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How two very different Latin American leaders expose the growing populism in the region


Insights from Central Podcast, Americas Quarterly, Bloomberg and Atlantic Council

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Days before left-wing Claudia Sheinbaum became Mexico’s new president, another populist leader was sworn in for the second time in El Salvador. Nayib Bukele.

On paper, Sheinbaum and Bukele differ sharply in ideology, but their populist politics – which promise to put people’s livelihoods first – reflect a broad trend in Latin America, where voters are increasingly willing to accept a democratic backsliding in exchange for better security against organized crime and the economic crisis. rejuvenation.

Ultimately, Sheinbaum and Bukele join a litany of populist leaders in Latin America — including Javier Milei in Argentina and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela — who have gained traction in the region.


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Bukele’s ‘iron fist’ becomes a model for security policy

Sources: Central podcast, Americas Quarterly, Foreign Policy

Bukele’s policies, like his ‘iron fist’ approach to gangs, which have reduced the country’s homicide rate by 95%, a source of inspiration for politicians in Latin America, with some calling these successes “a miracle.” Leaders increasingly view Bukele as a model, Americas Quarterly noted. In Peru, for example, the mayor of Lima, a potential presidential candidate, promised a “Bukele Plan” to combat crime in the city. “We have an escalation of what some authors call ‘punitive populism’” a Chilean political science professor told news podcast Central. But Bukele’s crackdown on the violence came at a cost: the zero-tolerance approach has led to systematic human rights abuses, international watchdogs warned.

Mexican populism is rooted in economic reform

Sources: Bloomberg, Semafor

Sheinbaum’s predecessor and mentor, outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is known to veer into populist rhetoric bordering on the antidemocratic. Yet he has built enormous popularity among the electorate ‘by giving visibility for poor Mexicans”, wrote columnist Juan Pablo Spinetto for Bloomberg, expanding the social security program and raising the minimum wage (110% in real terms). López Obrador has also managed to gain support from more conservative voters as well, such as through not taking a position on abortion and clashes with the Mexican feminist movement, according to Americas Quarterly. That has largely contained a far-right populist rival and will likely allow Sheinbaum to continue his left-wing agenda.

The rise of populism shows that democracy in Latin America is in danger

Source: Atlantic Council

Bukele’s authoritarianism – he described himself as “the coolest dictator in the world” on social media in 2021 – is just one example of a general decline of democracy across Latin America, analysts at The Atlantic Council wrote. Two-thirds of the region’s countries are considered “flawed democracies” or “hybrid regimes” that suffer from electoral fraud and limited press freedom. Other issues, such as climate change, food insecurity and financial stress, could further erode voters’ trust in democratic institutions.

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