Book Review: ‘Populista’ by Will Grant

Emilio Faulkner is a second year IR student in the Department of War Studies. Due to his Honduran heritage he is motivated to take on the position of Latin America Editor for IR Today. He believes Latin America is often understudied and disregarded in the study of IR. Emilio is therefore excited to have the opportunity to fill this void and explore the region’s role in international affairs. As well as Latin America, his academic interests lie in the concepts of Grand Strategy, Statecraft and the recent re-emergence of major power rivalry on the global stage.

As Latin America BBC foreign correspondent since 2007, Will Grant is an expert in Latin American affairs and culture. In his book Populista, he takes us through his experiences during possibly one of the most important political eras in Latin American history – the pink tide. He explains the ins-and-outs of the political systems exploited by these populist leaders and gives us a detailed and vivid insight into the lives of the normal citizens living through this period. This shift to the left in Latin American politics from the late 1990s into the 2000s came and went with remarkable speed, but to this day has left an unremovable mark on Latin America. The rise of individuals and strongmen as political movements in Latin America – leaders who were simultaneously loved and despised by their people – is something we continue to see today. Grant’s book captures the incredibly unpredictable nature of the pink tide and must be read by all those with an interest in populism and global and Latin American affairs.

Grant defines the pink tide as the most significant political movement in the Western hemisphere in the modern era. The speed of the movement’s rise, along with the firm grip it developed over ‘the hearts and minds’ of the Latin American people is unparalleled. One by one, Grant guides us through this phenomenon. His first chapter describes the rise of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, followed by Brazil’s ‘Lula’ and Bolivia’s Evo Morales’ paths to power in the next two sections. Grant then takes us through Rafael Correa’s dominance of Ecuadorian politics, Daniel Ortega’s time in power in Nicaragua, before finally discussing Fidel Castro’s long-held tenure at the head of the political class in Cuba. Despite the clearly defined and individual nature of the chapters in this book, Grant leaves no stone unturned. He hones in on the individualities of each country’s pink tide experience, but also highlights the links, interactions and relations between their leaders and governments. Yet, the pink tide was not purely a Latin American sensation. The movement attracted global attention and penetrated far further than the borders of Latin America. This is something that Grant, despite his structure, manages to convey perfectly.

Furthermore, Grant dedicates vast effort to delving into the individual stories of the 6 Latin American leaders he discusses in this book. He discusses their upbringings, education and highlights the vital experiences which defined each leader as an individual and also figurehead. For instance, Chavez came from a rural, cattle-rearing upbringing in the region of Barinas. Brazil’s Lula came from abject poverty, the seventh child of eight in the town of Caetes in which most families relied on firewood to cook. Grant underlines that the key to populism is about fighting against established practices and institutions to benefit the people. Therefore, this is why in each chapter he stresses the importance of the lowly or at least underprivileged upbringings experienced by these leaders. These origins and their perceived rise from the bottom gave these leaders a priceless advantage in their race to the top and is what allowed them to maintain such blind and immovable public support throughout their tenures. Grant also stresses that this blind support continued, even after accusations of corruption and pink tide governments’ use of the military to subdue their own people in desperate attempts to hold on to power. This exemplifies the rapport these leaders created between themselves and their people. This is something rare and unique to the pink tide. Ultimately, it was the key to their longevity -something which Grant clearly conveys.

Overall, Populista is a must-read. Grant simultaneously explains the complexities and political details of the pink tide while also providing a more personal, touching account of the period, engaging with the experiences and feelings of the normal people living under these regimes. From reading his book, it is clear Grant has vast experience and knowledge of the region. He is able to put this across with great ease. Furthermore, in order to understand current Latin American affairs, it is essential to comprehend or at least have knowledge of the pink tide. Populista therefore, is the perfect book to set you well on your way to better comprehending this unique movement. This book not only more than fulfils this brief, but is also an immaculate read which I would highly recommend.

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