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date: 22 May 2019

Populism across the Andes during the 20th and Early 21st Centuries

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: classic populism, radical populism, neo-populism, nationalism, suffrage, popular sectors

Like other populisms, Andean populism is characterized by the rise of charismatic leaders who promise to renew society by representing the interests of ordinary people. The Andean nations have produced some of Latin America’s most notorious populist leaders, such as Peru’s Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Like their counterparts in other regions, Andean populists present politics as oppositional between elite and a “people” comprised of the working, middle, and indigenous classes. Organized sectors of these popular classes contribute to shape populist politics by negotiating space for their civic associations, such as mutual aid societies and unions, to act on the national stage and receive the backing of the national state. Disagreement among scholars about the very definition of populism continues to plague studies of this phenomenon.

The Andean region has seen two distinct populist periods: the “classic populism” of the 1920s–1960s and the most recent wave of populism of the 1990s to the present. The first populism was nationalistic and coincided with the transition to mass politics and efforts to diversity export economies and to industrialize. The second wave of populism has been associated with the neo-liberal adjustments of the 1980s and 1990s and their aftermath. This second wave presents two ideological variants: a right-leaning “neo-populism,” in which leaders implemented neo-liberal economic reforms, and a left-leaning “radical populism” that sought to correct the imbalances generated by these reforms.

Classic populism in the Andean nations shared a number of common features: a charismatic leader backed by a multiclass alliance; progressive social legislation to benefit the working and middle classes; the opening of the political arena to previously unrepresented social groups; and in Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela, agrarian reform and nationalization of certain key natural resources. Each populist movement has built on the strength of existing political organizations such as worker’s unions. The expansion of suffrage and agrarian reform opened the political arena to the influence of rural and often indigenous actors. Despite the heavily indigenous population of three of the Andean nations (Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador), populist political rhetoric during this period fostered a political identity based on class rather than ethnicity. In each country, classic populism eventually had given way by the 1980s to governments that implemented neo-liberal economic policies that paved the way, in turn, for a second phase of populism.

Significant divergences also existed between countries. The extent of reforms varied, from Bolivia’s revolutionary nationalizations and agrarian reform to Colombia’s absence of significant reforms following the assassination of its would-be populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. Factors such as the level of political mobilization in each society, the degree to which reforms were top-down or bottom up, the strength of the party apparatus associated with a populist leader, the linkages between civil society and the state, and the role of the military, all contributed to the unique type of populism in each of the Andean countries.

The Andean nations figure prominently in the more recent wave of populism. On one side of the political spectrum, the radical populists Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, whose nationalist and anti-imperialist discourse and redistributionist policies harken back to classic populism. On the other side, neo-populists like Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Ecuador’s Abdalá Bucaram, implemented neo-liberal policies. Despite the ideological difference between the two, these populisms have shared common features: the establishment of clientelistic politics to benefit poorer sectors of the population. For example, Fujimori used the earnings from the sale of government companies to support social programs intended to create a strong personal bond between president and people. Populist leaders have often successfully prolonged their presidencies by modifying constitutions to allow for their own re-election.

Women have formed an integral part of populist movements in the Andes. Classic populists made overtures to women, in some cases by directly supporting women’s suffrage, and in others by claiming to stand for women’s rights. Yet rhetoric and practice diverged and classic populist leaders did not encourage women to take leadership positions. They mostly perpetuated traditional views of women as supporting change in their role as mothers. Nonetheless, women played an important role in the process of political mobilization and organization—for example numerous women worked at the grassroots level to support APRA in Peru. By contrast, during the second wave of populism, both Left and Right have openly promoted women into leadership positions, concurrent with a general trend in Latin America of a greater number of women in positions of power.

Many Andean populists framed politics in moral terms as a battle between a corrupt political system and new political actors seeking to renew society and correct social injustices. Peru’s Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre often described his struggle in religious terms promoting personal renewal through the adoption of Aprista values such as self-discipline that required sacrifice or even martyrdom. José María Velasco Ibarra spoke of politics in Ecuador as a struggle between good and evil. More recently, Hugo Chavez presented his entire revolution in terms of a radical transformation of Venezuela and a fight against the evil forces of US imperialism. He and other radical populists used constitutional reform as part of what they considered to be a moral battle. César Montúfar writes that they “incorporate a theological and refoundational dimension into their political project; and thus, they call for a militant attitude toward creating entirely new societies and states, by means of profound constitutional transformations.”1 Populists used technology to magnify their influence, first with the radio during the classic phase, and more recently with television.

