When Politicians Aren’t Speaking The Same Language

Last June, Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and Obama met at The Summit of Leaders of America to discuss the country’s’ goals and problems within the current global context. The leaders have had cordial relations over the years, but this meeting brought about a semantics battle leaving tarnishing the reputation on both–but mainly Nieto’s. Not to mention his current plummeting popularity.  

The three discuss the current struggles each country faces in the new geopolitical climate. But the live broadcast of Obama and Nieto’s discourse hit a dead end on one of those days–and it was populism. Nieto made evident that he was not a populist. Or at least had a different vision of populism. According to Nieto, in Spanish: “Actores políticos, liderazgos políticos que asumen posiciones populistas y demagógicas, pretendiendo eliminar, o destruir lo que se ha construido, lo que ha tomado décadas construir, para revertir problemas del pasado.” (Political actors and political leaders that assume populists and demagogic positions pretend to eliminate or destroy what has been constructed. And has taken decades to construct to reverse the problems of the past). He continued saying that people who conjure populist ideas try to sell the world fast and easy solutions, and it isn’t simple to fix. He went even further: “La solución que algunos proponen, no es destruyendo lo construido; no es optar por otra vía y por una ruta de aislamiento y de destrucción, sino es acelerar el paso en favor del desarrollo. Y ahí yo señalaba que mucho de lo que hoy algunos dicen, se parece a lo que, en el pasado, ya el propio Presidente Obama refirió años más atrás, pero a lo que en el pasado estos liderazgos también dijeron a sus sociedades, Hitler, Mussolini, y el resultado todos lo conocemos. Una devastación y una tragedia en la historia de la humanidad del siglo pasado” (The solution some propose is not destroying what is already constructed but rather accelerating the pace in favor of development. There I signal that much of what others said what it  seemed in the past, and also to Obama years ago also, what past leaders said to their societies: Hitler and Mussolini. And we know the results: a devastating and tragedy in the history of humankind of the last century).

Obama responded in disagreement: “I worry about the poor that work hard and still don’t have the opportunity to advance. And I worry about the workers who are capable of having a collective voice in the work environment. I want to make sure kids are receiving a decent education and I think we need to have a tax system that is fair. I suppose that makes me a populist.”

Mexicans had mixed reactions on both of the leader’s positions. Many said that Obama doesn’t even represent populism, but socialism. Others were quick to say that populism–and its Spanish translation–populismo did not mean the same thing. Milenio’s columnist, Hugo García Michel quickly got to work and demystified the semantics battle. According to Michel, the general English definition is something like this: “Governmental political movement that promotes the interest of common people, and equity among them.” But the official Spanish definition as defined by the Real Academia Española (Royal Academy of Spanish), the governmental institution in charge of making the official grammar rules of Spanish, says that populismo is: “The political tendency that seeks to attract the poor classes.”

The two definitions don’t seem to far if you ask me. Most people were convinced that the two leaders simply weren’t speaking the same language. They literally weren’t. In fact, Enrique Peña Nieto speaks no English, and was relying on live translations. Several months ago, Ecuador’s leading entrepreneur site El Emprendedor (The Entrepreneur) had three tricks to aid people speak more eloquently. One of them was define exactly the terms you are using. Whether this tip could have saved Nieto’s embarrassment in Ottawa raises another question on what populism is, not in terms of semantics, but in historical junctures.

The United States and Mexico didn’t experiment with populism the same way, and that’s maybe where most of the confusion may have started. America has had a long tradition with populism and continues to with the modern rendition of The Tea Party and its populist rhetoric and symbols. Throughout much of America’s history and today, populist ideology is convinced that most of the country’s ills are the fault of elites.

Latin American on the other hand, has historically took populism differently. At least ideologically. Because essentially anything beneath US is developing, populism in Latin America can be best described by a newly organized industrial bourgeoisie and urban working class, in which the latter accepts political reforms for the sake of stability and increased technological advancement. This could only have been achieved by more or less authoritarian governments. And well, Latin American is notoriously known for authoritarian leaders. *Sigh* Third world problems? Peña Nieto was merely reflecting the reality Mexico and many of its Latin American neighbors face in their respective political moods. The destruction Nieto was alluding to were populists in his country who feel left behind from the onset of industrialism. Obama and Nieto may have had the same idea of populism, but not clearly defined.

Nieto wouldn’t have been the first hispanic leader under fire for language use. Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. In 2013, during his speech commemorating a national holiday, Maduro addressed the millions of Venezuelans who are continuing the political tradition of Bolivarianism by the “millones y millonas” (millions and millions). Yes, millions and millions. Millones is the masculine form for million. Millonas would be the hypothetical feminine form, translating to something like “millionse” in English. Maduro was bending gender cases in order to appeal to the Venezuelan women he was addressing in his speech. Although his heart was in the right spirit, the Real Academia Española would consider it blatantly incorrect, if not absurd. There was a sea of memes the following day mocking Maduro’s incorrect use of gender cases. Not only was it redundant, but millones is the ONLY correct way. English has no institution like that. The closest example would be a vague “grammar police.” Anyone can be a grammar police. But in Spanish, the Real Academia Española is the only legitimate grammar police. Even though most people know language changes, Spanish-speakers generally look up to the standards of the RAE.

Maduro is becoming everyday Venezuela’s modern villain. Poverty, crime, hyperinflation, and scarcity of basic goods have become the incessant soundtrack of Venezuela today, and the lack of response is creating a new Venezuelan diaspora.  Henrique Capriles, Maduro’s political enemy mocked him in a Tweet right after the millonas incident: “Millones y millonas te van a sacar de Miraflores Maduro. Nada te salva de que te alquilamos la constitución.” (Millions and millionse will sack you from Miraflores, Maduro. Nothing will save you from us leasing back the constitution).


McGregor, Jaynce “Three Amigos Summit”. 2016. CBC News. Jpg Image.


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