Populism in the West: Alive and Kickin'

March 3, 2017

It has been a while since a strikingly populist candidate has been a major contender in a  presidential election in the United States. Many think of William Jennings Bryan, the three-time nominee of the democratic party at the end of the 1800s, as one of the only other strongly populist presidential candidates in American history (Ramone, 2010). President Trump’s campaign can fairly be described as populist through his rhetoric against the elites on Capitol Hill, his appeal to working class voters, and most importantly his outsider status as a non-politician.

However, many are unfamiliar with how common populism has been in Latin America, especially during the 20th century. What is more, the “outsider” factor that certainly helped Trump gain the presidency has numerous parallels with many Latin American presidents and how they fared in office. This article will seek to explore the nature of populist outsiders in Latin America, and their varying degrees of success. This is useful in understanding how current and future populist leaders exercise power.

Before examining the profile of leaders, it is important to qualify the terms of categorization. An “outsider” to politics can be defined as as a candidate for the presidency with no recent experience in 1) elected office; 2) running for office; or 3) running a large, nationwide political organization. It is sensible to exclude candidates who were related to either a former president or leading political figure, in order to sort out political dynasticism, a marker of an ingroup status (Corrales, 2016).

Alberto Fujimori - Perú


A Peruvian of Japanese descent, Fujimori won the presidency in 1990 in a huge upset against world-renowned writer Mario Vargas Llosa, a fellow outsider in the political arena. Fujimori came from the academic world, having worked as a professor, dean, and then chancellor at the Universidad Nacional Agraria during the 1980s. He also hosted a TV show called "Concertando" from 1987 to 1989. Fujimori found strong support among poor Peruvians as an alternative to sitting president Alan García and the threat of neoliberal reforms proposed by Vargas Llosa.

While in office, Fujimori enacted necessary, but extremely painful economic austerity measures to control the rampant hyperinflation the country was experiencing. This hurt the poor, but ultimately benefitted the country and set up economic growth later in the decade. In 1992, in attempts to deal with the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), he dissolved congress with military backing, and only under international pressure did he reinstate it in 1995, having already rewritten the constitution (BBC, 2000). Because of his success in stabilizing the country, he easily won a second term. But when he announced his candidacy for a 3rd term (an act prohibited in his own constitution), many onlookers worldwide expressed disapproval and concern.

After winning again, scandals involving vote buying and other corrupt practices led Fujimori to renounce the presidency by fax from Japan and hold new elections. Since then, he has been imprisoned for human rights abuses and corruption, and his politics created the Fujimorista political party.

Hugo Chávez - Venezuela


Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez is one of the most well-known populist leaders in recent Latin American history. As a career military officer, he eventually became convinced of the need for a socialist government and led an unsuccessful military coup in 1992. After two years in prison, Chávez was released, and went on to form his own political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, winning the presidency in 1998. Chávez’ platform rested upon his commitment to improving the economy, under which the poor and much of the middle class were suffering due to painful neoliberal reforms that were in full swing by the late 1990s (Cannon, 2009). As soon as he rose to power, Chávez proceeded to eliminate checks and balances in the government, weaken Congress and place powerful friends and family members in high positions. Many criticized Chávez for the few people in senior government positions with experience in public administration.

There is much more to say about what Chávez did as president, but the main points are that he went on to win three more six-year terms, at times fending off coup attempts and mass social unrest. After creating his own radio and television program, the cult of personality of Chávez grew even stronger, and to this day, many Venezuelans defend the actions of their leader. During his terms, corruption and deficit spending were rampant, and the poor only received temporary and incomplete aid. Many blame his unsustainable economic policies for the current crisis plaguing the country. He died in March 2013 from a heart attack and colon cancer, and was succeeded by then-Vice President Nicolas Maduro. (Castillo and Hernández, 2013).

Rafael Correa - Ecuador


Correa is a highly educated economist who earned his PhD in the United States and taught economics for years at the University of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador. In 2005 he was appointed minister of the economy and finance in the federal government. After he defied the World Bank’s stringent budget allocations that left little to support the many poor in Ecuador, the Bank cancelled Ecuador’s loan and in 2006 Correa resigned. Many people still supported his efforts even his resignation (Hedgecoe, 2009).

Although largely unknown to the public at the time, Correa ran for president in 2006, forming the PAIS Alliance (“Proud and Sovereign Fatherland Alliance) and uniting disjoint leftist groups. He emphasized his image as a macho family man of modest origins angry with political elites, and characterized his candidacy as “a citizen’s revolution” against the corrupt and those tied to American imperialism. The fact that Correa learned Quichua when younger and was able to speak with a large proportion of indigenous Ecuadorians gave him a unique advantage and he won the runoff election with 57 percent of the votes (Conaghan and De la Torre, 2009).

