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Populism refers to the general representation of the interests, virtues and rights that define the population or the common people. The definition of populism borders on the appeal geared towards attaining improved lifestyles for the masses against the domination of the ruling and wealthy elites. Though not tied to any social class, populism can be attributed to the poor and working class. It seeks to empower the common people to participate directly in the process of making their lives better. In Latin America, populism filled a wide gap heaved by the failure of mainstream governance institutions and flourished on prospects of economic, social, political and national prosperity. The populist governments in Latin America sought to represent the interests of the common people, with ideologies rooted in the personalities of their leader but despised by the wealthy and ruling elite.
Juan Domingo Peron
The 1930’s up to 1960’s were the golden years for Latin America populism including Juan Domingo Peron, the charismatic leader behind the Argentinean populism. Juan Peron was a trained career military officer (Marlakey 98). At his time, workers in the nation were isolated and alienated so much that no leader or even the wealthy would allow the economic, social and political gap to be bridged. Due to his great oratory kills, charisma and enigmatic personality. Juan Peron established himself with these workers, facilitated the realization of the requests of the labor unions and won their support due to his ideologies and achievements as the head of the labor department. His work with the labor unions and movements that supported the welfare of the people not only endeared him to them, but also made him a popular figure and very influential in the military. Banking on this backing, he was able to front his populist ideologies, while elevating the status of the labor department and improving the welfare of the workers. Through this association with the people, Juan Peron ran for the presidency and was elected in June, 1946.
Populist Ideology & Achievements
Juan Peron ascendancy to power was buoyed by populist ideologies. The Labor party and the candidacy of Peron were built on the bond he had with the workers movement and was strongly opposed by the elites and the ruling party. The distracters even tried to link Peron with fascism, a move that failed miserably. Once elected, Peron conducted a five year plan whose goal was to address issues related to social injustices and charge the population towards attaining economic independence for the nation, as well as for individuals (Marlakey 45). The policies he implemented aimed at enabling the improved pay packages for workers and ensuring job creation, jumpstarting industrial growth and improved infrastructure.
Juan Peron and his government sought to bridge the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor. The government believed that, through increased wages, people would lead better lives. He also tried to raise the levels of employment. His ultimate goal was to empower the masses who belonged to the ‘shirtless ones’ or the ‘greased ones’- who were the blue collar workers (Fraser 23). The empowerment legalized demonstrations and industrial action. In addition, the cost of living considerably increased. This was a part of to the fiscal policies he adopted as well as the imbalanced wage structure.
The populist ideas also affected the economic sphere of Argentina. Juan Peron sought to establish and maintain an appropriate balance between exports and imports. He also sought to ensure that the Central Bank was nationalized and settled all its debts. He also focused on agriculture in order to curtail the importing of the essential goods in favor of the home bred goods. This injection of fresh ideas and cash meant that the Argentinean economy grew; however, the prosperity did not take long. According to Fraser, “external factors that influenced the government he had inherited became a big factor with the relations with foreign powers and a conflict as those powers wanted to hold on to the investments they had made in Argentina” (67).
In terms of the five year plan, Peron had prioritized social investments. These would border on the establishment of social facilities, educational facilities, proper infrastructure, as well as improved technologies and building homes for Argentinean families. The idea born of the conception that prosperity in the society and for the nation, as a whole, is dependent of the equitable distribution of resources. Peron sought to establish a skilled populace, well educated and capable of propelling the nation to the next level. He came up with a department of health that established numerous health facilities within Argentina. He is also credited with the establishment of several kindergartens, schools, colleges and universities within the nation. In addition, Peron established a pension plan for the people, which was essentially to the acrimony of the elites. These ideals were reflected in the populist nationalistic ideals advocated by Peron.
The initial phase of the five year plan posted tremendous success. Though the problems faced by the Argentinean workers had been attended to, this plan contained the interest of the common people. However, it did not affect his political base. Indeed, he expanded his base among workers, and his government championed for the rights of these workers. After the economic prosperity of the initial boom, things turned for the worse.
Exclusion and Domination
Like all populists, Juan Peron’s ideas became personalized. He developed a sense of mistrust and had to contend with the ideological separation of the right wing crusaders and conservative ‘Peronists’. This led the mass exodus of professionals who differed on ideology with Peron from the labor parties. His ideas and political stand became the only base through which Peron sought to rule the country. He did not only stand for them, but also influenced his supporters, allies and friends in the ruling elite and got them to advance his position. Through his charisma, charm and oratory influence, Peron was able to sustain his political influence among the argentine populace.
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Populist governments sought to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. The ideologies they propagated were aimed at making the poor and oppressed empowered. By championing for policies that improved the economy, social welfare, health and infrastructure, populist leaders became a darling of the masses and drew enormous following through such popular stances.
Populist leaders were endowed with significant charisma and oratory skills. By drawing the masses to their personalities, they advanced their ideologies, which would be welcome to the masses and sought to favor them. Indeed, the picture they would portray was a ‘them’ (elites) versus ‘us’ (masses). Through the charm, the populist leader stamped their authority and heavily relied on it in order to gain prominence and, eventually, stake a claim in the political landscape. To this end, the prudence that an accurate examination of the issues they sought to handle and whether any of the policies they adopted could be termed as a success. In addition, it would be essential to query whether the governments they established sought to advocate for an all inclusive system of governance.
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Juan Peron’s government faced opposition from the same people that had been vital in its ascendancy to power. The falling economy gave rise to an unsustainable cost of living, leading to labor unrest; therefore, Peron had to go into the exile, after he was ousted through a military coup (Fraser 67). This can be attributed to frustration among the people. However, the government that took over was unable to post any form of improvement. These frustrations meant that Juan Peron remained popular among the electorate and was re-elected upon return from his 18 year exile.
However, Juan Peron’s government was unable to marshal all the people behind his ideologies. Through suppression of attempts to oppose him and his desire to dominate over leaders along with his desire to have his ideology prevail, Juan Peron became the symbol of domination, although he still propagated ideologies that made him popular among the electorate. Thus, unlike him, the military governments before and after him remained unpopular and were unable to succeed in a field, where Juan Peron had succeeded.
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Populism is an ideology and influential ideas outlive those who conceived and put them into practice. The fact that Juan Peron’s ideas were held onto by the biggest number of the population shows just how the common people tended to associate with the ideas. In addition, the input of his second wife, Eva Peron, was instrumental in pulling the poor towards his cause.
Social stratification is a natural order. Therefore, it is authentic to argue that populism could not comprehensively address the problems of seclusion and domination. However, its impact had a far reaching effect in defining the welfare of the people. Much of the economic, social, political and infrastructural developments could be traced back. Just like humanity is diverse, so are the demands of the masses; and they change in accordance with their political affiliations. On the other hand, it is impossible to discredit the key development that is achieved under populist leaders; and Juan Peron is high up there amongst the performers in the populist leadership arena.