Andean populism has a transnational dimension, inspired by Simón Bolivar, and first put into practice by Haya de la Torre when he founded his Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) as a pan-Latin American political movement. He envisioned a political alliance that would encompass all of Latin America and therefore strengthen its position vis a vis the United States. Haya saw the United States as both a threat and a potential opportunity for Latin American countries. The threat came from the power of US capital in relation to individual governments. While the United States wielded the power of capital over individual countries, a united Latin America could harness US investment in the interests of Latin American economic development; strong nationalist governments would together ensure an equitable distribution of wealth. Although Apra’s continentalism has remained only a dream, it continued to influence the most recent wave of radical populism as leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador forged ties with one another under a new formulation of Haya’s continentalism: Hugo Chávez’ Bolivarianism. Chávez created regional alliances such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA). Together with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Chávez envisioned his Bolivarian Revolution as a continental political transformation.


Bolivian populism emerged as a confluence of civilian and military politics. In the 1930s, two self-dubbed socialist military presidents, David Toro and Germán Busch, initiated the kind of nationalist and pro-worker reforms associated with populism. These reforms continued under the presidency of another military president, Guadalberto Villaroel (1943–1946) who received the backing of a newly formed party, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), the most emblematic of Bolivian populism. Led by Víctor Paz Estenssoro, the MNR emerged in a society with high levels of political mobilization among middle and a radicalized working classes (particularly the miners’ unions). The MNR began in the 1940s and challenged the control of a small elite—known colloquially as la rosca. MNR leader Víctor Paz Estenssoro won a plurality of votes in the 1951 election; the election would thus have to be decided in Congress. When the military prevented Paz Estenssoro from taking power, a civil uprising ensued. The MNR gave weapons to its civilian followers, both miners and campesinos, who helped to bring Paz Estenssoro to power in 1952.

During his four years as president, Paz Estenssoro dramatically restructured Bolivian society by implementing agrarian reform, nationalizing the country’s tin mines, and giving indigenous people the vote through the establishment of universal suffrage, without a literacy requirement. The MNR encouraged a class-based rather than ethnic-based political identity. Miners’ unions remained strong. The Mexican Revolution served as a template. The government even hired Mexican agricultural economist Edmundo Flores as an advisor on agrarian reform.

The MNR remained in power by reorganizing and obtaining the support of the army. The MNR was also unusual in that it obtained US support: Bolivia became Latin America’s largest recipient of US aid,and by the end of the 1950s, US oil companies were investing in the country. US influence increased with the imposition of an IMF stabilization program in 1956, and US help strengthened the Bolivian army. When he took office again in 1960, Paz Estenssoro moderated his position, distancing himself from leftist labor unions as he sought more internal support from campesinos and the military for a modernization program. Following agrarian reform, campesinos had become more conservative. The United States supported the regime with Alliance for Progress funds and saw it as a counterpart to the radicalism of the Cuban Revolution. Weakened by infighting between moderates and radicals, the MNR finally lost power to a military coup in 1964.

After decades of neo-liberal economic policies (ironically some enacted by an ideologically transformed Paz Estenssoro during his 1985–1989 presidency), Bolivia finally adopted a new form of radical populism when Evo Morales led his party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) to power in the 2006 presidential elections. Like Paz Estenssoro and the MNR before him, Evo Morales arose from an active civil society with high levels of political mobilization. Morales originally made his name as union leader (dirigente) of coca farmers. As John Crabtree points out, “what makes the Bolivian experience unusual is the importance of participation within social movements and the responsiveness and accountability of the dirigentes. As a dirigente, Morales sees the need to make himself accountable to them, as well as to use their backing for his own political purposes.”2 Morales is considered a key figure in the recent wave of radical populism, also known as the Pink Tide that has swept Latin America since the turn of the 21st century.

Unlike the earlier, classical populism based on the language of class, Morales added a strong ethnic component to his political platform. He adopted the classic populist rhetoric that emphasized the divide between the elite and the people, but the people now included Bolivia’s indigenous population. Despite the use of anti-imperialist rhetoric (particularly denouncing the United States for its attempts to eradicate coca cultivation). and despite the socialist label in his party’s name, Morales continued to promote a mixed economy that included continued foreign investment.


Colombia’s would-be “classical populist” leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, belonged to the Liberal Party. During the 1940s, he pushed the party platform to the Left with his proposed program of land reform and a populist rhetoric that he displayed masterfully given his gifts as a public speaker. When he sought the nomination from the Liberal party to run for president, he ended up splitting the party, which ran two candidates in 1946 (Gaitán and Gabriel Turbay) and lost to the Conservatives. Gaitán famously called the bluff on Colombian elite control of politics by distinguishing between the political country from the national country. He created his own brand of popular liberalism, gaitanismo, and eventually took control as leader of the Liberal party in 1947.

