By Caitlin Andrews-Lee
Charismatic Leadership in Latin America
In recent years, charisma has enjoyed a resurgence in political science as leaders around the world deemed to be “charismatic” have risen to power amidst deep crises and used their authority to disrupt the political status quo. Latin America is no stranger to charismatic leadership. Historically, José de San Martín, Simón Bolívar, Lázaro Cárdenas, Juan Perón, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chávez wielded charismatic authority to make indelible marks on the region’s development. Today, several leaders have risen to power who have likewise used magnetic appeal to secure the loyalty of voters and profoundly influence politics.
However, assessing the extent and impact of charismatic leadership in the region is difficult. What exactly is charisma? How does one determine who qualifies as charismatic, and where does one draw the line between charismatic and uncharismatic leadership? How, when, and to what extent does charisma influence politics? A brief survey of several contemporary leaders in Latin America—some of whom have achieved charismatic authority and some of whom have fallen short—can help shed light on these questions.
What is Charisma and Why Does it Matter in Politics?
Before assessing which leaders in Latin America qualify as charismatic, it is important to define the concept. In line with scholars of organizational management, I define charisma as a property of leadership that is “values-based, symbolic, and emotion-laden.” In politics, I have argued that a leader signals his/her charisma to potential followers by fulfilling three characteristics: the leader offers direct recognition of the potential followers’ feelings of suffering and marginalization; promises to take bold action to resolve that suffering, often through unprecedented reforms; and envisions a holistic transformation of society in which the leader conquers malevolent forces and provides the people with salvation.
Under what conditions does the leader’s charismatic signal produce the desired response in potential followers, such that they view the leader as an extraordinary saviour and offer their fervent loyalty? While the leader’s individual-level characteristics—personality traits, gender, physical appearance, and learned behaviors—matter, these traits alone cannot guarantee that the leader’s charisma will resonate with intended audience. Instead, the leader must communicate his/her charisma during a moment of crisis that makes potential followers feel unusually desperate for a hero to step in and resolve their distress. In such circumstances, the followers are more likely to respond enthusiastically to the leader’s signals and develop charismatic attachments—unmediated, emotional, and asymmetrical bonds—with the leader.
Leaders who cultivate charismatic attachments enjoy a great deal of personal influence over their followers. In politics, I have shown that the leader can sometimes use this influence to concentrate power, upend existing institutions, and fundamentally restructure the party system. The extent of the leader’s personal authority depends on the size of his/her following, the capacity of pre-existing institutions to constrain the executive, and the leader’s preferences to govern in a charismatic (and inherently self-aggrandizing) or programmatic (institutional and constrained) fashion.
Charismatic Leadership in Action
To what extent have recent leaders in Latin America signaled charisma, established emotional attachments with voters, and used the resulting influence to override institutions and consolidate power? Three leaders appear to have achieved this feat: Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO,” 2018-present), Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022), and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele (2019-present). Notably, these leaders are ideologically diverse: AMLO hails from the left, Bolsonaro champions the right, and Bukele pivots according to political convenience. Despite variegated ideological orientations, however, the three leaders similarly signaled charisma to receptive audiences during moments of significant crisis, consolidated the devotion of large swaths of followers, and used the resulting influence to bypass institutional constraints and exercise deeply personalist authority.
Despite having run for president and lost in 2006 and 2012, AMLO secured an overwhelming victory in July 2018 with 53 percent of the vote, 20 percentage points ahead of the runner-up. Although not a political outsider himself, AMLO leveraged his past electoral defeats to brand himself as the agent of change in a country whose citizens harbored long-simmering resentment toward a political establishment they perceived as corrupt and incapable of resolving debilitating problems of insecurity, corruption, and inequality. In this environment of intense dissatisfaction, AMLO signaled charisma to Mexican voters by tapping into their umbrage toward the political system, promoting sweeping reforms to dismantle corrupt institutions and redistribute wealth (and, conveniently for AMLO, increase his executive powers), and vowing to bring about “the fourth transformation of Mexico.”
Four years into his term, many Mexicans have responded to AMLO’s charismatic gestures with enthusiasm. He stands among the region’s most popular presidents with an approval rating of 55 percent, and most of his supporters maintain personal attachments to him rather than indirect ties maintained through parties or ideological principles. In turn, AMLO has used his tremendous personal influence to weaken existing institutions and concentrate power, as evidenced by his tendency to govern through “popular consultation” using referenda and interfere with institutions from the Federal Police to the National Electoral Institute (INE).
During the October 2018 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro signaled his charisma by giving voice to Brazilians’ rage toward the political establishment; proposing audacious reforms such as imprisoning politicians, deploying the armed forces in the streets, and ravaging the Amazon for economic gain; and vowing to transform Brazil into a state reminiscent of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. At the time, Brazil’s the complex political crisis—caused by rising polarization, deteriorating public security, economic decay, and a corruption scandal implicating virtually the entire political establishment—created the ideal environment for Bolsonaro’s charismatic gestures to take root and helped catapult him to the presidency with 55 percent of the vote in the second round of the election.
Once in power, Bolsonaro reaffirmed his role as savior through bold symbolic gestures and policies that, while aggressive, short-sighted, and arguably disastrous, provided both emotional satisfaction and concrete benefits to his anti-establishment followers. While Bolsonaro narrowly lost his bid for re-election in the second round of the October 2022 election to Lula, he—not unlike Trump in the U.S.—retains considerable influence over a devoted mass of followers and remains a major force in Brazilian politics.
