Populism, Polarization, and Post-Truth in Latin America

Interview With
Felipe Calderón
Guest Author

Felipe Calderón, who served as President of Mexico from 2006-2012, addresses the importance of leaders promoting fundamentals such as the rule of law, the right to free and fair elections, and practicing democracy daily.

Felipe Calderón served as President of Mexico from 2006-2012. During that time, the National Action Party leader’s priorities included fighting corruption in his country. A graduate of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, he also worked to promote greater accord among the countries of North America. He especially concentrated on building stronger trading relationships across Mexico, Canada, and the United States.

In this interview with David J. Kramer, the Executive Director of the Bush Institute, Jessica Ludwig, Director of Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute, Calderón addressed what scholar and author Moises Naim termed “The Three Ps” of how modern autocratic leaders have sought to manipulate power: populism polarization, and post-truth. Calderón cautioned that these dynamics are on display and harmful to democracy in countries across Latin America. The Mexican leader addressed the importance of leaders promoting fundamentals such as the rule of law, the right to free and fair elections, and practicing democracy daily. In this video and excerpted text, he particularly emphasized the need to fight against corruption in the name of strengthening democracy.

What should the United States do to help support democracy in Latin America?

That’s an incredibly good question, but I don’t know the most important thing to do. It looks like there is no remedy for what is happening to us in Latin America.

You consider what has happened in Cuba in the last 60 years. What is the condition of the people in jail there? And you look at Nicaragua, where all the candidates for presidents, except for the current president, were put in jail and accused of something like national betrayal. You observe what is happening in Venezuela and now what is happening in Mexico.

I’m completely overwhelmed about the situation. In some moments you believe there is no solution.

But one thing we can do collectively — we the Mexicans, the Venezuelans, the Cubans, and the Americans — about our concern for democracy is to work harder to educate people about democratic values that go beyond party allegiances.

It’s important to relate democracy to values: respect for others, respect for real

discussions, respect for law, respect for order, respect for free speech rights, respect for the decision of the people in elections, respect for the right of free association, and respect for the capabilities of human beings to reach agreements. This will sound naïve, but we need to live like brothers.

We are losing our understanding of these values and need to reeducate ourselves and others to regenerate a culture of democracy. We need to recover the perception that democracy is worthy.

We also need to denounce all those abuses from authoritarian regimes. We need to denounce what is happening in Mexico, in Cuba, in Venezuela, in Bolivia, and in Nicaragua. We need to say this is not right and combat the abuses.

In the United States, it is important to rebuild the center in the sense that regardless of whether you are Democrat or Republican, you believe that unacceptable conditions of authoritarian regimes in the region must be rejected. And that the United States must act upon them, penalizing them at least socially.

One problem in Mexico is that corruption is destroying opposition political parties. So is their leaders’ lack of vision. Opposition parties are irrelevant in the political arena and make it hard to reestablish democratic conditions in Mexico and other countries.

We also need to think about how citizens can take responsibility for their countries. How can we train people to take over the legal institutions, replace corrupt politicians and replace anti-democratic authoritarian people or regimes, participate in elections, participate in the political arena, or to participate in the media? How can we make the media be responsible about protecting the truth? This also means protecting journalists, although they can take no part in the elections. All those things need to be done.

American leadership in these areas needs to be rebuilt, but it also needs to be taken seriously. I’m not suggesting any kind of intervention, but we need to deter what is happening in Latin America. We need to think together seriously about what is happening in Latin America. What are the ways in which we can reestablish democracy? What could be the role of citizens and leaders in every single country? And what can Americans do legally and respectfully?

Ignoring what is happening in the region is not any kind of remedy, either. The consequences of a democracy failing in Latin America, either in Venezuela, Columbia, or Mexico, will be felt in the United States in more migration. And the region will have fewer opportunities as it becomes less competitive. Those also will affect the United States.