The Revival of the Political Right in Latin America

BY UPAMANYU LAHIRI

Sebastián Piñera and his wife, Cecilia Morel, celebrating his victory in the Chilean presidential election outside a hotel in Santiago. (Claudio Reyes and Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

The upcoming Brazilian and Colombian elections promise to be a riveting affair. Apart from the internal politics of these South American powerhouses, for international observers, these elections will also be important test cases for a larger political trend that has emerged in Latin America over the past couple of years – the revival of the political right. Given its testy, if not outright hostile, relationships with many of the Western Hemisphere’s leftist leaders, the United States will certainly hope this trend continues.

Since late 2015, Latin America – which, over the past several years, has been dominated by leftist, often anti-American leaders like Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers – has been witnessing a sudden upsurge of its long moribund political right. The ‘pink tide’ of the 2000s, which brought many leftist leaders to power across the continent, now seems a thing of the past. Across the hemisphere, leftist governments are either losing control or struggling to hold on to power. Meanwhile, center-right parties are securing decisive victories.

In December 2015, center-right candidate Mauricio Macri replaced the incumbent leftist President Cristina Fernandez in Argentina. That same month, the opposition in Venezuela gained a supermajority in the parliamentary elections against President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party. In July 2016, Peru’s pro-business President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski narrowly beat out right-wing nationalist Keiko Fujimori in an election in which the left-wing candidate did not even make it to the final run off vote. In August 2016, Brazil’s leftist Workers’ Party lost power when President Dilma Rousseff was impeached. Last November, President Mauricio Macri’s center-right coalition swept the legislative elections in Argentina.  In December, former billionaire President Sebastian Pinera ran on a conservative agenda and comfortably won Chile’s presidential election. In a telling sign of frustration with both Chile’s and the region’s leftist leaders, a supporter of Pinera held up a bust of Chile’s notorious right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet during celebrations on the streets of the capital Santiago. During this period, socialist President Lenin Moreno was the sole leftist victor in the continent when he beat his center-right rival in Ecuador last April. However, even this was not a pickup for the left. Though the socialist party emerged victorious in Ecuador, they only managed to retain power, not defeat center-right incumbents.  

Many of the leftists who remain in power are not positioning themselves as endearing leaders for their people, or the region in general. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, recently replaced the democratically-elected National Assembly – which has been controlled by the opposition since late 2015 – with a new Constituent Assembly loyal to him, the latest in a series of authoritarian measures to consolidate power amid a rapidly worsening economic and humanitarian crisis. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has ignored the will of the people who voted in the 2016 referendum against his seeking a fourth term in office for 2019 as he proceeds to do just that.  

In a continent long dominated by leftist leaders promising to build more egalitarian societies, the resurgence of the right is a remarkable development. However, for observers of the continent, this is not an entirely surprising turn of events. The end of the commodities boom, which had benefited Latin America, forced many leftist governments to slash spending on generous welfare programs they enacted which may have spurred their decline. In recent years, many leftist leaders have been embroiled in massive corruption scandals that negatively impacted voters’ perceptions of them. Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was controversially forced out of office due to a corruption scandal involving kickbacks in state contracts. Former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva, who is currently bidding to return to power later this year, was accused in the same case and awaits the upcoming verdict. Additionally , the authoritarian tendencies of  leaders like Maduro are making people question if they are as bad – if not worse –  than former right-wing dictators like Pinochet or the Argentine Juntas.

People don’t seem to believe the cries of “American imperialism” by many of their leftist leaders anymore, with many now viewing it as empty rhetoric that misconstrues allegations of past American interference in the region to distract from their leaders’ own failures. It may, of course, be unfair to group a would-be dictator like Maduro with Chile’s outgoing socialist President Michelle Bachelet, who fought for democracy and endured torture and exile in her youth under the Pinochet regime. However, this is exactly the comparison President-elect Sebastian Pinera made when he warned that Chile would be on the path to “Chilezuela” if his opponent came to power and continued Bachelet’s policies. This is a tactic many right-leaning candidates are using against their leftist rivals across the continent.

