For some Latin Americans, there’s a stinging familiarity hearing Donald Trump rail against the “disgusting” this and that. It reminds them of home.
At a campaign rally last week, Trump warned supporters that if Hillary Clinton were elected, the United States would be led into the kind of economic abyss being felt by Venezuela.
But for Andres Caceres, who grew up in Venezuela before moving to Miami 16 years ago, such apocalyptic warnings are worrying: He thinks Trump sounds too much like Latin America’s infamous strongmen known as caudillos.
“He reminds me way too much of Chávez,” said Caceres, who’s 29, referring to Hugo Chávez, the country’s late president whose rule pushed the Caceres family to flee to the United States. “These caudillos. It’s the same loop all over again. It’s sad that even people in this country are vulnerable to that, because Latinos know.”
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The politics of real estate mogul Trump may be the polar opposite of Chávez’s socialism, but experts say he uses the same tools to charm the public that Chávez and other charismatic strongmen have. Political correctness is thrown out and replaced with brash talk. They paint themselves as the only leaders capable of returning their countries to former glory.
Francisco Mora, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere from 2009 to 2013, calls Trump the “North American version” of the caudillo.
The specifics may be different, Mora said, but the general outline is the same: the charisma, the polarizing personality, the stoking of fear and the anti-establishment message.
“Trump is clearly in the camp of a populist demagogue; that is to say he makes all kinds of outlandish promises.” said Mora, who is the the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. “Like caudillos of Latin America, he’s extremely divisive. The opposition is not the opposition, it’s the enemy. It’s the demonization of the other.”
The best politicians have the ability to energize large groups of people. But Mora said Trump and caudillos connected on a deeper level. They can mesmerize an audience. They develop an almost messiah-like quality, transcending the institutions they charge are corrupt.
Trump can be antagonistic, calling his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton weak and a world-class liar. He likes to say that nobody will be tougher on the Islamic State than he will. He called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
“The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly,” he said during a June rally in New Hampshire after the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando. “We’re not acting clearly. We’re not talking clearly. We’ve got problems. If we don’t get tough, and if we don’t get smart, and fast, we’re not going to have our country anymore. There will be nothing – absolutely nothing – left.”
Chavez used similar lines in denouncing the “imperialist” United States. On television, he’d call former President George W. Bush a “coward” and a “donkey.”
“If one day the crazy idea of invading Venezuela occurs to you, I will wait for you in this savannah,” Chavez said. “God, liberate the world of this threat.”
There are other similarities, including their manly bragging. Trump has boasted of his sexual prowess and defended his manhood. Chávez once addressed his wife publicly, saying “Marisabel, prepare yourself. Tonight, I will give you what is yours.”
Trump is clearly in the camp of a populist demagogue.
Francisco Mora, Florida International University
To former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga, it’s not a question of style, but substance. He sees similar approaches to foreign policy between Trump and the Chávez regime that alarm him more than whether Trump curses or brags like Chavez does.
Chávez and current Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro restricted trade and took aggressive steps against neighboring Colombia. Quiroga said Chavez and Maduro “sabotaged” free trade agreements. And like Trump’s promises to build a wall at the U.S. border with Mexico, Venezuela took a stance against Colombia and deported many Colombian immigrants living in the country illegally near the border. Families were torn apart, Quiroga said.
“He would fit right in with the Chavistas,” Quiroga said of Trump.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But Dahlys Hamilton, who led the Hispanic Patriots for Trump and is adviser of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump, called such comparisons laughable: Chávez was a liberal who came from poverty, while Trump is a billionaire running as a Republican.
Chávez was a dictator. Trump is not trying to dictate to anybody. He’s trying to protect us.
Dahlys Hamilton, National Diversity Coalition for Trump
Chávez was elected in the wake of an economic decline, when 65 percent of Venezuelans were living in poverty. Trump’s popularity, on the other hand, has been fueled in part by working-class Americans fed up with illegal immigrants who they suspect have been given more breaks than they have.
“Look at what’s going on with Venezuela right now,” Hamilton said. “People are digging through rubbish. That’s what Chávez did. Trump is not going to do that to us. Chávez was a dictator. Trump is not trying to dictate to anybody. He’s trying to protect us.”
Trump’s promise to “Make America great” is a message that experts say taps into concerns about deepening income inequality and resentment. And that is very similar to the message from Chávez and other caudillos who railed against the ruling elite.
Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College, argues that Trump has another campaign plank in common with “outsiders-turned presidents” such as Chávez, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Their claim to fame was that they had no experience in politics, Corrales said. To them, nothing is worse than a professional politician, who in their view is corrupt and incompetent.
Corrales said Hillary Clinton could learn something from these “outsiders,” particularly when seeking to highlight Trump’s inexperience.
In Bolivia, Morales seemed to rise in campaign polls when his challengers, both former presidents, criticized him – just as happened in the Republican primaries, when more experienced politicians such as Jeb Bush criticized Trump for being inexperienced and ended up bolstering his popularity, Corrales said.
“There must be another approach to weaken Trump,” Corrales said. “To simply believe that by expressing experience that she’ll make Trump look bad, that only works with people who are not looking for a newcomer, an outsider, like Trump.”
Trump’s decision in June to ban The Washington Post from campaign events recalls the legendary fights caudillos have had with the fourth estate. He also has pledged to “open up” federal libel laws to make it easier to sue news reporters and editors.
Correa bullies reporters. He sued Ecuador’s leading newspaper, El Universo, for $40 million. Three editors were sentenced to three years in prison for defaming the president in an editorial. Chávez shut down independent media outlets and set up state-run networks.
Mora said he found himself, more and more, asking many Latinos around Miami to think about the countries they’d fled because of the “divisive populists” who led distinct forms of government that once were appealing. These Latinos left because they understood what the consequences would be.
“Now we’re seeing it here,” he said.