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Weekend Roundup: Populists Grow Stronger Once in Power

But it all ends badly. History has not absolved the personalist rule of Fidel Castro or any of the others who took the populist path to power.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro passed away last week. He was 90.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro passed away last week. He was 90.

Populists, caudillos and strongmen in power don’t fail at the outset, they gain strength. That is because their personalist rule delivers up front to the constituencies that brought them to the top, often challenging bothersome institutional constraints along the way. They worry about the consequences later. The real troubles begin when the consequences arrive, revealing how the short term has eaten the long term. Then the bad overtakes the good.

As the classicist Phillip Freeman has written in The WorldPost, this has been true going back to Clodius in the Roman republic, whose popularity soared as he handed out free grain to the plebeians. But the divisive character of his mercurial rule drove the republic to the point of civil war and opened the way for the dictatorship of Caesar to restore order. In the 1950s in Argentina, Juan and Eva Peron fostered many programs to elevate the poor descamisados (shirtless ones) until corruption, debt and inflation overwhelmed any gains and the military ultimately stepped in to stem the chaos. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez unquestionably lifted the welfare of the poor the elites had ignored through programs like misiones sociales, but in the end squandered immense oil resources, became heavily indebted to China and whose policies now, under the rule of his successor Nicolás Maduro, have ignited 500 percent, if not more, inflation. Store shelves are empty, medicines are scarce, daily protests fill the streets and citizens that see little hope are fleeing economic collapse by the boatload. 

This pattern also fits Fidel Castro. Though he arrived in power by the bullet instead of the ballot, his rallying cry was populist, nationalist and above all, personalist. He accomplished near universal literacy and free health care for all in that tiny Caribbean island. In the end, though, his caudillo-like rule crushed dissent and personal liberties while his Soviet-style economy, abetted by the U.S. blockade, drove the nation into an impoverished cul-de-sac. History has not absolved Castro or any of the others who took the populist path to power.

Whether Donald Trump fits this pattern, as former Mexican President Vicente Fox argues, remains to be seen. As president-elect, Trump has claimed to have saved some 800 to 1,000 jobs in Indiana from moving to Mexico. His pledge of a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure surge has so far helped boost the stock market and will surely create significant new employment with far reaching multiplier effects if it comes to pass. 

Since no populist politician has ever before occupied the top office of the world’s most powerful nation in modern times, we don’t know what to expect. America is a profoundly pluralist and ethnically diverse society bound by constitutional constraints more hallowed than elsewhere. This context bears little resemblance to where populism has been empowered before.

The flashing red light that cannot escape concern, however, is the very personalist style of operation that brought Donald Trump to power through scapegoating invective against the outside world and perceived enemies within. If troubles appear later on, will he revert to the path that brought him to where he is or abide by the norms of civility and restraint that have limited the authority of every previous American president? All who want America to succeed are obliged to give Trump the benefit of the doubt for now since the democratic ballot box has put him in the White House. But that red light needs to remain flashing every step of the way. 

Emily Peck contends that Donald Trump has “his eye on the wrong ball” by blaming trade for job losses. As true as that may have been in the past, the real threat of job displacement in the future, she writes, comes from Amazon’s takeover of the economy. Ryszard Petru and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Union’s top negotiator on Brexit, take on the populist wave heading to the European continent in the wake of Trump’s victory in the America. “One of the greatest delusions spread by populists on both the left and right,” they argue, “is that turning inwards will empower us. The reality is that in an inter-connected world, no one European country can influence global trade rules. And make no mistake: if we abandon shaping the environment around us, others will shape us.” Writing from Paris, Anne Sinclair worries that “the political future of France has never been more uncertain.” “Time will reveal,” she writes, “if Marine Le Pen will be able to cause the greatest political earthquake in France since the Liberation.”

Following Fidel’s death at 90 last week, several contributions evaluate his life and times. Mark Beeson looks as the triumphs and failures of the Cuban revolution in the context of the struggle against inequality across Latin America. Michelle Manning Barish brings a personal family perspective to the Cuban experience. She warns against romanticizing the Cuban revolution, writing that, “the only people who know the real history of Castro in Cuba are the ones who lived it.” Based on recent conversations in Havana, Abraham Lowenthal cautions that a post-Castro Cuba is not likely to change quickly as a result of the Obama opening – and certainly not if Trump reverses course once in office. 

In other global matters, Sam Stein and Jessica Schulberg report from Washington that foreign policy experts are lining up to press the incoming Trump administration to keep the Iran nuclear deal or risk a nuclear arms race in the Mideast. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown calls for an international investigation of the Russian-Syrian role in the deadly bombing of a school in the village of Haas which killed dozens of people, mostly children. 

Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden report on how Rwanda is positioning itself as a hub for Chinese investment in Africa. Jeffie Lam of our South China Morning Post partner reports on the rise and fall of the independence movement in Hong Kong. Earlier in the week, the Post reported that Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, told journalists that calls for independence should not be confused with the struggle for greater democracy, which he supports. Writing from Perth, Australia Helen Clark reports that Vietnam is looking to the combined weight of the Association of East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, as a way for smaller nations in the region to protect and promote their interests as the U.S. and China battle for influence.

Stefano Baldolini writes from Italy that a “no” outcome of the referendum this weekend over key constitutional reforms that diminish the role of the Italian Senate and give more power to the prime minister could spark a new round of instability across Europe. 

India is rapidly joining the renewable revolution. Elyse Wanshel reports that India has built the world’s largest solar plant in eight months, and it generates enough power for 150,000 homes. 

The news is not so good elsewhere. Ryan Grenoble reports that, “There’s substantially less sea ice in the world than ever before. The Arctic ― and, for completely unrelated reasons, the Antarctic ― just closed out November with less ice than any other year in history.” 

There is joy in life if you lighten up and let God’s mercy in. That is the takeaway, Carol Kuruvilla writes, for Pope Francis from his favorite film, “Babette’s Feast.” The film depicts an austere Protestant town of joyless inhabitants disrupted by a generous French cook in exile who brings them all together in happy fellowship around a meticulously prepared meal. Writing from Istanbul, novelist Kaya Genc describes how the ongoing political chaos in Turkey is re-energizing the arts scene. “Young Turks,” he writes, are “turning to art in trouble times.” Finally, our Singularity series this week examines the global contest, especially between the U.S. and China, over the most powerful supercomputer. The key to the prize, writes Peter Rejcek, is smart architecture, not speed.

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