The winds of political change blowing across the continent present a valuable opportunity for the United States in a part of the world where it has been vilified by leftist leaders who have often held enormous sway. President Obama understood this and took steps to improve relations in his last years. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), signed on Feb. 4,  2016, was set to vastly improve trade and diplomatic relations with all countries involved, including Latin American ones like Mexico, Peru and Chile. During his landmark trip to Latin America in March 2016, he visited Argentina, which had recently elected President Mauricio Macri on a platform of repairing its relationship with the United States – a sharp contrast with his predecessor Cristina Fernandez. President Macri distanced Argentina from the anti-American Venezuela-Bolivia bloc that his predecessor had drawn the country closer to. During the same trip, Obama also visited Cuba  and made history by reopening relations with the Carribean island, ending five decades of old U.S. policy that had failed to remove the Castro regime from power while ordinary Cubans suffered as a result of the sanctions. Although Cuba remains a totalitarian state, there was hope that opening it up to the world would give its citizens a glimpse of freedom and gradually lead to political change. By the end of Obama’s term, there was consensus that his Latin American Policy, aided by the changing political climate in the continent, was cause for cautious optimism. However, under President Trump’s “America First” policy of taking a step back from global leadership in favor of isolationism and trade protectionism, this progress threatens to fall apart. In addition, Trump’s comments on Mexicans, seen as disparaging Latin Americans at large, threaten any opportunity the U.S. may have in the continent. Latin American leaders, even right-leaning ones, may be wary of seeming cozy with a U.S. President seen as prejudiced against the people of their countries. Trump has significantly scaled back the detente with Cuba, reducing chances of political change, and the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP will further reduce the incentives of signatory countries like Mexico, Peru and Chile to work with the U.S.

The continued surge of the right in Latin America is by no means guaranteed. In Argentina, Mauricio Macri’s proposed plan of gradually tightening pension benefits is already inciting major protests. A victory for the left in either Colombia or Brazil could possibly stop and reverse this trend. This scenario seems more likely in Brazil, where former President “Lula” da Silva, popularly known simply as “Lula,” a larger-than-life figure in both Brazilian politics and the Latin American left, is running against right-wing lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro in October. It promises to be a bitter and turbulent affair that reflects the national mood amid an upcoming appeals court verdict on graft charges against Lula, which could render him ineligible to run.

Lula is currently in the lead against his colorful, if controversial, rival in the polls. Balsonaro, known as the “Donald Trump of Brazil,” has staked out provocative positions such as denying Brazil’s two decades of military rule was a dictatorship, advocating hardline approaches to law and order issues, like rewarding police for any tactics used in stopping criminals. However, despite his controversial positions and some incendiary comments about women and minorities, Balsonaro has a blemish-free record in public life, in contrast to the trail of corruption scandals plaguing his rival. Although he still trails Lula, this is the reason he has built up a significant following amongst Brazil’s youth. Despite his image being tarnished by graft allegations, Lula leads the polls as he remains one of the few figures with nationwide name recognition. Many Brazilians remember his tenure from 2003-2011, during the height of the commodities boom, as a prosperous time. Victory for Lula, a highly respected figure in Latin American leftist politics, will turn the right-wing tide in Latin America’s largest and most powerful country. However, his path is not so straightforward. Within weeks, an appeals court will decide whether or not to uphold a conviction and a ten-year prison sentence in his graft case. If the conviction is upheld, he will be ineligible to run. It is not known who the Workers’ Party will nominate if Lula is forced to withdraw as the party has no one to match his name recognition and stature.

In Colombia, Humberto de la Calle, who served as the chief negotiator for the government in talks with the left-wing rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is running to succeed his boss, President Juan Manuel Santos, and keep his legacy intact. President Santos’ landmark agreement with the FARC brought an end to Latin America’s longest running war and won him a Nobel Peace Prize. However, tensions with another left-wing rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), threaten the prospects of both his Liberal Party and preferred successor in upcoming congressional and presidential elections in March and May respectively. A three-month ceasefire with ELN ended last month and within hours the rebels blew up a national oil pipeline. Any setbacks in the talks or acts of violence by the ELN would benefit the conservative opposition.

A victory in Colombia would be another pickup for Latin America’s resurgent right. However, a defeat, followed by another likely defeat in Brazil if Lula successfully contests for an overturn of the conviction, would end the right’s dream run and mark a comeback for the continental dominance of the left.

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