Populist politics found fertile ground in the Andean nations both during the classic phase (1930s–1960s) and during the most recent wave of populism with its two ideological variants, neo-populism (Right) and radical populism (Left), from the 1990s to the present. During the classic stage, charismatic populist leaders forged new political movements that unified organized sectors of the popular and middle classes to challenge elite dominance of politics. These leaders captivated their followers with superb oratory and a political discourse that opposed the interests of ordinary people to those of the elite. Populist governments spearheaded processes of social and political reform that expanded the political arena and promoted economic nationalism and state-control of key resources such as oil. In Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela, they implemented agrarian reforms inspired by the Mexican post-revolutionary model. While less visible, the popular sectors (working classes, indigenous campesinos, and middle classes) contributed to the shape of populism by negotiating a place for themselves in national politics.
The Andean experience calls into question structuralist theories that have established a link between classic populism and import-substitution industrialization, based primarily on the study of Brazil and Argentina. Populism in the Andes often went hand in hand with a push for the expansion of democracy, as for example in Venezuela, where Rómulo Betancourt rose to prominence by fighting against the decades-long dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez; and in Ecuador, where José María Velasco Ibarra came to symbolize the struggle for free elections. In Colombia, the populist challenge vanished with the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948. In Bolivia, a new political party, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), brought its populist leader Víctor Paz Estenssoro to power with the support of the military and of armed workers, urban and rural. In Peru, Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre faced almost three decades of political persecution, never reached the presidency, yet managed to transform his party, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), into Peru’s strongest political force. The populism of the classic phase gave way to military governments during the 1970s and 1980s and to the eventual implementation of neo-liberal economic policies promoted by Washington.
The second wave of populism that swept Latin America beginning in the 1990s began in the Andes. Neo-populists such as Peru’s Alberto Fujimori implemented neo-liberal reforms while still engaging in the type of clientelistic politics that is associated with populists. The so-called “Pink Tide” of radical populism included Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, all of whom promoted nationalist policies and expanded social programs to the poorest sectors of the population. Each was elected as part of a backlash against the neo-liberal economic policies of the 1990s, and each took an aggressive stand against the United States. Chávez also promoted an internationalist vision that harkens back most overtly to Bolivar, yet also to the ideas of Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, who had originally attempted to make APRA a continent-wide political movement.