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Comparing Populism of Russia and Latin America

Alvaro Vargas Llosa published this fascinating column comparing Russia and Latin America in the Washington Post today (although the only place I could find it was on the Wall Street Journal site). In his view, given certain historical similarities, the appeal of populist rhetoric in both Russia and Latin America is not going to disappear overnight. In the past, this blog has compared the rise of United Russia and the legacy of the PRI of Mexico, and covered Russia’s newfound fondness for closer relations with Latin America.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa

Alvaro Vargas Llosa

The Populist Republic By ALVARO VARGAS LLOSA April 18, 2007

I am fascinated by the similarities between Russia and Latin America. The latest wave of repression against critics of President Vladimir Putin and the victory obtained by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa in last Sunday’s referendum, which provides a green light toward setting up a constituent assembly that will give him authoritarian powers, remind us that despotic populism is alive and kicking.

Last weekend’s detentions in Moscow and St. Petersburg of members of the “Other Russia,” an opposition organization that includes former chess champion Garry Kasparov as one of its leaders, are a reminder that Russia is a ruthless autocracy.

With the exception of Venezuela, the authoritarian institutions operating under democratically elected governments in Latin America are not as bad as Russia’s. Power is more decentralized in Latin America, where governments have not been able or willing to wrest back economic influence from the private interests that surfaced during the market reforms of the 1990s. Mexico was also dominated by a party-state for much of the 20th century and underwent a process of reform in the 1990s. Despite its many flaws, reform improved the political and economic environment. In Russia, liberal democracy never quite surfaced. Mr. Putin reacted against the oligarchy of the 1990s by establishing his own oligarchy. By contrast, although there was much crony capitalism, Mexico’s system is freer.

With the return of populism to various parts of Latin America, a number of countries are headed in the direction of Russia. The formula usually combines a democratic origin, the dismantling of republican institutions from within and reliance on natural resources that are in high demand in the international markets. Last Sunday, Ecuadorians voted in large numbers to essentially rewrite the constitution. In this, Mr. Correa, who wants to replace democracy with an authoritarian regime, is following the example of his friend Hugo Chavez and of Bolivia’s Evo Morales. And if Mexico’s and Peru’s current governments do not deliver economic improvement, we could easily see populists taking over the reins of power there too.

Russia and Latin America are the products of histories dominated by the absence of civil rights and property rights. In Russia, the absence of a liberal tradition doomed the transition to liberal democracy in the 1990s. In Latin America, the republics of the 19th century preserved the oligarchic structure of the colony. In the 20th century, they mostly experimented with populist democracy and military dictatorship.

Recent developments prove that the populist republic is not a thing of the past in Latin America. And the populist republic — the combination of democratic appearances and autocratic controls, sustained by the sale of oil and minerals — has much in common with Mr. Putin’s Russia.