it occurs in Caracas or Chicago.

Given the extent to which so many Latin American politicians have benefited from some of the cultural traits that facilitate populism, few of them have the credibility to speak about such matters. There are, however, others throughout Latin America who think and speak coherently about these issues. This is especially true of many younger Latin Americans whose futures have been hijacked by the likes of Maduro, Chávez, and the Kirchners.

One such group is the incredibly brave young men and women of the FORMA educational association in Venezuela. Many of them could wash their hands of their country and leave. Instead they have chosen to stay. Despite daily intimidation by Chavista thugs, they are thinking about the long-term and working, despite fearsome odds, to educate a new generation that they hope will have a chance to shape a post-Chavismo Venezuela.

What’s also noteworthy about these particular individuals is that they have no illusions that present-day Western Europe or contemporary America are good role models. They’re not blind to disturbing trends in these countries, such as increasing welfare-dependency, growing public debt, and the relentless spread of crony capitalism. Nor are they impressed by Western liberals’ near-obsession with imposing lifestyle-liberalism by state-fiat.

The other insight of such Latin Americans is that they know time is running out. Right now, groups like FORMA are in the fight of their lives against a hard-left regime that has brought their country to its knees. But they also recognize that unless the populist virus is thoroughly purged from elite and popular culture, the rest of the world will continue losing interest in Latin America. After all, what foreign investors in their right mind, when faced with a choice between economic catastrophes like Argentina and once-poor but now-prosperous countries such as South Korea, would give Buenos Aires or Caracas a second thought?

Populism not only relies upon lies about Latin America’s past, but it is also presently destroying the continent’s future. The sooner it — and its exponents — go, the better.

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About the Author
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including Becoming Europe.