On April 9, 1948, an assassin shot and killed Gaitán as he left his law office. His assassination sparked a massive riot in Bogotá, known as the Bogotazo, and initiated a ten-year period of violence, known as La Violencia, that ended in 1958 with a power-sharing agreement between the Conservative and Liberal parties. Leftist guerrillas then emerged to challenge the Colombian state. The Cuban Revolution further emboldened political groups ready to take up arms against the government. Arguably, Gaitán’s assassination left a populist power vacuum. This created a polarized political scene in which the country’s economic elites retained political power through the two historic parties, Liberal and Conservative, while the popular challenge to this political power took the form of an armed struggle led by Marxist guerrillas (the main ones: Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia [FARC] and Ejercito de Liberación Nacional [ELN]); this has abated only recently with the signing of the 2016 Peace Accords between the government and FARC.

A brief populist moment that interrupted the traditional party system occurred under Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who staged a military coup and became president from 1953 to 1957. He gave women the vote in 1954, in the hopes of gaining their support in the next election; he made overtures to workers; and he put his daughter at the head of a newly created charitable foundation. With the help of the military, Conservatives and Liberals removed Rojas Pinilla and made a power-sharing pact known as the National Front that reestablished the two-party system. Rojas Pinilla attempted a comeback, supported by his political movement, Alianza Nacional Popular (ANAPO) and almost won the presidency in 1970. After that, ANAPO lost strength and ended on the margins of the political system, transformed into a small guerrilla group, the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19).

More recently, people have identified President Alvaro Uribe (2002–2010) as a populist, although he lacks some of the elements that have characterized neo-populists. At a time when Colombia had descended into violence stemming from both the drug trade and the ongoing guerrilla war with FARC and other smaller groups, Uribe ran on the platform of providing security to Colombians. His platform included a populist discourse presenting himself as a savior for Colombia from violence. His success combatting violence gained him wide popularity and allowed him to modify the Constitution to reelect himself. However, he may stretch the definition of populism: he did not exploit class divisions, use the state for redistributive purposes, nor attempt to incorporate the masses into a political movement to support him. His inability to engineer a second reelection attests to the persistent strength of democratic institutions in Colombia, particularly the justice system, in limiting presidential power.


The crisis of the oligarchic political order in Ecuador gave way to classic populism in the figure of José María Velasco Ibarra, elected five separate times as president: between 1934 and 1972. Only once (1952–1956) did he complete his term; the other four times the military deposed him through a coup. He had the archetypal rhetorical style of the populist leader and allegedly said, “Give me a balcony, and I will be president.” Velasco Ibarra emerged as a strong critic of a corrupt political system dominated by Liberals and Conservatives, and fought for free elections. In 1944, he mobilized his followers—whom he referred to as the chusma (rabble)—to start a popular uprising against a newly elected president, called a constitutional convention and was named president.

Velasco Ibarra brought a strong moral dimension to Ecuadorian politics with a populist discourse that denounced rigged elections and cast the oligarchy as an enemy of the people. He came to symbolize a movement in favor of democracy. He benefitted from the expansion of women’s suffrage in Ecuador—women had received the vote in 1929. “Velasco Ibarra played a crucial role in attracting female voters. Not only did he expand women’s education, but he portrayed females as moral guardians of society (like himself).”3 He thus brought more middle-class women into the electorate. He also promoted women’s education.

Despite these discursive similarities to other populists, Velasco Ibarra’s status as a populist is controversial. During his many presidencies, he never instituted the type of structural reforms associated with most classic populist leaders. Scholars disagree about his relationship to the oligarchy; many Ecuadorean scholars label him as a conservative. With his highly personalist political style, Velasco Ibarra showed no interest in establishing a political party. His followers did eventually form the Partido Velasquista. By his last presidency, students and union workers had united against him. Even so, many Ecuadorians still remember him as a symbol of honesty and moral strength.

He became an almost mythical figure. Historian Agustín Cueva, who witnessed some of his political rallies, wrote of one in May 1944: “Lean and ascetic, the caudillo lifted his arms, as if trying to reach the height of the bells extolling him. At the climax of the ceremony, his face, his eyes, even his voice, more pointed toward heaven. His bodily tension had something of crucifixion, and the whole rite evoked a passion in which both the words and the mise-en-sc[e]ne pointed to a dramatic, if not tragic, sense of existence.”4

By the 1950s, Carlos Guevara Moreno and Assad Bucarám founded a rival populist movement, the Concentration of Popular Forces (CFP), and gained ground in Guayaquil and the coastal regions among a growing urban population resulting from the explosive growth of cities due to migration from the countryside. The CFP never gained the kind of traction that had sustained Velasco Ibarra.

