A rally for Juan Perón

Populist movements are an organic manifestation of popular anger or a determination for change. The four common characteristics of populist leaders, who are beneficiaries/ lightning rods of this manifestation, are:
  1. Charisma with strong oratorical skills
  2. Ability to maintain authority by use of the patron-client system
  3. The use social hierarchy to their advantage
  4. To act as a balance between the wants and demands of the popular movement and the elites

Populist movements tend to arise during hard economic times in the presence of social and political troubles. The suffering of the 1930s was the opportune time for such movements throughout the Americas, including the United States (LaRosa & Mejia). While populist movements took place in most of Latin America at some point or another, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru are four Latin American countries that experimented with strong populist leaders.


The movement known as Peronism was Argentina's experiment with populism. From 1946-1955 the poor, the working class of urban areas, and the middle class were united by Juan Perón and his charismatic, former actress, wife Eva "Evita" Duarte Perón (Dawson). As is the case with most populist movements, Peronism was nationalistic. The movement supported capitalism with an element of socialism to benefit the poor masses, the large base of the movement. The Peróns managed to unite these groups by creating a common enemy, a tactic used in nationalist movements. The couple was opposed by many intellectuals and the oligarchy of Argentina, the wealthy movers and shakers who viewed the lower classes with disdain. Ultimately Peronism declined with the failure of its economic plan and the military moved to remove Juan from power (LaRosa & Mejia).


Getulio Vargas was the populist ruler of Brazil from 1930-1945 and again from 1950-1954 (Dawson 162-163). As a populist leader he had control over the economy as well as the political structure of the country, which he ruled as a dictator for some time. Vargas managed to stay in power by being humorous and at ease with his people. This is common in populist movements. The leader must maintain the size and vocal magnitude of the movement and keep the people on his side. Although populist leaders like Vargas sometimes work against the interests of the elite, the elite tolerate these leaders because they offer a better alternative to violent revolution by the leftist movements, which the populist leaders tended to repress.


Lazaro Cardenas ruled from 1934-1940 (Dawson). As a populist leader Cardenas had to use a system of patronage to satisfy his base supporters and maintain power. He distributed millions of acres of land to the indigenous populations of Mexico for communal use (LaRosa & Mejia). Although populist leaders can sometimes dictate in which direction a country will go, they often times must follow the whims of the movement such as in the case of the petroleum worker's strike, by a union strengthened by Cardenas, against oil companies owned by foreign interests. Cardenas responded by nationalizing the oil industry instead of attempting to suppress the unions as other, non-populist, leaders would be tempted to do.


Victor Raul Haya de la Torre of Peru was president only from 1978-1979 and that was of the consitutional assembly. However, he had struggled for decades for democratic rule in Peru and had previously won an election that was annulled by a military junta. His populist support arose from his creation of the Populist Alliance for the American Revolution and his belief that popular classes should receive distributed support from the elite (LaRosa & Mejia).
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Populism in Latin America

Current TrendsEdit

There has been an increasing trend of populist, usually leftist, presidents winning elections throughout Latin America. This can be seen as an attempt by the masses to finally shake off the chains of oppression that have held down the Latin American people since the times of Spanish rule and throughout the rule of various conquerors, both through military and economic means. Argentina (Christina Kirchner), Bolivia (Evo Morales), Brazil (Lula), Chile (Michelel Bachelet), Ecuador (Rafael Correa), Paraguay (Fernando Lugo), and Venezuela (Hugo Chavez) have all begun resisting neo-colonial masters and have started the process of distributing wealth to the poorer masses (Dangl). Many of these leaders have nationalized industries controlled by foreign entities and internal oligarchies.


  • Dangl, Benjamin, . "Latin America Breaks Free." The Progressive. N.p., 2009. Web. 30 Apr 2012.
  • Dawson, Alexander. Latin America Since Independence A History With Primary Sources. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
  • LaRosa, Michael, and Germán R. Mejía. An Atlas and Survey of Latin American History. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2007. Print.

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