Writer: Matthew Hanna
The past couple of years have revealed quite clearly the slow, ever-constant decline of the United States, exposing the faults and horrors ingrained in our political and social systems. This degradation, coupled with the threats of the global coronavirus pandemic and the ruthless murder of countless Black Americans, has also brought upon a re-sparked interest in the central ideals of left-wing populism.While populism can be described in right-wing ideologies, it is important to view left-wing populism in this context as a lens oriented towards an anti-elitist social demand for, among, other things, the abolition of both capitalism and Western imperialism. In general, this movement could be characterized as growing around the needs of the working class against those privileged who have historically had the ability to accrue capital in society. Comparing the current political climate in the United States with movements from the past in Latin America can help us better understand the importance of this momentous period in time Left-wing populist movements are critical to analyze in relation to the current political atmosphere in the United States because of the similarity in demands and the desire for a structural change in power. Latin American populist movements arose reactionary to the increasing ownership of land by aristocrats as a result of the colonial histories of Central and South American nations. In the 20th century, leftist ideals significantly shaped Latin American politics because it resonated with workers, farmers, and laborers. Historical moments, like the Russian Revolution in 1917, proved to be inspirations for the Mexican Revolution; Marxist-Leninist ideas and principles influenced the labor movement throughout the 20th century, both in the cities and the countryside.
Populist movements spread throughout Latin America with leaders like Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, and Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico. One major distinction between left populist leaders in Latin American and today is that they mostly came from a military background and had at their disposal armies and infantry to support them. This is strikingly different to today, with the increasing presence of the Department of Homeland Security and President Trump sending federal police to Democratically-governed cities, the police and law enforcement are counteracting the demands of Americans, instead of upholding them. Instead of having an army standing strong behind them, the American people must fight against increased control of the imperialist settler-colonial state.
A similarity between the movement brewing in the United States and the past movements in Latin America are the cataclysmic events that expose a need for change in society. One instance that propelled the left populist movement in Colombia, for example, was the 1928 Banana Massacre. The United Fruit Company had colonized and extorted Latin American labor for the profits of United States capitalism, at the expense of the people. This was another example of neocolonialism and blatant imperialism, in which Western powers exploited the labor and resources of Latin American countries for their sole capital gain. Rightfully so, workers striked against this abhorrent colonial outpost, and the US company called in Colombian troops to suppress strikers, which led to a complete massacre of innocent exploited Colombians. Cataclysmic instances of the past, like this one, can be likened to the protests against police brutality in the United States, symbolic of a deeper meaning of corruption in the government, settler-colonialism, and imperialism.
These historic examples of populism could be seen as a method of connection to what is occurring today in our current political climate. With the evolution of fascist and conservative leaders around the world—Trump in the United States, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Duda in Poland—there is a subsequent counter-movement of anti-fascism and left-wing populism. This can be seen in America, where there is a divide mostly between those who support the economic and social policies of President Trump and those who reject them. Among lower and middle class Americans, this idea has been fomenting due to the increasing wealth gap among the richest and poorest Americans. With the election of President Trump, we see the woes of extreme capitalism and imperialism—and a left-wing populist movement that actually defends the people instead of capitalist elites could be the answer.
Movements around police brutality and the increase of the paramilitary state is an indicator of populism. Just look back at the Banana Massacre or practically any Latin American country undergoing a populist regime change—the effects of colonialism and imperialism, mostly by the United States, led to the people feeling pressured and hunted by government troops, both foreign and domestic. As a settler-colonial state, the United States subjects its citizens to similar harsh policies as it exudes throughout the Global South, except it is shielded in a cloud of freedom and liberty, which really only extends to those in power.
Furthermore, societal issues that led to the left-wing changes in Latin America, such as a lack of security for workers and a state-backed elitist control, are exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump has failed time and time again to secure the wellbeing of millions of Americans. The looming threats of eviction, lack of healthcare, and income insecurity, are all issues that Americans deal with because of the continued reliance on American capitalism, even when it only aids the elite in power. It is clear that in America, the path we are headed on is certain for destruction. Both the response to the coronavirus and the incessant murderers that make up the American police force beg the question if this can be changed through voting, forever continuing the American empire founded upon settler-colonialism and imperialism. Key aspects of the aforementioned leftist populist movements should be looked at by all Americans as a way to preserve the vitality, health, and freedoms of the American people—not short of insurrection. Such mobilization and subsequently nationalization of certain industries and the economic restructuring of the elite could prove to help what Americans truly desire in the United States: radical equality.