The resurgence of populism in Ecuador in the 1990s took two different ideological directions: the neo-populists, Abdalá Bucaram and Lucio Gutierrez, who implemented neo-liberal policies and the radical populist, Rafael Correa, whose ideology resembled that of the classic populist Velasco Ibarra. Bucaram and Gutierrez ruled very briefly during a period of great instability that saw five different presidents come and go over the course of the decade from 1997 to 2007. In 2006, Ecuadoreans elected Rafael Correa, a populist who rejected his predecessors’ neo-liberal reforms. Yet Correa’s political movement lacked deep roots in Ecuadorian civil society. As a result, his was a top-down rather than bottom-up political movement: “In the strict sense, Correa’s movement is not a citizens’ revolution—it is not a movement emerging from below; instead, it is a revolution from above, a revolution created by the executive branch.”5 Like Velasco Ibarra before him, Correa brought a strong moral dimension to politics that portrayed existing political parties (the partidocracia) as corrupt and sought to establish a new and more just society. Skilled at image management, Correa touted his role as an outsider and governed as though he was running a permanent campaign.

Correa transformed Ecuador’s institutions through legal reforms: a new constitution (2008) strengthened presidential power, weakened the liberal state by reaffirming collective rights such as those of minorities and invited greater citizen participation through frequent plebiscites. Yet he often clashed with Ecuador’s indigenous people, many of whom had been mobilizing since the 1990s through the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). High oil prices allowed Correa to fund social programs that redistributed wealth toward the poor. Correa established close connections to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales and envisioned his political movement as part of a broader continental and global movement toward a new society, labelled as socialist. After Correa stepped down in 2017, his successor Lenin Moreno, who had served for some years as Correa’s vice-president, distanced himself from the populism of his predecessor.


Unlike Ecuador’s populist leader, Peru’s most famous “classic populist,” Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, never gained the presidency. In 1931, he lost the election that brought mestizo Colonel Sánchez Cerro to power. Both ran populist style campaigns that may have been the first of their kind in Latin America. APRA’s campaign included speeches and rallies led by Aprista leader Magda Portal, the first woman to take such a visibly political role in Peru. Despite losing the election and facing decades of political persecution, Haya de la Torre consolidated his party APRA as Peru’s strongest political party. He built his party with the support of existing unions and other worker and middle-class associations.

With a political doctrine, Aprismo, intended for the entire continent, APRA had a wide-ranging impact on parties from Chile to Venezuela to Cuba. The doctrine incorporated ideas of nationalism and anti-imperialism drawn directly from the experience of the Mexican Revolution and the Mexican Constitution of 1917. Yet APRA remained persecuted in Peru for thirty years, and Haya de la Torre was legally banned from running for president until 1962. By this time, the party had moved to the right, and the populist mantle had passed on to the young architect, Fernando Belaúnde Terry, and his party Acción Popular, who won the presidency in 1963. Yet Belaúnde remained hampered in his efforts at reform, in part by APRA congressional opposition, and his government ended in 1968 with a military coup. Earlier governments that kept APRA illegal incorporated certain populist features: conservative dictator General Manuel Odría (1948–1956) supported social programs, and his wife María Delgado de Odría, became a visible face of government charity toward the poor, loosely styled on Eva Perón.

Full-fledged populist reforms finally arrived in Peru in 1968. General Juan Velasco Alvarado took power, forming a left-leaning military government unique in Latin America at the time. Velasco implemented a sweeping agrarian reform, nationalized the International Petroleum Company (a subsidiary of Standard Oil) and numerous other foreign companies, and implemented educational reforms including teaching the indigenous language, Quechua, as an official language. While the military was able to implement the nationalist reforms that APRA had proposed almost four decades earlier, Velasco, although well loved by many Peruvians (his funeral in drew tens of thousands of people), never succeeded in creating an APRA-like grassroots movement to support his top-down reforms. A combination of illness and a grave economic crisis weakened his government and set the stage for another General, Francisco Morales Bermudez, to take power, put a halt to Velasco’s “revolution” and led the country back to democracy and to the eventual embrace of neo-liberal economics.

