Commentary: Left and right-wing populism in Latin America and the Caribbean: The end of liberal democracy?

Rebecca Theodore is a syndicated op-ed columnist based in New York. She writes on the platform of national security, politics, human rights, and until recently, has added climate change to her roster. Follow her on twitter @rebethd or email

By Rebecca Theodore

Since winning one of the most controversial elections Brazil has ever faced, far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro has started a new age of Brazilian diplomacy and foreign policy in Latin America. While many political scientists believe, that, Bolsonaro is a singular phenomenon in Latin America and Caribbean politics, accumulating evidence suggests, that, the authoritarian regimes of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, now paints populism as the new weapon against various aspects of liberal democracies in Latin America and the Caribbean as well.

According to Google Trends, interest in populism has grown four-fold, since the summer of 2016, and peaked in December of 2016 following Donald Trump’s unexpected election victory. However, looking at the populist trend in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is important to see how the weaponization of populism is opening the floodgates of militarist conflict, and the destruction of constitutional rights in Brazil. On the other hand, the themes of anti-capitalism, social justice, pacifism, and anti-globalization cannot go by unnoticed in the left-wing populist agenda, of the illegitimate Maduro administration in Venezuela.

For sure, right- and left-wing populism in Latin America and the Caribbean are also attacking individual rights and freedoms, and the post-truth politics that reinforces it. The old communal truths on democracy, are rapidly breaking down in Latin America and the Caribbean. Indisputably, Venezuela’s illegitimate regime is responsible for the oppression of its people, marginalization, disrespect for the constitution and the rule of law, true and fair election, and, in its wake, have created an exodus of migrants in search of survival and development. Conversely, the same is true for Brazil’s Bolsonoro, where, his discourses and actions stimulate hatred, intolerance, discrimination against Brazilians of color, homophobia, and misogyny, thus invoking an indomitable phenomenon in Brazilian politics.

From this, it must be seen, that democracy is becoming a lightning rod of dislike in Latin America and the Caribbean. Democracy is being gouged out by a decline of national sovereignty, that, could have the potential to ignite a left /right wing populist movement in other Latin American and Caribbean states as well.

By the same token, Bolsonoro’s chimes of nationalism, xenophobia, ethnic cleansing, and religion remains unyielding.

Further, Bolsonoro has pulled Brazil out of the U.N. migration pact. His nationalistic zeal silences human rights groups like Green Peace and Amnesty International, in his insane blitz on the environment. Bolsonoro is using an executive order, that, gives his government far reaching and restrictive powers over all non-government organizations (NGO) working in Brazil. His promise at the election portals, was to accelerate economic growth and create new opportunities by those left behind by globalization, but instead, his nationalistic rhetoric, continues to dismantle globalization and international ties, leaving in its wake, a fragmented media that underpins rather than challenge the prejudices.

Hence, it is this erosion of liberal democracy, that enhances the destructive power of left- and right-wing populism. It is this attrition of liberal democracy that proves that, populism as an anti-pluralistic ideology, is seriously threatening the fundamental rules of the democratic process in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Moreover, the recent shifts of political leadership in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the emboldening of both left- and right-wing populism, will in time, resort to violent measures, because, they are both weighed down by extreme prospects, that they will never be able to deliver.

And thus, arises the urgent need to democratize the political process in Latin America and the Caribbean.

But how can this process be democratized when Western powers continue to malign Maduro’s Venezuela, but accept Brazil’s Bolsonoro?

How can U.S. national security adviser John Bolton deliver a ‘troika of tyranny’ against Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, while at the same time, sidestep Brazil?

As such, national security adviser John Bolton’s ‘troika of tyranny’ says nothing about the survival prospects for democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, but only further accelerates right-wing populism, as a radical form of majoritarian action, that only seems convenient to evangelicals, thus creating a clash of civilization, and a new culture war between Christianity, Islam and secularization. Also, it is here, that, the economic Marxist connotation between workers and capitalists, and the irreligious tone of German philosopher Nietzsche resurrects converse meanings in intellectual thoughts and discussions in the democratic process at large.

Why isn’t God dead in the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie?

Still, national security adviser John Bolton’s ‘troika of tyranny’ shows nothing more, than the way in which globalist-capitalist parties capitalize on right-wing populist sentiments and disguises the democratic challenge into a thin centered rhetoric. All the same, Bolton’s ‘troika of tyranny’ is leading to the invocation of a post-Cold War hypothesis of liberal internationalism in the foreign policy of Latin America and Caribbean states, the embrace of tribalism, and Manicheanism, and accentuates a domain, where, the stock market becomes a more favorable place for investors.

Besides, US President Trump, has officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela, leaving critics to wonder if this is another switch to right wing populism in Latin America.

Undoubtedly, the rise of left and far right populism threatens and weakens the portals of democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean. For this, liberal democracy must be made more transparent, participatory, and responsive amidst the social distress and increasing economic inequality that now entangles it. Both right- and left-wing populism in Latin America and the Caribbean, presents a threat to constitutional democratic procedures and institutions, because civil society, minority rights and the rule of law are omitted from the decision-making processes.

To this end, difficult times lies ahead in the struggle against right- and left-wing populism and liberal democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Its dire consequences will be fatal.



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