Like his counterparts in Brazil and Mexico, Bukele took advantage of a crisis in El Salvador fueled by corruption, poverty, inequality, and entrenched organized crime to publicly recognize the suffering of the disenchanted citizenry. He also promised to resolve their misery, in part by taking on Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), one of the most powerful gangs in the Western hemisphere. His promise to take bold action and provide a more prosperous future resonated deeply with voters, bringing a resounding victory in the 2021 presidential election with 65.5 percent of the vote.
Since then, Bukele has leveraged overwhelming popular support (his approval currently stands at an eye-popping 87 percent) to follow through on his promises, behaving in an unabashedly authoritarian manner. Further, he frames his authoritarian actions—including interference in the judiciary and declaration of a months-long state of emergency in which his government engages in mass arrests and other serious human rights violations, —as brave and unprecedented measures undertaken to deepen democracy and defend the “the people” rather than submitting to criminal gangs and corrupt institutions.
Gustavo Petro: Charismatic Leadership in the Making?
Most recently, in June 2022, Petro became the first leftist president in Colombian history. Three years earlier, in 2016, the peace accords between the government (under then-president Juan Manuel Santos) and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) ended a 50-year armed conflict. This event polarized the electorate and granted unprecedented legitimacy to leftist candidates seeking to enter mainstream politics. It also shifted citizens’ top concerns from security to other long-standing grievances about poverty, unemployment, and corruption, which the pandemic-induced economic downturn made more acute. Consequently, from 2019 to 2021, significant social unrest erupted in protests rarely seen in Colombia, creating an environment conducive to charismatic leadership. Seizing the opportunity, Petro used bold and emotionally charged tactics to appeal to leftist and independent voters, promising to implement a host of ambitious redistributive reforms.
Importantly, Petro faces much resistance in Colombia’s polarized environment; both powerful opposition forces and strong democratic institutions designed to check executive power could stymie his capacity to achieve the bold reforms he has promised and, along with it, his efforts to consolidate personalistic authority. Nevertheless, his strategic use of charisma has helped him consolidate steadfast emotional attachments with a large group of voters, as his relatively high approval rating (50%) suggests. Even so, it remains to be seen whether Petro will be able to overcome opposition actors and institutional constraints to substantiate his charismatic authority.
Leadership Without Charisma
In contrast to Bolsonaro, AMLO, Bukele, and Petro, several recent Latin American executives have governed without relying on charismatic authority. These leaders have fallen short of establishing charismatic leadership for different reasons. In Argentina, Alberto Fernández (2019-present) was handpicked for the presidency by his much more charismatic predecessor and vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and has acted as a limp and visibly conflicted successor rather than a bold leader in his own right. In Chile, Gabriel Boric (2022-present) has demonstrated a preference for programmatic leadership, moderation, and consensus rather than donning the mantle of a savior. Moreover, his performance has been a disappointment to Chileans, as underscored by the resounding defeat of the proposed new constitution he supported.
Finally, the most stunning display of the absence of charisma resides in Peru’s most recent ex-president, Pedro Castillo (2021-2022). In contrast to Fernández and Boric, the Peruvian leader clearly demonstrated a desire to become his country’s savior: he rose during a debilitating political crisis and promised to use his outsider status bring about a far-reaching transformation in Peru. Most notably, staged a coup on the morning of December 7, 2022, shamelessly revealing his desire for unchecked power.
While initially popular in rural areas and among the poor, Castillo’s catastrophic failures in governance during his short presidency caused his support to wane and his inner circle to turn against him from the moment he announced his failed coup. True, his supporters and leftist leaders around the region are building a Manichean narrative in the aftermath of his failed coup in attempts to portray him as the victim of a putschist vice president and evil Congress. Even so, Castillo lacks the emotional appeal, strategic wherewithal, and leadership capacity to communicate genuine charisma, demonstrate heroic capacity, and achieve the devotion of potential supporters. Simply put, crisis, public anger, and avarice alone do not a charismatic leader make.
I conclude this brief analysis with three key takeaways. First, as demonstrated by the charismatic success of Bolsonaro, Bukele, and AMLO, charismatic leadership can flourish across the ideological spectrum. Second, charismatic leadership across contexts appears to be imbued with a hypermasculine character: for reasons we have yet to fully understand, charismatic leadership seems intimately linked with the image of “strongmen,” even if women such as Fernández de Kirchner sometimes achieve this type of leadership. Third, leaders who successfully establish charismatic attachments and use the resulting authority to override institutions and govern in an unmediated fashion tend to erode democracy. However, at the same time, charismatic leadership can also be used to mobilize support for much-needed change within democracies. As the tumultuous unrest roiling Peru demonstrates, the complete absence of charismatic leadership can itself contribute to political crisis and democratic decay.
About the Author
Caitlin Andrews-Lee is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University. Dr. Andrews-Lee’s research and teaching focuses on comparative politics and research methods, with a regional focus on Latin America. She is especially interested in how leaders cultivate charismatic attachments with voters to garner support, consolidate power, and undermine democratic accountability. She has published an award-winning book with Cambridge University Press on this topic, The Emergence and Revival of Charismatic Movements: Argentine Peronism and Venezuelan Chavismo, as well as peer-reviewed articles in several academic journals. Her current research examines how and under what conditions women can defy expectations and establish charismatic authority.
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