Correa, who is the current sitting president, has been known for his confrontational approach with the IMF, his dedication to serving the poor, and a highly critical view of media and the press. He has taken legal action against newspaper editors for defamation claims, and has had strong success as a politician, winning two more consecutive terms.

Trump y los demás (Trump and everyone else)

Some common trends can be found among these populist Latin American presidents and the characteristics of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidential actions. First, all of the candidates have represented themselves as aligned with the poor and disgruntled workers of their respective populations, promising to take down political elites and make real change that benefits the margins of society. It has helped each president get into office and consistently brought a second term. Although these three individuals were outsiders to politics before running for the presidency, they all had clout from either a military or academic background that legitimized their know-how and leadership abilities. All of the presidents certainly emphasized seeking the nation’s well-being first and foremost, and defied the status quo by beginning their terms by making quick changes, all in the name of the people. Finally, these individuals had charismatic personalities and experience with being in the media spotlight before stepping into the presidency.

It is easy to see the connections between these presidents and president Donald Trump. Although he was an outsider to politics, he had clout from his financial and commercial success, along with his presence in the media through his television show and other appearances. His campaign has emphasized putting American industries and workers first and “draining the swamp” of political elites. Much like Correa, he has had an aggressive and turbulent relationship with the press, and like Chávez, has put many friends and family who lack experience in public affairs in high places.

Still, in some ways Donald Trump differs from the aforementioned populists. He is one of the only candidates to specifically target and speak negatively about minority populations and women during his campaign and does not come from the academic world or the military like those mentioned earlier. He has also faced strong opposition of much of the population since the day he was elected and is leading in a much more stable, developed democratic system than in the other countries. More than anything, he has only been in office for a few weeks, and is still in the beginning stages of acclimating to the new position.

Future Considerations

Even so, some predictions can be made about how Trump’s term could go in these next four years based on the other populist leaders. As long as no major scandal mars his legitimacy and his electorate see the results they want, Trump could certainly be eligible to run for a second term in 2020. His charisma and swift actions could help smooth over mistakes and missed targets of his first term, not unlike Fujimori, Chávez, and Correa did. In attempts to achieve the results he promised, Trump may seek to consolidate executive power, in this context through the use of executive agreements rather than seeking to revise the Constitution or dissolve Congress. Known for not being apprehensive towards taking legal action against his enemies, president Trump may well lash out against members of the press or media during his term, and has already made many pointed statements on Twitter that have received lots of attention. In the meantime, the world will continue to wait and see how President Trump directs the United States and hope for progress.


Barone, M. (2010, February 4). A Short History of American Populism. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from https://www.aei.org/publication/a-short-history-of-american-populism/

BBC News. (2011, December 08). Profile: Alberto Fujimori. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-16097439

BBC News. (2000, September 18). AMERICAS | Fujimori's controversial career. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/705482.stm

Cannon, Barry (2009). Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution: Populism and Democracy in a Globalised Age. Manchester: Manchester University Press.  

Castillo, M., & Hernández, O. (2013, March 6). Hugo Chavez, influential leader with mixed record, dies at 58. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/05/world/americas/obit-venezuela-chavez/index.html?hpt=hp_t1

Hedgecoe, G. (2009, April 29). Rafael Correa: an Ecuadorian journey. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from https://www.opendemocracy.net/article/rafael-correa-an-ecuadorian-journey

Conaghan, Catherine; De La Torre, Carlos (2008). "The Permanent Campaign of Rafael Correa: Making Ecuador's Plebiscitary Presidency". Press/Politics.

Carreras, M. (2012, June 5). The Rise of Outsiders in Latin America, 1980–2010 An Institutionalist Perspective. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0010414012445753

Corrales, J. (2016, November 17). For Latin Americans, Trump's Outsider Win Is a Familiar Story – With a Twist. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from http://www.americasquarterly.org/content/latin-americans-trumps-outsider-win-somewhat-familiar


About Author(s)

Daniel Snyder's picture
Daniel Snyder
Daniel Snyder is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh working as a Panoramas intern. He is studying Economics and Spanish, as well as earning a minor in Portuguese and a certificate in Latin American studies. During the summer of 2016 he conducted research in Fortaleza, Brazil through the CLAS Field Trip and also studied abroad in Lima, Peru.