The triumph of the neoliberal Washington Consensus in Latin America has had a contradictory effect: It has increased the profits of the multinational corporations and improved the situation of elites, but it has eroded many of the old right-wing parties throughout the continent and opened cracks in the region’s political systems. This paradox is at the heart of the profound changes that countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela are undergoing. It explains the access that left-wing parties now enjoy to the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, and is the reason for which traditional forms of domination have gone into crisis in Mexico and Colombia, to mention two U.S.-allied countries where the right looks quite different than it did just a few years ago. It is in this critical context that a new Latin American right has taken the offensive.
This is most evident on the ideological front. U.S.-style think tanks have cropped up all over the region, meant to be factories of analysis, ideas, and policy proposals. A key example is the Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies (Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales, or FAES), chaired by former Spanish president José María Aznar. Closely linked to the Heritage Foundation, FAES has some advantages over its U.S. counterparts, since it is part of the Hispanic world—its leaders speak the same language as the Latin Americans and generate less resistance. This is no small matter, since the ideas that Aznar promotes are identical to those of the George W. Bush administration.
In March 2007, Aznar presented a report titled “América Latina: una agenda de libertad” (Latin America: An Agenda for Liberty, available at the FAES Web site, www.fundacionfaes.es), co-authored by Manuel Espino, president of Mexico’s National Action Party (PAN).1 In this text, destined to influence policy makers, Aznar identifies the new “enemies of the West”: the altermundialistas (activists associated with the World Social Forum), indigenous movements, and populism. The organization’s declared objective is to “dramatically defeat the project of ‘21st-century socialism.’ ” To this end, the FAES has established cooperation agreements with conservative and Christian democratic parties in Latin America to exchange information and to bring young leaders together for training courses. By the time the report was published, some 200 young people had attended FAES courses in Madrid.2
The following May, Aznar visited São Paulo and Buenos Aires, and announced agreements with a series of institutions: Universidad Católica, Argentina; Fundación Liberdade e Cidadania, Brazil; the PAN, Mexico; Universidad Andrés Bello, Chile; Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas, Peru; Universidad Sergio Arboleda, Colombia; Fundación para el Desarrollo Integral de la Sociedad, Dominican Republic; and Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala. In Argentina, Aznar’s ally is Rosendo Fraga, an analyst linked to the military dictatorship of Jorge Videla, and in Brazil one of his principal followers is Jorge Bornhausen, tied to the old Brazilian military dictatorship.
If Aznar’s ideas aren’t new, the open, public way in which he is constructing a network of institutions and political leaders is. These sectors appear to be linked to the new forms of accumulation they are imposing on the region, including open-pit mining, the forestry-cellulose complex, and soy and sugarcane monocultures. The new right’s ideas are functional and subordinated to these processes, which the multinationals in the region are promoting, and their criticism of social and political actors are in line with the objectives of clearing the land for these investments. When Aznar targets “revolutionary populism, neostatism, racist indigenism, and nationalist militarism,” he is confronting the social and political agendas that can hold back a second neoliberal wave.
In fact, in the three countries where a powerful pressure to go beyond the neoliberal model has appeared (Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela), it is the inidigenist or progressive military that has taken the initiative. Aznar insists on differentiating between “governments and parties of the left or center-left that operate within the norms of democracy”—that is, the governments of Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay—and the “populists,” or those who, like “radical indigenists,” supposedly foment segregation and “destroy the concept of equality of the individual before the law.” In harmony with the White House and the Southern Command, the new right describes as “populist” all those who want to throw off the neoliberal model. It conflates populism with the absence of democracy or dictatorship.
In the context of this ideological offensive, we have three different scenarios: those countries where the right-wing parties have gone into crisis; those that have taken a marked turn from the right to the ultra-right; and others, like those in the Southern Cone, where left-wing factions are playing a role that in years past was played by conservative parties.
As much in Venezuela as in Bolivia, and less evidently in Ecuador, the system of political parties has collapsed following the application of the neoliberal model in the 1980s. The two principal Venezuelan parties, the Christian democrat Independent Electoral Political Organizing Committee (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente, or COPEI) and the social democratic Democratic Action (Acción Democrática, or AD) are marginal groups today before the 60% of the votes that Hugo Chávez has garnered. In Bolivia, historical parties like the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, or MNR) are on the brink of disappearing, after Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS) reached 50% of the vote. The traditional right has been beaten by social mobilizations of recent years, and its historic bases of support have gone into crisis.
