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Populism and social cohesion in Latin America: two sides of the same coin?

Documento de trabajo
4 julio 2019 / nº 99/2019

Populism and social cohesion in Latin America: two sides of the same coin?

Are populism and social cohesion two sides of the same coin, or antagonistic concepts? In deeply divided Latin American societies, populism and discourses from the left have repeatedly promised inclusion and welfare programs under a strong leader who gives voice to the poor and marginalized. At first glance, however, results are ambiguous. The recent wave of left-wing populism in Latin America –from Hugo Chávez in 1999 to Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2019 – show a mixed record of social inclusion or –in a term we will use here–social cohesion. Bolivia under Evo Morales (2006-2019), for example, improved all social indicators compared to former governments, while the severe political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela illustrates how populism and its welfare policies may lead to potentially disastrous consequences.

The paper is organized as follows: In the first section, we provide a short overview of current political and academic debates on populism and social cohesion, as well as their relationship. The objective here is to identify a minimal definition of both concepts. In the second part, we develop a series of indicators to compare the social record of five Latin American case-studies where leftist leaders with state-centric discourses promised justice and welfare for the poor. From this comparative perspective, the third part of the document explores the causes that led to the rise of leftist populism between 1999 and 2018 in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela, as well as the social discourse and track record of populist governments. This analysis is based on indicators developed from the broad literature on social cohesion. Finally, the conclusions refer us back to the initial question on whether social decline leads to populism, and if populist governments really are successful at fostering social inclusion.

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