6 things Trump can learn from a Latin American “Populist”

Now that the disastrous election of Donald Trump has turned the United States into a land of chaos, anglophone journalists are comparing him to leftist Latin American leaders. In most cases, the comparisons are an insult to anyone who has rudimentary knowledge of Latin America. In Bloomberg, Mac Margolis uses what he sees as “identical haircuts” to compare Trump to Dilma Rousseff, who ratified an affirmative action system that guarantees that half of the space in free, public universities goes to poor youth. The Washington Post compares him to Juan Peron, who created free, public health care and universities. Caracas Chronicles claims that Americans are in “panic” about the similarities between Donald Trump and a leader who created one of the only public health systems in the hemisphere in which doctors make free house calls. These articles attempt to discredit legitimately elected, pro-poor rulers who provided huge minimum wage increases and millions of new jobs in their respective countries while the United States was suffering it’s worst economic crisis since the 1930s, through negative association with a billionaire con man elected by a minority of the American people. Policy wise there is almost nothing in common between them, so they throw the ideologically muddled label of “populist” around so loosely that it is beginning to look like a racist code word.

But what if Trump actually started acting like a South American populist? What if, like Lula, he doubled the student capacity in the free free public university system? What if, like Juan Perón, he created a European-style, universal access public health system? For one thing, it would probably cause him to be reelected. Most progressive Latin American leaders are so well loved that business elites are only able to remove them by coup. Jango Goulart, Salvador Allende and Manuel Zelaya are three examples of so called “populist” leaders who were thrown out of office illegally with US government, media and private sector support. So if Trump and his handlers do decide to rise out of their quagmire of demagogy and hatred and act like Latin American populists they will have to stay on their toes. Here are a few examples of things that Donald Trump and his team could learn from the Brasilian center-left, currently ridiculed as “populist” in the for-profit, anglophone media.

1) How to win a direct election. From the way many Americans talk about democracy you would think that two of the last three presidents did not lose the popular vote. During the 2000s, South American leaders like Nestor Kirchner, Lula Inacio da Silva and Hugo Chavez came to office through winning the majority vote in direct elections which had far less voter fraud than Florida did in 2000.

2) If you invade a country, welcome its refugees. Brasilian president Lula worked hard to develop Brasil into an international power and welcomed the opportunity for the Brasilian military to lead the UN occupation of Haiti after the 2004 coup led by former US special forces trainee Guy Phillipe. There are plenty of things one could criticise about the Brasilian-led military occupation, from reintroducing cholera to the country to weakening democratic processes. Even so, I noticed during my travels there that most Haitians still seem to like Brasilians. Football is a big part of this but the fact that the PT government issued Haitians tens of thousands of humanitarian and immigration visas and that many Haitians now have relatives living in Brasil is certainly another factor.

3) Value diversity. President Lula created national ministries for racial equality, women’s rights and human rights. He appointed members of the Afro-Brasilian and Women’s rights movements to key cabinet positions. He chose a feminist woman as his successor and she became the first female president. Trump has already created a more diverse cabinet than Coup president Michel Temer but if he wants to act like a South American progressive populist he should replace the tokens in his current cabinet with civil rights leaders who have enough knowledge about the policies they manage to work for effective change. When Dilma Rousseff appointed Eleonora Menicucci to head the now defunct Ministry of Womens’s Policy it wasn’t because she liked her haircut, it was because she is an MD and public health specialist who has a 40 year record fighting for women’s reproductive and LGBT rights.

4) Listen to people. In 2003 President Lula celebrated Christmas dinner with a group of homeless rag pickers in São Paulo. They talked for hours. He continued the tradition throughout his presidency and Dilma Rousseff carried it on. One of the lessons that they learned was that a lot of programs designed to eliminate extreme poverty were not working because poor people simply did not know that they existed or how to access them. As a result, the government created a program called Miseria Zero, which required social workers to leave their offices, hit the streets, talk and listen to homeless people and register them for the benefits that they were legally entitled to. According to the UN, the PT governments reduced extreme poverty by 75%, but it’s water under the bridge now as the World Bank estimates that the post-coup Temer administration will send between 2.5-3.6 million people back below the poverty line this year. 

5) Stimulate national manufacturing and consumption. In A Fantasia Organizada, legendary economist Celso Furtado talks about two waring currents of economic theory adhered to by sectors of the Brazilian elite that have a huge impact on Brazilian political life, Developmentalism (adhered to by Vargas, Kubitchek, Goulart and -partially- Lula and Rousseff) and Monetarism (adhered to by Quadros, Collor, Cardoso, Temer and most American journalists). Latin American Developmentalism started with economists like Raul Prebisch and Furtado during the 1940s and advocates that for a 3rd World nation to enter the developing world it has to do what the United States did during its greatest periods of economic growth- enact import tariffs and stimulate local production and consumption. Lula did this brilliantly in 2007 when he preemptively created the Federal Growth Acceleration Package (PAC), providing tax abatement for consumers on products like cars and appliances that were built in Brasil and over usd$100 Billion in stimulus for the local manufacturing and construction sectors. While these measures may have only delayed the effects of the US-triggered 2008 World Financial crisis they did provide 7 years of critical breathing room, 10 million new jobs and real gains in wages for all sectors of society before the bust cycle began in late 2014.

6) Get ready for economic sabotage. In 2014 the renowned Washington DC based think tank, Center for Economic and Social Policy, published a report on the Brasilian Economy. It cited points such as the usd$370 Billion in foreign reserves to argue that the Brasilian economy was fundamentally sound. It said that the recession was primarily due to Rousseff’s miscalculation of the SELIC rate and that by the end of 2015 growth would return to Brasil. What happened? According to a recent article published by the BBC, the biggest single drag on the Brasilian economy, accounting for a 2.5% fall GDP in 2015, was the Lava Jato anti-corruption investigation. This investigation, led by a tyrannical, partisan judge named Sergio Moro who appears to have been working in partnership with the US State Department since at least 2009, deliberately froze the construction and petroleum sectors through a series of court orders during the lead up to Dilma Rousseff’s illegal impeachment. Coincidence? Countless academics have written about economic sabotage, often in cooperation with US business elites such as the Rockefeller family (which finances Americas Quarterly), as a component of US-backed coups in Latin America. From the ITT orchestrated Chilean copper boycott of 1972 to the Reagan administration’s economic destabilization of Nicaragua, to US efforts to sabotage the Venezuelan economy, progressive populism is frequently met with US aggression. There is no reason to think that if Donald Trump enacts economically populist policies such as the 90% above-inflation minimum wage increase enacted by the PT government in Brasil, sectors of the American elite and business community will not try to sabotage his government as well.

If Donald Trump is just another Latin American style populist, as some journalists suggest, get ready for reductions in income inequality, advances in rights for women and minorities and more spending on public health and education. One could hope. As the last two decades of electoral politics in Latin America show, providing these advances is a great way to get re-elected. Back in the real world, however, Trump hijacked populist rhetoric to advance the interests of his own class, the business elite. And in that sense the comparisons between him and Benito Mussolini go a lot deeper than the fact that they both have hair issues.


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.