When elites see their wealth threatened, they move heaven and earth

On Nov. 11, 1979, San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero preached on Mark 12:38-44, The Widow’s Offering: Jesus watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” 

Colombia’s president sends more troops to Cali to try to quell a month of protests. The British magazine The Economist invites a resurgence of U.S. imperialism to thwart the Mexican president’s option for the poor. The six-decade-long U.S. blockade of Cuba is so severe that the country cannot obtain sufficient syringes to protect its population with the vaccines it has developed.

And I think of the words of St. Oscar Romero on Nov. 11, 1979, when he offered a warning about money when it becomes an idol:

It’s natural that when the right feels that their economic privileges are being threatened, they will move heaven and earth in order to maintain their idol of wealth.

Next Sunday, June 6, Mexicans and Peruvians head to the polls. In Mexico, these mid-term elections—the national legislature and many state and local races—are marred by violence: at least 35 candidates of various parties have been murdered. In Peru, it’s the second round of voting to elect a new president: from the left, Pedro Castillo stands a reasonable chance of defeating Keiko Fujimori, despite her powerful, rich supporters.

The Economist’s attack on Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by his initials as AMLO) in startling. There are reasonable grounds to debate this policy (the pandemic response) or that development plan (the tourist train in the Yucatán peninsula that is opposed by Indigenous people in the region), but The Economist argues that he is a populist comparable to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and that democracy is threatened:

Mr. López Obrador divides Mexicans into two groups: “the people”, by which he means those who support him; and the elite, whom he denounces, often by name, as crooks and traitors who are to blame for all Mexico’s problems. He says he is building a more authentic democracy. 

Left: Cartoon by Israel Vargas, The Economist, May 27, 2021. Right: cartoon by El Fisgón, La Jornada, May 29, 2021. (“The Economist: The magazine of the True Oligarchy.”)

It then goes further, suggesting that the United States get involved in Mexico’s internal affairs:

The United States needs to pay attention. Donald Trump did not care about Mexican democracy. President Joe Biden should make clear that he does. He must be tactful: Mexicans are understandably allergic to being pushed around by their big neighbour. But America ought not to turn a blind eye to creeping authoritarianism in its backyard. As well as sending vaccines, unconditionally, Mr. Biden should send quiet warnings.

So, what is a populist anyway? 

A Venezuelan friend who lives in Costa Rica, José Amesty, says populism is a term used by elites when they do not understand what is going on. I would refine that slightly and suggest that it is a term used by elites and technocrats to describe political movements that reject their narrow economic priorities—maintaining their own privileges—by putting social goals first. 

Amesty cites AMLO: “supporting the poor, supporting elderly adults, supporting youth: if that is to be populist, then add me to the list.” AMLO stands in the tradition of Lázaro Cárdenas, the revolutionary Mexican president who in the 1930s led a land reform that put half of the farming land in the hands of local community councils (ejidos) and who nationalized the petroleum industry.

Populism is one of the least useful terms in our political lexicon. I think we’re clearer when we use tags that are generally understood: left (social democrat, socialist, communist), centre (liberal), or right (conservative, traditional, elitist, militarist). Better yet: actually describe the content of political platforms. What does this candidate stand for? With whom do they stand? 

The government of Iván Duque in Colombia and the candidacy of Fujimori in Peru are projections of traditional elites trying to hold on to their power and economic privileges against diverse social and political movements that would empower people who have usually been locked out of power: the rural and urban poor, Indigenous and descendants of Africans, women and LGBTI people. 

In that sense, democracy in Latin America is not so much being threatened as it is still being invented.

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