Peru experienced another period of leftist populism in 1985, when it elected its first Aprista president, Alan Garcia. A master of the populist style, García periodically appeared on the balcony of the government palace to address the people directly. Yet sensitive to decades of accusations that APRA represented a sectarian movement, García purposely stayed away from the divisive us-versus-them discourse of populism; he ran with the campaign slogan “A president for all Peruvians.” García never strayed in his support of liberal democracy. He carried on the tradition of Haya’s continentalist vision and proposed that Latin American countries jointly challenge the international financial community by paying only 10% of export earnings to service the foreign debt. The move isolated Peru from the international financial community. After attempting to nationalize the banking system, García met full on opposition in the streets, led by Peru’s novelist turned politician, Mario Vargas Llosa (Nobel Literature Prize, 2010). Caught in the debt crisis that plagued the region and challenged by the Shining Path terrorists, García’s government ended disastrously in a spiral of hyperinflation. Every successive government has followed the neo-liberal libretto.

In 1990, Peru made a 180-degree turn when it elected an outsider Alberto Fujimori as president. Fujimori implemented one of the most extreme neo-liberal programs in Latin America. Travelling the country, often wearing the traditional indigenous poncho, he developed a highly personalist style of politics, condemned the entire system of political parties, and reached out to the poorest sectors of the population. Using resources from the privatization of state-owned companies, Fujimori built roads and schools and engaged in the clientelistic politics typical of populist leaders. He personally inaugurated public works and even delivered computers to the schools in small villages that former governments had ignored. Isabel Macalopu, a life-long Aprista who had recently settled in Ciudad Pachacutec (a shantytown, known as a pueblo joven, on the outskirts of Lima) fondly remembers Fujimori for having sent the army to provide breakfast for her and others who had settled the bare hills on the outskirts of the city

Over the course of his decade in power, Fujimori became increasingly authoritarian. In 1993, he altered the constitution to allow for re-election, capitalized on his defeat of the terrorist group Shining Path to concentrate power in the executive, and used his National Intelligence Service to persecute his political opponents. He effectively used the media as a form of state propaganda and often appeared on television at campaign-style events wearing the traditional poncho associated with Peru’s indigenous people. Following his attempt to begin a third term with a rigged election in 2000, his government collapsed amidst a corruption scandal in which videos surfaced of Vladimiro Montesinos, the head of national intelligence, bribing politicians and businessmen by handing them wads of dollar bills. Fujimori resigned in disgrace via FAX from Japan, where he had travelled on official government business. Despite a subsequent trial and imprisonment for human rights abuses when his government was fighting terrorism, Fujimori remains popular to this day among poorer sectors of the Peruvian population that received benefits from his governments. His daughter Keiko, although she twice lost the race for the presidency, remains one of the most powerful politicians in Peru today.

Ollanta Humala, an army captain turned presidential candidate, might have been Peru’s equivalent of Evo Morales in Bolivia or Rafael Correa in Ecuador had he won the 2006 election. At the time, he ran a nationalist campaign denouncing neo-liberalism and capitalizing on his dark skin to self-identify as a representative of the country’s majority, despite the fact that Humala harkened from an upper-middle class background. He sought a greater role for the state. Although he won some of Peru’s most heavily indigenous states, he lost in many of the coastal provinces. When he ran again and won the presidency in 2011, he had moderated his political platform, continued with neo-liberal policies, and was no longer a populist.


Venezuela’s classic populist leader, Rómulo Betancourt, began his political career as a student activist at Caracas’ Central University by opposing the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez (1908–1935). During his years in exile, he met Peru’s Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre and, like him, developed a pragmatic political outlook that rejected the Communist International’s vision of a working-class revolution. Upon his return to Venezuela, he combined the charismatic touch of a populist leader with strong organizational skills that allowed him to build a strong political party, Acción Democrática, creating a long-lasting institutional base for his political movement. Yet Betancourt shunned the kind of publicity and self-promotion often associated with populist leaders. According to Robert Alexander, “Rómulo Betancourt has a personal abhorrence of anything approaching demagoguery.”6 He did not engage in the kind of popular mobilization so typical of regimes such as that of Perón in Argentina.

In 1945, Betancourt came to power, with the support of the military, as the candidate for Acción Democrática. This period of AD rule is known as the Trienio. Backed by a multiclass nationalist coalition, Betancourt rapidly introduced classic populist reforms that included raising wages for the working class, agrarian reform, and expansion of the suffrage. AD rule was cut short by a military coup in 1948 and was followed by the decade-long repressive dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Politically more of a moderate, Betancourt was democratically elected to a second term and served from 1959 to 1964.

