Hugo Chávez, Lula da Silva, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro. Six leaders who have marked Latin American politics in recent decades. Six strong men who, in some way, have been the waves of the so-called red, or pink tide, that pink tide that journalist Will Grant dissects in Populist! (Head of Zeus), an ambitious account of the direction of the left that dominated the recent history of the continent. From Venezuela to Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua or Cuba, the BBC correspondent spins an extensive chronicle through the portraits of these political figures. With a serene gaze, documented over years of observation and work in the field, Grant – today responsible for the information of Mexico, Cuba and Central America – dispels myths and at the same time offers the essential nuances to understand a deeply complex phenomenon.
What is clear is that the populism of the 21st century in Latin America is not a completely uniform bloc and this is reflected in the projects of the book protagonists and in their inheritances. In effect, the governments of Lula da Silva or Correa and the insane path undertaken by Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, were not the same. The Chávez who came to power and the one who tried to perpetuate himself in it is not even exactly the same leader. But all of them, based on the omnipresent influence of Fidel Castro, which runs through and determines each of their stories, have common features: the supposed charismatic or even autocratic leadership And, of course, the appropriation of the word "people." "I am the people and the people are you, so you have to vote for me because I am you," sums up Grant in a conversation with EL PAÍS.
“I started with the book because when I started to cover issues related to the red tide, the pink tide, many, both among the editors and in the audience, had a somewhat monolithic concept of the phenomenon, as if it were a homogeneous block, as if there were no differences. That bothered me as a reporter because it was as if we were losing subtleties and nuances, ”says the journalist, who has covered all the major crises on the continent in recent years.
The format of the chronicle, the profile and the analysis has allowed it to show, from the arrival of Chávez in 1999 to the death of Castro in 2016, the antecedents of that tide and, of course, its exhaustion and drift. In Grant's opinion, these leaders "did share a moment, and to some extent, a vision of Latin America to the left or the use of natural resources for those most in need." However, "then their projects changed, or fell apart or caused, in a different way, disappointment, but they did start with a common point."
The populist discourse tends to impose not only an agenda, but also a language: the words with which these leaders, in some cases caudillos, wanted or want to talk about them and their projects. This caused a boomerang effect in his public representation. That is to say, around them everything was black or white. "Lights and shadows were missing, because a general image was offered," says Grant, who according to the publisher illustrated the cover of the book with two opposing profiles of Chávez and Jair Bolsonaro, the current president of Brazil. Because populism is also a transversal trend. Donald Trump is another example, and as the reporter writes, he prospered thanks to a "permanent campaign."
“I recognize that there is a point of humor, of provocation, in the title and on the cover of the book. Sometimes I make a joke that he is between exclamations, but he could have been between questions. What they have in common is the way they tried to use the concept of town. The problem is that there comes a time when they end up losing their real connection with the people and clinging to power, ”says the journalist. His reflection on the possible return of that tide -the cancellation of the sentences of Lula da Silva allows him, for example, to be a candidate again, in Bolivia the MAS returned to power, but Ecuador decided this Sunday to turn the page of correísmo- has various nuances. Grant is cautious. “Let's see what happens with Lula. These characters have so much energy and popular power that it would be a mistake to exclude them from the political frameworks of their countries. But I think that if they came back, they wouldn't come back in the same way. Lula's 2002 moment is not Lula's 2022 moment. Evo has returned, but for now he is not president. Ten years ago Chávez was untouchable, Lula was untouchable ”, he points out.
In the end, each chapter of the book leaves the door open to any possibility. “Those men were successful because of the needs of the voters they had. They came to power because someone was needed to represent a change from the past, "he says. That is precisely what Andrés Manuel López Obrador is trying to demonstrate in Mexico today, that if he had won the elections in 2006 he would appear in this chronicle today. But since then, generations have changed and even in Cuba, the most politicized country on the continent, there are signs of pragmatism in the youngest people who simply want to dream of a better life.
The history of the so-called left-wing populism at the beginning of the century had its origin in Cuba. "Fidel gave them the gravitate politics that especially young people did not have. Fidel received Chávez on the (airstrip) when he was a candidate, knowing that as president he could solve many of Cuba's problems. What the moment of the red tide did was legitimize Cuba, ”Grant reasons. From that relationship, the category of Castro-Chavism was born. Which, basically, shows that "when things go wrong on the left in Latin America, they go wrong in Cuba as they are at the moment, while when things went well they also improved in Cuba."
Subscribe here to newsletter from EL PAÍS América and receive all the informative keys of the current situation of the region.