Carrie Gibson (author of El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic America) reviews Will Grant’s ¡Populista! The Rise of Latin America’s 21st Century Strongman (2021).
If there was ever a surreal start to a trip to Cuba, it was the one that coincided with the news Fidel Castro had died. That was what I woke up to on 26 November 2016, hours before my husband and I were due to fly to Havana. A day later, we found ourselves in what seemed like an endless queue under a blazing autumn sun, waiting to enter Castro’s memorial at the Jose Martí monument in the Plaza de la Revolución.
The BBC Latin American correspondent Will Grant was there too, and he writes about the strange but fitting end to Fidel in his excellent new book, observing that it was “a moment of genuine popular grief combined with the cult of the island’s largest personality”. Within hours of the death announcement, people were able to say their farewells at the monument, though not to Castro’s remains: his ashes were in a safe. “Instead they bowed their heads in deference to a large black-and-white photograph of a youthful Fidel.”
As we were waiting our turn, two women behind us were talking, one quietly wiping away her tears. Later, we watched the cross-country funeral procession on television with Cuban friends who could hardly be described as Fidel loyalists. Whatever their view of Castro, no one could take their eyes off his final march to Santiago de Cuba.
Castro’s ghost stalks Grant’s book, as does that of the former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The men appear throughout ¡Populista!, an ambitious attempt to trace the “pink wave” of leftwing populist leaders in Latin America from 1999 to 2016. Grant devotes a chapter each to Brazil’s Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and bookends his work with chapters on Chávez and Castro, though their influence permeates the rest.
English-language media often resorted to lazy generalisations about these leaders, and Grant goes to great lengths, drawing from more than a decade reporting on Latin America, to make clear the differences in political ecologies and how each was the product of his own society. He also balances detailed discussion of their backgrounds and the machinations that brought them to power with crucial historical context.
For instance, there is no understanding Chávez’s rise without a knowledge of the destabilising period of inflation in Venezuela of the 1980s, when prices doubled overnight and led to riots and their brutal suppression, known as the Caracazo. Further back, the sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba in 1898 and US intervention in the decades that followed no doubt shaped Castro’s views about his meddling neighbour. Indeed, the US appears in each chapter and comes out of none looking good: the CIA in Bolivia, the Cuban missile crisis, the occupation of Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 and later Iran-Contra in the 1980s, Operation Condor, the war on drugs. The list is long and the repercussions all too real.
¡Populista! is action-packed with a large cast of characters, but Grant’s lively style never sags under the weight of the detail he manages to pack into the book. There is hardly a dull moment among the back-stabbings, plots, coups, corruption scandals, death squads, ripped-up constitutions – and triumphant comebacks.
While the ascent of each of these men is spectacular in its own way, their downfalls are even more gripping. The reaper may have come for Chávez and Castro – though after lives with no shortage of drama – but Lula ended up in jail, where Grant interviewed him. He has since been released while his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached over corruption charges.
Rafael Correa accepted his time was over, though the row with his former vice-president Lenín Moreno, who is now president, culminated in charges over an alleged kidnapping and bribery. He was tried and sentenced while in exile in Belgium. If he returns to Ecuador he will be arrested.
Ortega, unlike the others, is president once more, having swapped military fatigues for white collarless shirts meant to “evoke a kind of Pentecostal evangelist, asking the people for forgiveness”. His second coming, so to speak, has been met with accusations of serious human rights abuses.
What can be easy to forget amid plotlines more tangled than a telenovela is that in all of these countries at some point there were serious attempts to fight inequality and improve the lives of millions, which engendered a great deal of loyalty. Many of the most passionate supporters of these men at home and abroad continue to point to such initiatives – some now long lapsed – while studiously avoiding charges left in their wake, ranging from corruption to sexual assault.
Grant’s attempt to reconcile the bad with the good may ruffle some feathers – certainly Castro, and quite possibly Chávez, is considered an icon of anti-imperial resistance – but this is very much the first draft of this history. The political hurricane unleashed by these leaders continues to whip through these countries, and the extent of the damage will not be clear for some time.
Although these six men and the nations they led had varying trajectories, one factor connects them, as Grant observes: “They were also object lessons in the dangers of a government, indeed an entire political movement, built on the shoulders of one man.” The lives of these complex, Shakespearean characters may make for good reading, but as becomes clear over the course of this gripping and all-too-real tale, their populism did not make for good governance, whatever their intentions.
All of the men fell victim to hubris in some form or other, but in the end, it was their publics who paid the highest price.
[Photo above: Two women ride past a mural with an image of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in Sabaneta, Barinas state, Venezuela. Photograph: Yuri Cortéz/AFP via Getty Images.]