The current right-wing cycle in Latin America is showing signs of exhaustion even before it could have achieved a lasting hegemony. Gabriel Boric’s victory in Chile in December 2021 could symbolize a change of trend, and the elections in Colombia and Brazil in 2022 will be decisive in confirming this scenario.
Right-wing governments have been defeated without having managed to stay in power for even a decade. More specifically, they have only endured one legislature. The exceptions were Honduras and Paraguay, which are two countries where right-wing movements had returned via institutional coups. In Honduras, they were recently defeated.
Indeed, in the 12 presidential elections that have been held in the region since 2019, opponents have been elected in 11 of them. The exception is Nicaragua’s general elections of 2021, which were clearly a sham voting held only to keep Daniel Ortega in power.
The different cycles of Latinamerica’s political right
The right-wing cycle shouldn’t be understood as an interval between progressive cycles, which will disappear without a trace. Some elements of this wave will endure in the coming years. Nor is it a temporary suspension of a progressive cycle that has not even come to an end.
The rise of the right in the region has responded to the exhaustion of the cycle of the 2000s and early 2010s. Finally, it doesn’t mean a restoration of some previous stage of the Latin American past. It presents some new elements of its own that differentiate it from previous stages.
To characterize the right-wing cycle that began in the mid-2010s, let us try to avoid applying dual analyses such as liberal and conservative, democratic and authoritarian, new and old, cosmopolitan and nationalist. It should be understood as something that has elements of its own and that projects a future, not just the restoration of a past, whether it is mythical or not. Therefore, it should not be treated as a “conservative restoration”, nor as a resumption of the neoliberal policies of the 1990s. To a large extent, it is something different.
It is so because, on the one hand, it presents elements of neoconservatism that were not present in the previous right-wing cycle. In some cases, even neo-fascism and its neoliberalism is more aggressive and anti-popular. On the other hand, it is organized differently. It contests elections and organizes coups d’état differently, and it governs in an authoritarian manner or with limited democracy. And finally, it presents a different international alignment than in the 1990s.
These right-wing movements have a long history in Latin America. They are the rule, not the exception in regional politics. They haven’t ignored the ideas that have nurtured them since the region’s creation. Liberal, conservative and Catholic lines of thought are still present, informing their proposals and actions. However, there’s a renewal to these lines as the elements are presented in new forms.
Several of their leaders express themselves as more aggressive and authoritarian figures, which are associated with values and practices partly inspired by neoconservatism or the traditionalism of the North American alternative right (alt-right)—as in the cases of Jair Bolsonaro, Nayib Bukele, and Iván Duque, who predominate in this current cycle.
Furthermore, the concept of neoliberalism is currently being expressed beyond those privatizing reforms associated previously with the Washington Consensus. In recent decades it has become deeply rooted in Latin American societies’ psyche and it constitutes a hegemonic way of life, which continued to develop during the previous progressive cycle. It will likely appear again in the new progressive cycle, albeit more limited. It is now associated with uberization, entrepreneurship, individualism, private and paramilitary militias, drug trafficking, consumerism, and neo-Pentecostalism.
These right-wing movements are also adopting new practices to contest power. These include institutional coups (Honduras, Paraguay, and Brazil), lawfare to prevent the return of progressive leaders through criminalization, the proliferation of fake news, and the digitalization of electoral campaigns.
Although some traditional right-wing parties still survive, such as the National Party in Uruguay and the Colorado Party in Paraguay, candidates running independently, or through citizen parties and other platforms have become more common. This is a right-wing that explicitly distances itself from traditional institutions and that, in many cases, supports more openly the defense of dictatorships, persecution of opponents, and permanent states of exception.
While in the previous right-wing cycle its representatives pretended to present themselves as democrats, this requirement now seems to be low. Many govern in an openly authoritarian manner, testing the limits of the shaky liberal democracy at all times, such as the cases of Bolsonaro, Bukele, and Duque, or resorting to successive states of exception, like Sebastián Piñera.
Unconditional alliance with Washington
Compared to the right-wing cycle of the 1990s, there is an unconditional alignment with the United States, especially during the presidency of Donald Trump, and an abandonment of regional integrationist policies, including “open regionalism”. The evident preference for international alignment of Latin American right-wingers since 1945 has been with the United States.
However, the previous right-wing cycle opted for more multicentric policies, especially in the construction of South American, Ibero-American, and Lusophone institutions for integration. Even the so-called “carnal relations” of Menemism with the U.S. paved the way for the creation of Mercosur. Now, what we can see is the abandonment of such institutions and a notable absence of assertive initiatives in international relations.
This unconditional alliance with the northern neighbor has shown, however, some signs of weakening. That can be exemplified by the conflicts between the administration of President Biden and Bukele over his support for bitcoin, and with Bolsonaro over his confused support for Vladimir Putin in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It will be important to observe in the coming months whether, at the end of the day, the alliance was mostly ideological with the U.S. far-right.
In a region that is still mostly formally democratic and where the highest inequality levels in the world persist, it can be said that it would be difficult to establish a long hegemony explicitly of the political right-wing. Moreover, the crisis and reconfiguration of capitalism since 2008 with the end of the “commodity consensus” and more recently, the disorganization at various levels promoted by the Covid-19 pandemic, have all not favored this new cycle.
In general, societies are increasingly divided, polarized, and atomized, especially in the context of the pandemic. Against this backdrop, a possible new wave or pink tide will also face significant difficulties in sustaining itself. This could indefinitely prolong a situation of short cycles and counter-cycles that do not consolidate – in a long organic regional crisis.
Translated from Spanish by Ricardo Aceves