Putting Down Roots: The Latin American Right Today

"There will be violence, there will be clashes.” So said Bolivian opposition lawmaker Fernando Messmer in November, as six of the country’s departments staged a general strike to protest the rewriting of the national constitution. As we go to print, at least three people have been killed in riots on the streets of Sucre, where the Constituent Assembly meets, after right-wing demonstrations turned into riots. The assembly has been meeting for the past year with little to show for its efforts, largely because the party right has managed to gum up the process with dilatory maneuvers and outright obstruction, while its supporters have taken to the streets, often resorting to violence and harassment.

Pablo Morales

"There will be violence, there will be clashes.” So said Bolivian opposition lawmaker Fernando Messmer in November, as six of the country’s departments staged a general strike to protest the rewriting of the national constitution. As we go to print, at least three people have been killed in riots on the streets of Sucre, where the Constituent Assembly meets, after right-wing demonstrations turned into riots. The assembly has been meeting for the past year with little to show for its efforts, largely because the party right has managed to gum up the process with dilatory maneuvers and outright obstruction, while its supporters have taken to the streets, often resorting to violence and harassment.

As Raúl Zibechi argues in this Report’s opening piece, the protests that turned violent are symptomatic of a flailing right wing that since the 2005 election of Evo Morales, the country’s leftist indigenous president, has found itself on the ropes in the face of widespread support for the government. Similar patterns can be found in Ecuador and Venezuela, he writes, where the marginalized right has also had to concentrate its efforts largely outside of the electoral arena: mass demonstrations, propaganda campaigns, and the like. For the Bolivian case, Bret Gustafson fleshes out this phenomenon, noting that the right, whose base of power lies in the resource-rich eastern lowlands, “is regrouping through a two-pronged strategy of promoting a regionalist vision of ‘autonomy’ and rebuilding a national party apparatus.” It has pursued this through a variety of means, including extralegal violence, while appropriating the emancipatory discourse long associated with the country’s left and indigenous movements.

But this kind of right-wing backlash politics is not representative of the entire region. As Zibechi notes, “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.” In Mexico and Colombia, Washington’s closest allies in the region, it is the right that is in power, and it has increasingly taken on an “ultra” cast, militarizing society through ironfisted policies. Forrest Hylton traces the history of this process in one Colombian city, Medellín. Although travel pieces in English emphasize that the city has been transformed—that it is now “a magnet for tourism, the culture industry, business conventions, and large-scale capital investment”—this “peace of the pacifiers” came about only after the profound violence unleashed by the cocaine elite, which in the 1990s “took over the reins of business and society from the old industrial and coffee-exporting families.” Despite the official “demobilization” of right-wing paramilitaries, the city is still largely ruled by an informal “parastate,” representing “the unification of organized crime with the establishment.”

Meanwhile, in the case of Mexico, as Irene Ortiz’s article herein makes clear, an increasingly influential, well-connected religious right has made great strides since 2000, when for the first time a conservative-identified party, the PAN, came to power. This cleared the way for El Yunque (the Anvil)—a secretive, quasi-fascist Catholic group dedicated to establishing a theocratic state—to begin building a real base of power within the party. Many people linked to the organization have been appointed to cabinet positions.

In Nicaragua, too, evangelical and Catholic activists have converged to form a powerful anti-feminist movement, whose first major victory came in 2006, when abortion was outlawed without exception—with the crucial votes of Sandinistas. Karen Kampwirth describes this as “shift to cynicism,” rather than to the right, on the part of the FSLN. “Though we tend to speak of movements as left- or right-wing, liberal or conservative,” she writes, “they may in fact be all of these things at once—simultaneously resisting imperialism, rejecting dictatorship, and promoting gender inequality.”

In sum, much attention in recent years has been devoted to the Latin American “left turn” with little attention to how right-wing politics has adjusted to meet the new challenge to its dominance, which, in a previous era, was largely a given. We hope this Report contributes to our readers’ understanding of the Latin American right today.


Pablo Morales is editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas. See the entire January/February issue: "Putting Down Roots: The Latin American Right Today."
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