Saturday, April 21, 2018

5 Famous Populist Leaders in Modern Latin American History

South America saw a wave of populist leaders that defied the conservative establishment.

5. Lazaro Cardenas

Born in 1895 with Indian blood in Michoacan and with little education, Cardenas rose in the military ranks during the Mexican Revolution and found an ally in form of President Plutarco Calles (r. 1924 – 1928). He served as governor and briefly as cabinet member before becoming the presidential candidate of the ruling National Revolutionary Party in 1933 with the support of President Calles.

He campaigned vigorously despite his sure win travelling across the country to meet locals and to listen to their problems. He promised to fulfill the promises of social, land, and economic reforms of the Mexican Revolution which became sluggish after Calles and his allies became rich and the implementation of the reforms became less important.

When Cardenas became President in 1934, he build up his political support then turned against the old guard Calles. He gave out lands to the peasantry, becoming the President with the largest land to give, improved labor conditions, and organized workers and peasants into to confederations. Feeling his political base secured, he forced Calles to exile. He reorganized the National Revolutionary Party to the Partido de la Revolution Mexicana (PRM) with more cohesion and better representation from the workers, laborers, “popular” and the military than its predecessor.

He then nationalized the railroads before nationalizing the highly strategic and profitable oil industry, establishing the Petroleos Mexicanos and hailed as the declaration of economic independence of the country. In 1940, he stepped down as President, but remained and influential political figure in the country up until his death in 1970.

4. Getulio Vargas

Dubbed as Father of the Poor, Getulio Vargas served as Brazil’s President from 1930 to 1945, and also in 1951 to 1954. Son of a local politician and a lawyer by profession, Vargas worked as representative for the state of Rio Grande do Sul before becoming its governor in 1928. In 1930, he ran as a candidate for President but the ruling class of coffee planters who dominated the electorate for decades rigged the election to their favor, thus Vargas lose the bid.
Getulio Vargas (Middle) during the 1930 Revolution
His defeat made him the rallying point for a revolution that swept him to power with the support of the urban middle class a clique of reformist military officers called Tenetes. He then curbed the power of the coffee planters, expanded universal suffrage, and created a strong central government. Vargas, however, showed authoritarian tendencies when he launched a coup in 1938 to extend his term. In the same year, he launched the Estado Novo or New State where the power of the President significantly expanded. He launched a crackdown against the right as he did once against the left in 1935.  He also extended government control over trade unions, but he enacted social security reforms, agricultural diversification, and also industrialization through a strategy of import substitution, establishing steel plants and providing cheap loans and tariff protections to industries.
Propaganda of the Estado Novo
During World War II, he steered Brazil to the side of the allies which greatly increase the country’s export of raw material. But the end of the war spelled the end of Vargas’ first term. Military officers launched a coup that forced Vargas to resign after the president maneuvered to further his term.

Not completely cast aside, Vargas plotted his comeback and he did successfully became the President of Brazil once more in 1951. This time, however, he lacked the strong powers he once had in the 1930’s and had to abide to a constitution with check and balances. This made him impotent to enact reforms with strong political will to combat the rising inflation and growing budget deficits. Thus, his second term became mired with criticism of weakness. Nevertheless, his second term saw the establishment of a national petroleum company – Petrobras.

In 1954, he once again attempted to extend his presidential term, but the military stopped him and send him an ultimatum: take a leave of absence or be deposed. Vargas took a third option. Old and depressed he committed suicide on August 25, 1954 making his final words read, “I am leaving life to enter history.”

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