Politics of the Popular Conference

With the rise of the Pink Tide during the last decade and due to the current unrest in a post-Hugo Chavez Venezuela, the question of populism has become ever more prominent for Latin American academics. On March 7th, CLACS invited nine guest scholars to share their recent research surrounding the issue of populism in Latin America. Coming from diverse academic background, these experts delved into a wide range of issues, ranging from “popular” politics to popular music. The goal was to produce an engaging medium for academic discourse on current Latin American issues and certainly by the end of the day many attendees felt that their understanding of current Latin American issues had expanded.


The morning presentations did not hesitate to jump straight into the substance of Latin American populism by discussing popular politics, parties and leaders. This series of lectures helped viewers get a better understanding of who and what is the popular in Latin America. A memorable quote from Raul Madrid of UT Austin was that “leaders shape the popular by bringing out and aligning grievances among the majority.”

The second set of lectures shaped a dynamic understanding of populism by taking the audience through analyses that ranged from the micro to the macro. Sujatha Fernandes’s extensive presentation on individual storytelling in Venezuela was juxtaposed by Clara Irazabal’s presentation on the transnationality of popular imagery. These lectures revealed the depth of ongoing research on Latin American populism.

The last set of presentations redirected the conference back to the pressing issues of populism: participation, the police state, and rebellion. These presentations reminded the audience that populism is an exchange of power that ebbs and flows between the regime and the people.

“Politics of the Popular in Latin America” was a great success in terms of quality and attendance. Judging from the diverse audience alone, there seems to be a strong interest in the Latin American populism. As other Latin American countries sit on the brink of regime turnover, it will be interesting to see how the political landscape changes over the next decade. Keep an on eye on the CLACS Blog and homepage for future events.

Posted by Antonio Torres, MA Candidate at CLACS


Politics of the Popular Presentations

The following are a sample of the presentations given at the Politics of the Popular Conference.

Francisco Panizza, London School of Economics

Francisco Panizza presented his paper, “Populism, social democracy and the tale of the ‘two lefts’ in Latin America. The Cases of Argentina and Uruguay,” which examined the definition of populism and through the lenses of former president of Argentina Nestor Kirchner and  former president of Uruguay Tabaré Vázquez. Panizza zeroed in on Kirchner’s and Vazquez’s inaugural speeches after the 2001-2002 crises to explore how the two former leaders defined themselves, what their relations to the country’s parties and institutions were, and to shed light on their economic and human rights policies. He concluded that a deep reading of Kirchner’s speech actually shows a very different political logic at work, one which appeals to strengthening institutions and rejecting messianic leadership, a promise of gradual change rather than a radical new beginning. Based on this conclusion, Panizza suggests that political classifications are necessary, but should be used carefully and with a sensitivity for nuances and variations.

Kenneth Roberts, Cornell University

Ken Roberts from Cornell University presented his paper “Why Parties Aren’t Popular: Market Reform and Partisan Alignments in Latin America,” which focused on the surprising durability of new democratic regimes in Latin America, yet the remarkable fragility and instability in the actual political parties that link citizens to the state. Roberts pointed to the fact that the majority of citizens in Latin America prefer not to vote for a party, that only 23% of citizens have expressed confidence political parties, and that electoral volatility in Latin America has only increased since 1980 to support the claim that most party systems are not consolidating over time, even if democratic regimes are. Roberts examined the gradual consolidation of new “third wave” party systems in countries such as Brazil and El Salvador, and highlighted the importance of the political dynamics within the “third wave” itself. He concluded that programmatic forms of electoral competition have helped to anchor electorates and stabilize party systems. However, vulnerability to exogenous economic shocks that have forced parties to renege on their programmatic commitments, however, have created uncertainty about the policy effects of electoral outcomes, and weakens voters’ attachments to established parties.

Frederick Moehn of King’s College London examined “Brazilian Popular Music and Technical Mimesis,” covering the emergent popular music genres such as Blocos Afro and axe music in Salvador, funk carioca, musica sertaneja, pagoda, and techno-brega. Moehn pointed out that Brazilina hip-hop artists have explored the lasting “residue of Vargas’s populism” in programs that have promoted participatory citizenship and education, such as “ABC Rap” or “Movimento Hip Hop Organizado.”Moehn also explored schismogenetic mimesis in Samba recording, arguing that, much as the Sapucai, or samadrome, structures the carnival parade into a controlled “avenue” rather than random streets, the music industry has ways of structuring its sonic representation of “the people,” the masses that are integral to the highly profitable spectacle of carnival. To provide a few examples of this, Moehn pointed to the massaroca: the massive and disjunctive, yet ccohesive, sound of almost 60,000 soccer fans singing “mMengo” in the Maracana.” He also reflected on Pedro Luis and his musical cohorts’ rejection of a rock drum kit in favor of individual drummers and percussionists, each on their own specific instrument, in line with more “traditional” drumming.

Clara Irazabal of Columbia University presented the book she edited, Transbordering Latin Americas. She explained that Transbordering Latin Americas exist within, between, and above the traditional container spaces of national and continental societies without clear or stable “motherlands.” Irazabal argued that these new chronotopes or arrangements of time-space that aren’t clearly defined bring up the time-space compression of postmodernity, in which it is difficult to distinguish between time and space. This also creates the notion of a place as a new assemblage of “heres” and “theres, with fragments of “theres” embedded in their actual “heres.”Irazabel’s contribution to the chapter on Diasporic Tourism discussed new tourism dynamics and their implications for identity and community development in metropolitan Los Angels’ Plaza Mexico, a shopping mall. Conceived and owned by Korean investors, Plaza Mexico is an architectural collage of Mexican regional and national icons that make its patrons feel “as if you were in Mexico.” By tapping into native living practices and imagined conceptions of homeland, Plaza Mexico produces a space of diasporic, bounded tourism, whereby venture capitalists opportunistically reinvent tradition within a structural context of constrained immigrant mobility. Her chapter identifies ways in which Plaza Mexico intensifies the feeling of borders and the impact on the (im)mobility of millions, and the ways it opens up new opportunities for community development in a transbordering arena.

Posted by Lisa Buch, CLACS Collaborator


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