In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modern Populism in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Primary Sources
  • Conceptual Debates
  • Populist Networks: Leaders, Masses, and Intermediate Structures
  • Democracy and Authoritarianism
  • Recurrence of Populism in Latin America
  • The Decline, Marginality, or Absence of Populism in Latin America

Latin American Studies Modern Populism in Latin America
Luis Roniger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0130


Populism is a form of mass politics that claims to represent the common people. As a political phenomenon, it has been present in many areas of the world. In Latin America, it has had a recurrent presence, to the point that some are of the opinion that Latin America has been “long on populist political leaders and short on statesmen” (Gustavo Coronel, p. 1). Unsurprisingly, populism has been used as a term of opprobrium and not of self-reference. Yet, due to its widespread presence, it has increasingly been analyzed by sociologists, political scientists, historians, and economists as one of the most remarkable political phenomena of the region in the 20th and 21st centuries. A few renowned cases of leaders typified as populist in the literature may be mentioned: Juan Domingo Perón, Eva Perón, and Carlos Menem in Argentina; Getulio Vargas in Brazil; Lázaro Cárdenas and Andrés M. López Obrador in Mexico; Juan Velasco Alvarado, Alberto Fujimori, and Alan García in Peru; Arnulfo Arias in Panama; and last but not least Carlos Andrés Pérez and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The region has known repeated waves of populist mobilization, although the phenomenon has ebbed and flowed in prominence. The literature on this topic has known various moments of salience and witnessed deep debates, geared to elucidate the shifting significance of populism in the region and analyze some of its contextual and cultural dimensions, the emphasis on leadership or mediating mechanisms, the patterns of mass mobilization, the programmatic orientations and the policies implemented, as well as the more recent revival.

General Overviews

Beneath controversies, there seems to be wide agreement on some of the major characteristics of most forms of populism, evincing the following elements: the bond of leader and masses, rooted not only in cognitive-rational elements but in emotions, buttressed by a certain style of addressing the masses, directed at the most popular sectors of the population; a persisting call to plebiscitary-like decisions, which grants symbolic empowerment to popular sectors while retaining a powerful appropriation of voice by the leader; an emphasis on executive power overriding the division of powers, and often leading to legislation by decree. Consequently, a “politics of anti-politics,” or in less loaded terms, the weakening or manipulation of some of the basic institutions of representative democracy, has been identified. This reflects and buttresses a more general trend, in which political parties remain secondary to mass movements; there is reliance on multiclass support and concomitantly the tendency to detachment from coherent, clear-cut ideologies (this does not mean a lack of ideological rhetoric, as recent cases clearly indicate); and last but not least, often populism addresses the expectations of social forces marginalized or hit hard by economic policies and downturns and projects promises of existential solutions, even when in practice most of these movements do not imply a revolutionary transformation of social structures. We should review this corpus through a set of early classic works, their later problematization, and more recent contributions.

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