On the morning of October 17, 1945, thousands of protesters in Buenos Aires marched on Argentina’s main executive building, the Casa Rosada, to demand the return of Vice President Juan Perón, who had been forced to resign a week earlier. The day was hot, and many of the men took off their jackets and even their shirts. This earned them the mocking title of los descamisados—“the shirtless.” Perón’s supporters promptly reclaimed the insult and turned it into a badge of honor. When Perón ran for president in the 1946 election as an unabashed populist, he toured the country in a train he named El Descamisado after his followers.
The descamisados, and those like them, were integral to the populism that dominated Latin American politics from the 1930s until recently. Starting with Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas, who first assumed power in 1930, and leading all the way up to Bolivian President Evo Morales, who entered office in 2006, Latin American leaders have repeatedly harnessed the power of the once excluded masses by railing against the establishment and promising a more prosperous future for their followers.
Today, however, even as populists are surging throughout the rest of the world, such voices have fallen conspicuously silent in Latin America. The region’s grandiose strongmen, with their cults of personality, have largely faded away. Recent elections have ushered in middle-of-the-road leaders, including one former investment banker, promising fiscal conservatism, free trade, and legal due process. In a striking role reversal, it is now Latin America that is watching, aghast, as populists elsewhere threaten to disrupt the world’s more mature economies.
Latin America’s struggles with populism, although far from over, offer some hints about where the current upsurge in populist rhetoric in the United States and Europe might lead. History shows that populism polarizes societies, weakens economies, and undermines representative democracy. But Latin America’s experience also demonstrates that democratic decline is not inevitable, that citizens’ movements can reform institutions and defend
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