Handouts or Handcuffs: The Leftist-Populist Dilemma

Here’s a quick theory about the level of authoritarian repression you’re likely to see in Latin America’s growing crop of leftist-populist regimes:

ar = 1 / pg

where ar stands for authoritarian repression and pg for populist goodies.

It’s pretty simple: a leftist-populist regime’s number one objective is to stay in power. Since it can’t offer its supporters genuine progress, economic growth or long-term poverty alleviation, a leftist-populist government has two ways to cement its hold on power: it can buy people’s support and/or repress dissent. The more money a leftist-populist government has to buy support, the less it needs to turn to authoritarian repression to keep its handle on power.

The theory explains why hard-up Castro needs to ban political parties and jail journalists to keep control of Cuba, while petrodollar flush Chavez can achieve the same thing by handing out goodies.

Needless to say, penniless leftist-populists that get shy about repression have a way of getting tossed out of office (e.g. Allende, Ortega, Lucio Gutierrez, etc. etc.)

If the theory holds, Evo Morales is likely to have to turn to much harsher authoritarian repression much sooner than Chavez has had to: Evo just won’t have the kind of money that allows Chavez to keep control without mass repression. If he gets too cute and fails to crack down, you can expect him to get booted out, whether by the ballot or the bullet.

Thing is, no country in Latin America can count on the kind of revenue stream PDVSA allows, so this is one grim theory for the region. Schafik Handal, Ollanta Humala, even a resurgent Daniel Ortega would face much tougher resource constraints than Chavez faces. Perhaps only Lopez Obrador could really hope to buy allegiances quite as ecumenically as Chavez has done. In a few years time Chavez could come to look like a relative liberal in the leftist-populist set.

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