It is no accident that these three countries have produced the continent’s greatest social insurrections: in Venezuela, the caracazo of 1989 and the 2002 mobilizations against the state coup; in Bolivia, the Water War of 2000 in Cochabamba, and the two gas wars, in 2003 in El Alto and throughout the country in 2005; in Ecuador, the indigenous uprisings of 1990, 1997, and 2000. The profundity of the social movements’ offensive had many effects on the political system. On the one hand, it delegitimized the neoliberal system and held back elite plans. On the other, it discredited traditional leaderships and the political parties they supported. For this reason, new political forces have arisen in those countries, and in each case have established constituent assemblies to refound the nation on new grounds.
Faced with the magnitude of such changes, the right has had to find new channels of expression. In Venezuela, the mass media alone have the capacity to fill the leadership void—in other words, the media fill in for right-wing parties. The best example was what happened during the coup of 2002. The media actively supported the coup plotters, and when Chávez was reinstated as president, “the country’s principal TV stations broadcast game shows, variety shows, sitcoms, and movies, with no news programming.”3
Media employees reported that the directives dictated that Chávez supporters and spokespeople were specifically to be omitted. The Venezuelan right has long experimented with the use of media as a means of creating political crises and reversing the Bolivarian process. However, this represents a weakness of the right; lacking party structures with wide social support, it must turn to the media as a last resort. In doing so, its limitations come into evidence, since to mobilize the population it must resort to the lie of exaggeration, which often occurs and produces results contrary to its interests.
In Bolivia, the right, having been displaced from power, also uses the media as a means of recovering its leadership. In this country, however, there exists a wide variety of media in the hands of popular sectors, which allows them to counteract the influence of the great media monopolies. Thus, to achieve mass support, the right had to push for autonomy. First there were the great demonstrations in Santa Cruz, headquarters of the most powerful business class in the country. Later, during the Constituent Assembly meetings, the autonomists raised the banner for Sucre, the city where the assembly meets, to become not only the country’s political but also its administrative capital.
The issue might seem minor, but it did successfully mobilize wide sectors of society that channel their dissatisfactions through autonomist demands. In both cases the right achieved wide, mass support and competed with popular governments in their capacity as mobilizers. It has effectively divided the country: the indigenous altiplano and the media luna (half-moon) region, home to the principal gas riches, led by Santa Cruz. Until now, the Bolivian right has successfully obstructed the Constituent Assembly, and is ready to maintain its offensive against the Morales government, which is showing signs of disorder.
There are notable differences, however, between the two countries. In Venezuela the right has been able to mobilize businesspeople, who pressure their employees to go on strike, paying them for the days they don’t work, and has obtained the support of the principal central union, the Workers Confederation of Venezuela. This is explained in great measure by Caracas’s middle class having come out hurt by the Bolivarian process. Or, at least, that is their perception, since their rejection of the government is influenced by the favorable treatment given to the poorest Venezuelans, who always have darker skin, listen to different music, live segregated on the cerros (hillside barrios), and come through the city improvising informal jobs.
In Bolivia the use of the racial factor has been very evident. In fact, the autonomy movement spurred by the Santa Cruz elite, which largely self-identifies as “white,” together with departments that make up the media luna, are clearly driven by a rejection of the indigenous people of the altiplano. Raising the banner of autonomism has permitted the right to appear not directly racist and to achieve massive support among middle-class youth. Finally, the right has turned to forms of struggle that until now were the patrimony of the popular sectors, like hunger strikes and occupations of public buildings, courthouses, and streets.
The presidents of Mexico and Colombia, Felipe Calderón and Álvaro Uribe, represent a phenomenon belonging to another era: the conversion of the right wing into an ultra-right allied with the armed forces or with paramilitaries. In both countries, the ultra-right turn is part of the political-economic alliance with Washington, in which NAFTA and the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement play a relevant part.
Calderón beat the progressive candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador in a dubious election, and since his first day as president has shown that he is ready to govern with soldiers. With the excuse of combating drug trafficking, he quickly ordered a massive military deployment the likes of which the country hadn’t seen in years. Aware that his government was born in the midst of hostility from a large part of the population during a time when social conflicts are still a destabilizing factor (Chiapas and Oaxaca in the first place), he seems prepared to resolve such conflicts with force.
