In this article that appeared on both El Pais (Spain) and La Nación (Argentina), Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa analyzes the threat populism poses to modern liberal democracies and why it is spreading.
Communism is no longer the main antagonist to liberal democracies, the enemy of freedom. Populism is. The former stopped being a threat when the Soviet Union disappeared, unable to solve the most elemental social and economic problems, and when (for other reasons) the People´s Republic of China became an authoritarian capitalist regime. The surviving communist states (Cuba, North-Korea and Venezuela) are in such a dire state that it would be difficult to present them as a model for development and prosperity like the USSR once was. Communism is now a residual ideology and its followers and partisans now belong to the sidelines of political life.
However, against the expectations of many, the end of communism did not make liberal democracies stronger or lead to their expansion throughout the world. Instead, populism has risen as a menace. It´s not an ideology, but an epidemic – in the most toxic sense of the word – that adopts different masks to attack both rich and poor countries. In the first world it becomes nationalism, and, in the third, it dreams of a left-wing revolution. Not even the most stable democracies, like the UK, France or the US, are safe from this phenomenon. This has been proven by the triumph of Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump becoming the president of the United States or Geert Wilders leading the Dutch pools and Marine Le Pen being a prominent candidate in France.
What is populism? In the first place, it is an irresponsible and demagogic politics of governments that do not hesitate to sacrifice their society´s future for benefits in an ephemeral present. For example, nationalizing businesses, freezing prices and increasing wages like Peruvian president Alan García did in his first term, generating a short-lived bonanza that assured his popularity. Afterward, this would cause a hyperinflation that almost destroyed the productive structures of a country that was brutally impoverished by these policies. He learned his lesson, at the expense of Peruvians, and was significantly more sensible in his second term.
A central ingredient for populism is nationalism, the source, after religion, of most of the deadliest wars humanity faced. Trump promises to “make America great again” and that Americans will start winning again. The United States will no longer be exploited by China, or Europe, or any other country because now its interests will prevail over those of other nations. I was in London in the period preceding the Brexit vote and heard, astonished, the pack of chauvinistic and xenophobic lies that Brexit partisans like Boris Johnson and UKIP leader Nigel Farage propagated on TV during the campaign. They won the referendum proclaiming that, by leaving the European Union, the UK would recover its sovereignty and freedom, now subject to Brussel´s bureaucracy.
In Latin America, governments like Rafael Correa´s in Ecuador, Comandante Daniel Ortega´s in Nicaragua and Evo Morales´ in Bolivia pride themselves in being anti-imperialist and socialist. In in reality, however, they are the incarnation of populism itself. All three take great care of not applying the communist recipes of massive nationalizations, collectivism, and economic statism because, having better judgment than illiterate Nicolás Maduro, they know how disastrous these policies can be. They praise Cuba and Venezuela loudly, but they don´t mimic them. In reality, their policies are closer to Putin´s mercantilism – that is to say, a corrupt crony capitalism that establishes illegal alliances with servile businessmen that benefit from privileges and monopolies as long as they remain submissive to the government and pay the right commissions.
They all believe, like ultraconservative Trump, that a free press is the biggest threat to progress and have established control mechanisms, either directly or indirectly, in order to subdue the media. Rafael Correa went further along this road that anybody else, approving the most anti-democratic laws the Americas have seen in regards to freedom of the press. Trump hasn´t done it yet because freedom of the press is a deeply ingrained right in the United States and it would provoke a strong negative reaction among both institutions and the public. However, it cannot be discarded that sooner or later he can take actions that, like in Sandinista Nicaragua or Evo Morales´ Bolivia, restrict and denaturalize freedom of expression.
Populism is an old tradition, even if it failed to reach its current magnitude before. One of the most significant difficulties in fighting it is that it appeals to humanities basic instincts that include tribalism, distrust and fear of others who belong to a different religion, race or linguistic groups, xenophobia, jingoism and ignorance. This can be seen in a dramatic way in the US. The political division in the country has never been so strong, and the line dividing Americans has never been so deep. On one side of this line you have a cultured, cosmopolitan, well-educated and modern country. On the other, a more primitive and isolated country, that distrusts or fears the opening of frontiers characteristic of the contemporary world, the current revolution in communications and globalization. Trump´s frenetic populism managed to convince them that it is possible to turn back time and go back to the supposedly predictable and happy times of the 50s and 60s. Waking up from this illusion will be traumatic, unfortunately not only for the country of Lincoln and Washington but for the whole world.
¿Is it possible to fight populism? Of course it is, Brazilians mobilizing against corruption are giving a good example, as are those Americans fighting against Trump´s demented policies or Ecuadorians who just inflicted a defeat on Correa, imposing a second round on the election that could put Guillermo Lasso, a true democrat, in power and Bolivians who defeated Evo Morales in a referendum that would have allowed him indefinite reelections. Venezuelans are also turning it around and, in spite of the savage repression unleashed by Nicolás Maduro´s narco-populist government, still fight for freedom. However, the definitive defeat of populism will be like that of communism: the blow will be given by reality. The traumatic failure of irresponsible policies will aggravate every social and economic problem in the unsuspecting countries that surrendered to its spells.