During his first presidency, Betancourt implemented a number of reforms to modernize Venezuela and diversify its economy. He introduced the secret ballot, gave women the vote, implemented agrarian reform, and made improvements in schooling, transportation, and light industry intended to benefit the country’s poor. He funded these efforts by implementing a 50% tax on the oil revenues of foreign companies operating in Venezuela. His youthful socialism had now become a nationalism based on a mixed economy. Robert Alexander writes: “The Betancourt and Gallegos administrations of 1945 to 1948 were revolutionary in the sense that they sought to bring about a fundamental alteration of the economic and social structure of the republic.”7 The government encouraged unionization—the number of unions increased during these three years from 252 to 1014. The number of political parties also increased. A Constituent Assembly drafted a new progressive constitution, inspired by the Mexican Constitution of 1917.

Betancourt’s second government, with its efforts to preserve democracy and balance the interests of labor with those of private enterprise, lacked the hallmarks of classic populism. In the context of the Cuban Revolution and its promotion of the Latin American Left, Betancourt stood out clearly as a moderate democrat. Oil-based nationalism did continue: Betancourt created the Venezuela Petroleum Corporation and the Organization of Petroleum Producing Countries. Both of these established the foundations for a particular brand of nationalism that would continue to define Venezuelan politics.

Venezuela’s second wave of populism began with the election of Hugo Chávez as president in 1999. His outspoken nationalist style and deep structural reforms quickly made Chávez the most emblematic figure of the wave of radical populism that swept the Andean region at the outset of the 21st century. Chávez ended neo-liberal economics and redirected the enormous revenues from the state oil company PDVSA to social programs that helped lift millions of Venezuelans temporarily out of poverty. Although he labelled his movement socialist, Venezuela continued to rely on a mixed economy. His regime echoed classic populism in both content and form. Twenty-first century media technology allowed him to go much further than his mid-20th century forbearers. In a weekly television show, Aló Presidente, Chávez established direct contact with “the people” by taking calls from ordinary Venezuelans. He made special appeals to women, who participated overwhelming as volunteers for “Bolivarian revolution.”

During his fourteen years as president, Chávez rapidly consolidated power and exercised an authoritarian style of government. He modified the constitution to allow him to remain in power almost indefinitely. His media strategy became one of attacking and even closing down opposition media outlets. Chavez maintained his popularity by constantly holding elections and plebiscites to bolster his legitimacy, running what one scholar has called a “permanent campaign.”

Chávez embraced a continentalist platform and looked to Bolivar as an inspiration: he renamed Venezuela as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, forged close ties with leaders Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, in addition to his strong ties to Cuba, and attempted to create a strong regional economic alliance, the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA). The state channel Telesur contributed to promote this strategy by broadcasting to countries outside Venezuela. As a charismatic figure, Chávez dominated the Venezuelan political scene and became a champion for the poor against an elite and a political class portrayed as corrupt. Following Chavez’ death in 2013, his successor Nicolás Maduro has struggled to keep Chavez’ revolution going. Without Chavez’ charisma, and struggling with falling oil prices, Maduro now presides over an economy plagued with scarcity and hyperinflation that may bring an end to Venezuela’s experiment with radical populism.

Andean Nations and Latin American Populism

While it shares a number of characteristics with Latin American populism, Andean populism also has some unique features that set it apart from the Argentine, Brazilian, and Mexican experiences that have shaped our understanding of Latin American populism. Most importantly in the classic stage of populism, Andean populism occurred in societies with much lower levels of industrialization than those of Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil—it is therefore difficult to link populism in the Andes to the particular set of economic policies known as import-substitution industrialization. A more distinctive feature of Andean populism in the classic stage has been its efforts to fight for free elections and to broaden the political arena in both urban and rural areas.

The Andean nations have played an important role in Latin American populism. The first populist election occurred in Peru in 1931. The most influential populist ideologue, Haya de la Torre, hailed from an Andean nation, and Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador played a crucial role in the resurgence of radical populism, often dubbed “The Pink Wave” in the region. Like Haya before them, Correa, Morales, and Chávez have adopted an internationalist outlook with a call for a nationalist and anti-imperialist continent-wide political movement. As these leaders of the second wave of populism fade from power, time will tell whether their legacies become institutionalized through lasting political parties. All of these factors suggest that Andean populism not only deserves further study to understand it on its own merits but also to the degree that it has influenced Latin American populism more generally.