One significant event reveals what we could call the militarization of the Mexican right: The day on which the beginning of the country’s war of independence is celebrated, September 16, Calderón presided over an immense military parade, including both ground and air forces, surrounded by his small children dressed in military uniforms. The children wore the insignias of major and lieutenant colonel, which is prohibited by law; even military officials commented that this was an “excess.” The plaza of the zócalo was replete with uniformed soldiers, and the press pointed out that “for the first time, the special army troops made a demonstration in the heart of the country.” During the parade, several helicopters descended onto the plaza so the camouflaged soldiers could simulate combat. The United Forces for Federal Support—a military unit created May 10, 2007, a few weeks after Calderón became president—also participated. This new unit’s official objective is to fight organized crime in “those acts that run counter to national security and to restore order.”4 The force reports directly to the president and is considered a means of involving the military in maintaining internal order.
The case of Colombia is even more serious, given that it is a country in the midst of a civil war. Uribe was elected as the war president after a century of civil violence and 20 years of failed peace processes, which have generated deep skepticism in a population tired as much of politicians and their electoral promises as of armed groups of whatever political bent. The war has created 3 million displaced people, 8,000 annual homicides for political-social reasons, 3,500 kidnappings each year, and hundreds of forced disappearances. Colombia has one of the highest crime rates in the world, and the state appears incapable of providing security and justice. The fearful population opted for security: Using a discourse of mano dura (iron fist) to end the war, Uribe was elected in 2002 and reelected in 2006 with the support of paramilitary sectors. The government created a network of civil informants of up to 1 million people to support the armed forces, with security forces in the barrios and commercial areas. It established the Day of Compensation, which awards money to citizens who, in the previous week, have helped the security forces avoid a terrorist act or capture a suspect. Rehabilitation and Conolidation Zones were created, under military leadership, where citizen rights like holding meetings and demonstrations are restricted.
The analyst María Teresa Uribe holds that the government has pursued a “citizen soldier” model, which proposes to remake society under “the parameters of the militia” and to “transform the citizen into a combatant with commitments and obligations in wartime circumstances.” In this scenario, the country would march toward a “vigilante society” in which “confidence among neighbors, the old solidary loyalties and social fabrics would fracture, dissolve, atomize.” In such a social order, “mutual suspicion, collective action, public deliberation, and social organization would decline, and mutual suspicion would end up mandating silence and the retreat of individuals toward the private and domestic sphere.”5
Faced with the inability to strengthen the state and sustain credible parties among the population, Colombian elites have diverted resources from Plan Colombia to “refound” the country on new grounds. In some regions like Magdalena Medio, the paramilitaries seek to impose strict control on daily life. In Barrancabermeja, a paramilitary laboratory, “young men are prohibited from having long hair or wearing earrings or bracelets,” while gay bars were closed and “the hair salons with homosexual men were handed over to women.”6 A schedule for minors was also established with obligatory study hours for those 17 years and younger. Hours for public establishments were limited, along with sanctions and penalties for those who did not comply. Reports by several human rights groups on Magdalena Medio point out that young people can be seen, machetes in hand, cleaning public areas as a part of their penalty and in other cases people are obliged to wear signs indicating that they are thieves or prostitutes.
This certainly isn’t happening throughout Colombia, but it is a practice that can be found in those regions effectively ruled by paramilitaries. The really serious thing is that Uribe maintains a close alliance with them, and that the “social cleansing” goes hand in hand with the Bush administration, which seeks to subordinate the country to the political, military, and economic objectives of Washington. Henry Salgado Ruiz asserts that Plan Colombia is an integral, long-term project to “open” the entire region to multinational control.7 The approval of the free trade agreement with the United States and the installation of large open-pit mining projects and monocultures in zones “liberated” by paramilitaries form part of the construction of a new right in Colombia.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva arrived in government committed to respecting financial capital and large corporations. He appointed ministers to his cabinet who are linked to the multinational sector, including Roberto Rodrigues, minister of agriculture during the first four years of the Lula government. Brazil, the world’s eighth largest industrial power, is home to Latin America’s largest private business sector. Some of its companies are among the most important in Latin America and even in the world, like the aeronautics firm Embraer, the oil company Petrobras, and the mining company Vale do Rio Doce.
After establishing a solid alliance with this sector and with national and global banks, Lula proposed continuing the social-democratic neoliberal policies of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He did not pursue agrarian reform as he promised and fervently supported agrobusiness, particularly the soy lobby, but he also established an extensive welfare plan for some 12.5 million poor Brazilians. In effect, Lula pursues a right-wing policy and has become a corporate darling. In 2007, he took a more ambitious step: He established a long-term alliance with the Bush administration and with U.S. corporate interests in producing ethanol from sugarcane.
