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Populism v Doña Florinda

16 November 2019

Doña Florinda, a recurring character in the Mexican sit-com “El chavo de ocho” had married above her class, a widow (her sea-captain husband having been eaten by a shark) with one son… whom she zealously watches over for any “contamination” by her lower class neighbors.

Although “El sindrome de Doña Florinda” (people have written academic papers on this) is one explanation of the whipsawing between progressive and conservative governments in Latin America, it id not the full story.  The Doña Florinda syndrome suggests that progressive governments seek to open the economy, growing the middle class.  Middle class interests and values — stability, “getting ahead”, maintaining social standards — are promoted by the right, and create the climate for a return to a conservative government.

Which returns to the economic theories that prevent the middle class from growing, and… like Doña Florinda’s lamentable encounter with the shark… leave the middle class in reduced circumstances, resentful, and more open to the progressive policies shared by the “lesser” neighbors.

But, as Ilán Serno wrote in today’s Jornada, it’s more complicated than that.  Whether progressive or reactionary, Latin American nations still operate under a few economic assumptions, going back in some cases to the colonial era.  Whether the left is nationalist (as with the Morena government in Mexico)or populist (in in-coming Peronists in Argentina), and whether the right is fascist (as in Brazil, and… so it seems… Bolivia) or neo-liberal (Chile and Ecuador), the economy is based largely on extractive industry (oil, lithium, coffee, etc,) and can only open up the middle class through expanded exploitation.

More to the point, to foster growth takes money… and more money spent on the have-nots during a progressive phase… leads either to debts or to more exploitation…. and a turn to conservativism.

Unspoken, though certainly a Doña Florinda-ismo, is the assumption that the “deserving middle class” are the victims of the undeserving beneficiaries of the growth period.  Doña Florinda certainly feels entitled to her (self-ordained) social status.  “Those people”…. the indigenous in Bolivia, or Brazil, the rural poor in Mexico, just about everybody in Guatemala (poor, rural,. and indigenous) are expendable.

Semo bemoans the fact that we haven’t found a way out… yet.  A new, and different economic system, something beyond the simple “capitalist v socialist” model.  So far, it appears the Morena government in Mexico is doing something different… cutting government spending while increasing benefits… but it is probably only a reprieve from the need for a new social and economic model.  There is only so much “waste, fraud, and abuse” of previous administrations that can be cut to free up spending for expanded benefits programs.  Presumably,or one hopes, the money extracted from corruptos is limited, and eventually, like the oil wells, the source will dry up.


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