Discussion of the Literature

Beyond the consensus that populism emerges at times when existing social and political institutions reach a critical point at which they are unable to satisfy the demands of large sectors of society, scholars disagree on the definition of populism, making it a contested concept. Much of the scholarship on populism takes a structural approach that links populism to a specific historical stage in Latin American economic and social development. For example, classic populism emerged with the crisis of export-economies in Latin America following the Great Depression, the growth of the working and middle class, and the implementation of import substitution industrialization policies. The more recent radical populism and neo-populism arise in the context of the deep neo-liberal reforms implemented during the 1980s and 1990s throughout the region.

A second approach emphasizes the political and discursive nature of populism as a political style that can be deployed in different historical contexts regardless of the ideological content. Ernesto Laclau has highlighted the oppositional and constructed nature of “the people” in populist discourse as a category used to attack the existing political establishment. While the discursive definition of populism offers the advantage of greater flexibility, to encompass a number of different populist regimes, an emphasis purely on discourse analysis can also border on imprecision if applied to any political movement that promises reforms in the name of “the people” in opposition to an elite.

The most recent wave of populisms calls for a greater methodological flexibility that takes into account both the notion of a particular populist moment, during which existing political institutions can no longer accommodate new emerging needs (or needs that are in the process of being defined), and the emphasis on the discursive definition that Panizza describes as: “a political appeal that seeks to change the terms of political discourse, articulate new social relations, redefine political frontiers, and constitute new identities.”8

On the contested topic of the relationship between populism and democracy, Andean populism may also hold important theoretical lessons. Despite the authoritarian tendencies of populist governments throughout the region, populism exhibits some democratic features in its expansion of the political arena to encourage political participation by traditionally excluded social groups. Many of the Andean country’s populists, such as Venezuela’s Rómulo Betancourt and Ecuador’s Velasco Ibarra, fought for democratic reform in their countries. Scholars agree that whatever its democratic tendencies, populism often undermines representative democracy by fostering a simplistic view of democracy in which a charismatic leader acts to fulfill the needs of “the people” broadly conceived. While populism is often associated with import substitution industrialization based on the experiences of Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, Andean populism cannot clearly be associated with industrialization that has remained incipient in most countries. While populism has been characterized as primarily an urban phenomenon, the experiences of Bolivia and Peru add an important rural dimension.

Studies of Andean populism must engage with broader theoretical discussions on populism, including addressing questions of gender. There is no extensive literature that focuses exclusively on Andean populism. Rather, studies of each of the Andean countries appear as part of edited volumes on Latin America—works such as Michael Conniff’s two books, Latin American Populism in Comparative Perspective and Populism in Latin America, and Carlos de la Torre and Cynthia J. Arnson’s Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century.9 Individual studies of the Andean experience of classic populism call into question certain assumptions that link Latin American classic populism to import substitution industrialization. Further theoretical reflections on Andean populism could help to refine our understanding both of Andean populism and of Latin American populism more generally.

A number of topics require further study. The role of women in populism remains to be researched in much greater depth, as well as the relationship between populism and feminism in the Andean nations. Other topics that deserve further exploration are the persistence of a discourse that reinforced traditional gender roles, yet also promoted a more public role for women, and in the more recent wave of populism, the opening of leadership positions for women. Further research is also necessary on the role of both populist leaders and supporters in populist movements. The transnational connections of populist movements to their counterparts in other Latin American countries and to the United States will also provide a promising line of research.

Primary Sources

Scholars studying populism in the Andes can consult at least five types of primary sources: personal papers and documents of populist leaders, sources pertaining to ordinary people in populist movements, government documents in Andean countries, newspapers and political pamphlets, and diplomatic reports from abroad, such as those found in the National Archives (College Park, Maryland) and the Public Records Office (London). In addition, oral history can offer a valuable addition to the documentary record in the study of populism.

The papers of populist leaders provide an excellent source for the study of populism. The availability of such sources varies by country. Scholarly Resources, Inc. has given easy access to The Papers of Rómulo Betancourt (microfilm) by making them available for purchase. The Universidad Nacional de Colombia houses the Fondo Documental Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. By contrast, for the study of Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, no single collection houses his papers. Scholars must therefore turn to the archives of individuals with whom he corresponded, such as the Magda Portal Papers at University of Texas in Austin, the Luis Alberto Sánchez Papers at Pennsylvania State University, the Anna Melissa Graves Papers at Swarthmore College, and the Armando Villanueva Papers, to be held at a yet to be determined university in Peru. The aforementioned Papers of Magda Portal provide valuable information on the life of one of the most powerful women in APRA’s leadership from 1928 to 1948.

