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Populism and democracy in Latin America

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Paraphrasing Karl Marx, a specter is haunting Latin America—the specter of “populism.” This label has been attached to a wave of radical left leaders in the region, including Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. The term is normatively charged. The Mexican politician and scholar Jorge Castañeda contrasts radical populist leaders (such as Chávez and Morales), whom he characterizes as less convinced of the intrinsic value of democracy and human rights, with moderate left-wingers (such as Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay), who embrace representative democracy and respect human rights. This division of the Latin American left between “good” social democrats and “bad” populists is open to challenge. But Castañeda is right to draw attention to the fact that democracy and populism are engaging with similar challenges of political order. Moreover, it is important to recognize that democracy and populism also have compatible normative grounds, both seeking to enact the sovereign rule of the people. Nevertheless, democrats and populists diverge over how to respond to such challenges as how to manage majority-minority relations, safeguard individual rights, and establish a just and enduring political order. The coexistence of these two political logics within Latin American societies generates significant political fault lines, reflective of the incomplete nature of democratic order in the region.

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