Andres Oppenheimer

The Oppenheimer Report: Trump, a Latin American caudillo?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges photographers after speaking at a campaign rally in Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges photographers after speaking at a campaign rally in Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. AP

What irony! Just when Latin America is beginning to despise messianic autocrats, the United States and Europe seem to be embracing them.

It’s as if the world had been suddenly turned upside down. Judging from the recent New Hampshire primary results, U.S. voters — generally known for electing responsible leaders — may be falling for a narcissist demagogue with no political experience like Donald Trump, whose entire campaign is based on his untested claim that “I will make America great again!”

It’s not just Trump in the United States. Whether it’s President Vladimir Putin in Russia, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, or rapidly rising opposition leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France, charismatic nationalists are popping up across the northern hemisphere.

Perhaps because of a growing gap between the super-rich and the not-so-rich, many people are angry, and turning to xenophobic populists. In most cases, these leaders blame foreigners for their countries’ problems, oppose free trade deals, promise to bring back a real or imagined golden era of the past, demonize the free press as an alleged arm of shady oligarchs, and present themselves as saviors of the fatherland.

In Latin America, on the other hand, people are getting tired of charismatic leaders, at least for now.

In oil-rich Venezuela, late President Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro have not only curtailed fundamental freedoms, but have turned one of the world’s richest countries into a state on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. Annual inflation has surpassed 500 percent and supermarket shelves are empty.

In Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, other nationalist-populist autocrats have in recent years weakened their countries’ democratic institutions. The net result has been fewer checks and balances, and more corruption.

But Argentines recently elected President Mauricio Macri, a soft-spoken engineer who candidly admits that he can’t solve his country’s problems by himself. In Venezuela, the center-right opposition won the Dec. 6 legislative elections by a landslide, and vows to end the country’s 17-year-old populist cycle. The nationalist-populist cycle seems to be waning across the region.

When I called several well-known Latin American political figures last week to ask them about Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border, and to force Mexico to pay for it, most laughed. Several of them said that’s the kind of bravado that used to be typical of Latin American strongmen.

“Trump has the typical style of the Latin American caudillo,” former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria told me. “He tells people what they want to hear, scares them, and then says, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.’”

Indeed, there are many similarities between Trump and Latin America’s charismatic leaders.

First, Trump is running a headline-centered campaign, making outrageous statements almost daily to draw media attention, and to put rival politicians on the defensive. When commentators show, usually a day later, that Trump’s statements are half-truths or outright lies — as with his claim that most undocumented Mexican immigrants are criminals or rapists — he accuses the press of misquoting him, and then comes up with the next outrageous statement. Just like most Latin America’s autocrats did when they rose to power.

Second, like most nationalist populists, Trump constantly agitates the specter of foreign threats, as when he claims that there is an avalanche of undocumented immigrants despite the fact that all serious studies show that the number of undocumented immigrants has declined over the past seven years. Nationalist populists need a foreign enemy, so they can present themselves as leaders of a national cause.

Third, like most populists, Trump is an ego-maniac. He has no concrete plans, nor political organization to carry them out. His favorite word is “I” (In his campaign opening speech last year, he said 220 times the word “I”.) He wants us to believe that he’s the smartest, and that — as he constantly tells us — his rivals are “stupid,” “idiots,” or sold out to special interests.

My opinion: If Trump were to become president, more than making America great again, he would make America look more like Latin America. Or, rather, he would make America look like much of Latin America was until recently, before several countries realized how irresponsible narcissist demagogues can be.

Watch the“Oppenheimer Presenta” tv show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español

Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald Speakers Series

Columnist Andres Oppenheimer interviews former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at 8 a.m. on Feb. 29 at Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus. The event will be in Spanish. Tickets are $25 in advance. Purchase at elnuevoheraldeventos.com.

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