When available, documents pertaining to ordinary people within populist parties offer further insight “from below” on the history of Andean populism. Yet such documentary evidence may simply not be available or may be difficult to locate. Researchers should be persistent and may find collections equivalent to that of APRA labor leader Arturo Sabroso held at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. When the documentary trail becomes too faint, oral history can be of great help. An excellent published example of one such oral history is Doña Maria’s Story: Life, History, Memory and Political Identity by Daniel James.

Scholars will need to search national and regional archives and national libraries in the country of interest to locate official documentation on populist parties, although the transfer of government documents to historical archives is neither a smooth nor a consistent process throughout the region.

Many different types of archives in both Latin America and the United States hold collections of political pamphlets and newspapers associated with populist movements. For example, APRA political pamphlets and newspapers can be found at Lima’s Biblioteca Nacional, MNR political pamphlets can be found in the Herbert S. Klein Collection at the Hoover Institution Library at Stanford University, and recent political literature from Venezuela (as well as the politics of some other Andean nations) can be found at the Latin American Ephemera in Microfilms and Special Collections at Princeton University.

Finally, diplomatic papers from the national archives of countries outside the Andean region can be very valuable for the study of populism. The National Archives in College Park, Maryland holds extensive documentation on political events in Latin America and on foreign relations between populist governments and the United States. For example, Thomas Field’s From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era relied on documents in the National Archives on US-Bolivian relations.10

Unfortunately, Latin America lacks a tradition of establishing presidential libraries. It is difficult to imagine at this point how scholars could access the correspondence and official papers of leaders such as Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Alberto Fujmori. Scholars interested in studying the most recent wave of populism in the Andes may have to engage in some political activism of their own to pressure governments and individuals to create the archives necessary for the study of recent Andean political history.

Further Reading

Alexander, Robert, The Venezuelan Democratic Revolution. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1964.Find this resource:

Conniff, Michael, ed. Latin American Populism in Comparative Perspective. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Conniff, Michael, ed. Populism in Latin America. 2nd ed. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Cueva, Agustín. The Process of Political Domination in Ecuador. Translated by Danielle Salti. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1982.Find this resource:

Cuvi, Pablo. Velasco Ibarra, el último caudillo de la oligarquía. Quito, Peru: Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas, 1977.Find this resource:

De la Torre, Carlos, and Cynthia J. Arnson, eds. Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Dunkerley, James. “Evo Morales, the ‘Two Bolivias’ and the Third Bolivian Revolution.” Journal of Latin American Studies 39, no. 1 (2007), 133–166.Find this resource:

Garcia-Bryce, Iñigo. Haya de la Torre and the Pursuit of Power in Peru and Latin America. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 2018.Find this resource:

Germani, Gino. Autoritarismo, Fascismo y Populismo Nacional. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Temas, 2003.Find this resource:

Hawkins, Kirk. Venezuela’s Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

James, Daniel. Doña Maria’s Story: Life, History, Memory and Political Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Jansen, Robert. Revolutionizing Repertoires: The Rise of Populist Mobilization in Peru. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Kampwirth, Karen, ed. Gender and Populism in Latin America: Passionate Politics. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Laclau, Erneto. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism. London: NLB, 1977.Find this resource:

Lazar, Sian. El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Malloy, James, and Richard S. Thorn, eds. Beyond the Revolution: Bolivia Since 1952. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971.Find this resource:

Mitchell, Christopher. The Legacy of Populism in Bolivia: From the MNR to Military Rule. New York: Praeger, 1977.Find this resource:

Panizza, Francisco, ed. Populism and the Mirror of Democracy. London: Verso, 2005.Find this resource:

Sharpless, Richard. Gaitán of Colombia: A Political Biography. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978.Find this resource:

Stein, Steve. Populism in Peru: The Emergence of the Masses and the Politics of Social Control. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.Find this resource:

Velasco, Alejandro. Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.Find this resource:


(1.) César Montúfar, “Rafael Correa and His Plebiscitary Citizens’ Revolution,” in Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Carlos De la Torre and Cynthia J. Arnson (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2013), 296.

(2.) John Crabtree, “From the MNR to the MAS: Populism, Parties, the State and Social Movements in Bolivia since 1952,” in Latin American Populism, ed. De la Torre and Arnson, 292.

(3.) Ximena Sossa-Buchholz, “Changing Images of Male and Female in Ecuador: José María Velasco Ibarra and Abdalá Bucaram,” in Gender and Populism in Latin America: Passionate Politics, ed. Karen Kampwirth (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 56.

(5.) César Montúfar, “Rafael Correa,” in Latin American Populism, ed. De la Torre and Arnson, 299.

(7.) Alexander, Venezuelan Democratic Revolution, 29.

(10.) Thomas Field, From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).