Among the principal promoters of the Inter-American Commission on Ethanol, launched in December 2006, are two key, well-connected figures: Jeb Bush, ex-governor of Florida, and Rodrigues, the former agriculture minister. This sector is ready to deforest the Amazon to permit the Brazilian ethanol industry to supply agro-fuels to the first world. Were this to happen, Brazil would become a global player and, effectively, the leading economic power of South America.
What we could call the “Brazilian model” is very similar to the one Chile has followed since the 1990 return to democracy. It is also similar to the process Argentina and Uruguay are undergoing, notwithstanding some minor differences. In the four countries, left or progressive forces pursue the same policies as the traditional right but with more attention to the poor, and supporting education and health care. None of these governments are interested in giving up the neoliberal model. Moreover, all of them are deepening their commitment to it: mining in Chile, soy in Argentina, forestry and cellulose in Uruguay, and ethanol, soy, and cellulose in Brazil. In these countries, the right has been worn out and its polices have been taken over by the progressive left without profound changes.
Thus, a global look at the continent allows us to conclude that it is in the countries of the Southern Cone where more stability is to be found; meanwhile, in those countries where the right has become an ultra-right allied with the White House and those where governments seek to throw off neoliberalism, instability and political-social conflicts are permanent. But the stability in the Southern Cone is linked to political immobility, to the fact that right-wing interests are not endangered. Here the right factions do no come to “mutate”; social movements are active but don’t now have the capacity to counteract this form of domination.
In parallel, the fact that left or progressive factions are following the same policies as the right demoralizes and disorganizes the movements, since it introduces a strong dose of confusion among the grass roots. Among the movements, debates abound on the new situation in a panorama dominated by many disagreements and few points in common. Moreover: Everything indicates that the decline in U.S. global hegemony is increasingly reflected in Latin America with Brazil, that is, with the Brazilian business class. However, few believe Brazilian hegemony will be as damaging for the people as that of the U.S. has been. This rotation in hegemonies is part of profound changes to the very role of the region’s right wings.
In the short term, the most important role is that of the right in Bolivia and Ecuador, since the Venezuelan right seems it will be defeated for a long time. In both these Andean countries, a decisive battle is under way in which a new political situation will emerge, one that will have strong influence in the South American region. It is not assured that the governments of Morales and Correa will manage to be as successful as Chávez’s.
In sum, there has not arisen a single, unitary new right in Latin America, since the political processes in every country are markedly different, making generalizations difficult. As we have seen, today there are countries where the right has made a militarist turn, making it ultra-right or radical right, while at the extreme opposite, the traditional right has become occupied with its alliances with the left and sectors of the center and center-right. In not a few of the cases, the crisis of the right is making it possible for old social actors (business people, media, intellectuals) to become new political subjects.
Almost in no country does the right-wing panorama represented by its conservative parties bear any similarity to anything before 1990. Said another way, the fall of real socialism not only affected the various national left wings, but also, as Immanuel Wallerstein has maintained, liberals and conservatives, who can no longer continue governing as before. “The true meaning of the collapse of the Communisms,” he asserted, “is the final collapse of liberalism as a hegemonic ideology.”8
Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha, a weekly journal in Montevideo, Uruguay, researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to social groups. He is a monthly contributor to the CIP Americas Program (www.americaspolicy.org).
1. “Aznar extiende su influencia en AL,” La Jornada (Mexico), March 28, 2007.
2. Antonio González Plessmann, “Venezuela: oposición y estado de derecho,” Revista del Observatorio Social de América Latina no. 7 (Clacso, Buenos Aires, 2002): 20.
3. La Jornada, September 17, 2007.
5. María Teresa Uribe, “El republicanismo patriótico,” in Plataforma Colombiana de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo, ed., Reelección: el embrujo continúa. Segundo año de gobierno de Alvaro Uribe Vélez (Bogotá, 2004).
6. Gearóid ó Loingsigh, “La estrategia integral del paramilitarismo en el Magdalena Medio de Colombia,” 2002, www.prensarural.org.
7. Henry Salgado Ruiz, “Plan Colombia: ¿Guerra contra las drogas o contra las poblaciones amazónicas?” Bajo el volcán 4, no. 7 (Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico, 2004).
8. Immanuel Wallerstein, After Liberalism (The New Press, 1995), p. 242.