The Reinvention of the Latin American Right

Across the hemisphere and beyond, right-wing forces are leveraging the power of internationalism to galvanize hardline “resistance” against a new wave of leftist governments.

April 11, 2023

Eduardo Bolsonaro (second from left) speaks alongside Eduardo Verástegui (left) at CPAC 2022 in Florida, February 26, 2022. (VOX España / CC0 1.0)

This piece appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of NACLA's quarterly print magazine, the NACLA Report. Subscribe in print today!

In November 2022, key figures of the Latin America Right gathered at an upscale hotel in Mexico City. On stage, the main organizer, Eduardo Verástegui, a Mexican actor, producer, and former advisor to Donald Trump on policies concerning the Latino community, gifted a Mexican football jersey to Brazilian lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of the then-outgoing president. The jersey’s number, 27, alluded to Bolsonaro as a possible presidential candidate in Brazil's 2027 elections. As Verástegui harshly attacked the Left and the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Bolsonaro in turn praised him as a potential far-right candidate in Mexico’s 2024 elections, eliciting cheers from the crowd. For Verástegui, the conference represented conservative unity at a time when “the true Right” found itself “orphaned.”

The rallying force behind the event was the U.S.-based Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). In addition to Bolsonaro, the hundreds of attendees included defeated Chilean presidential candidate José Antonio Kast and Argentine libertarian economist and presidential hopeful Javier Milei. Mexico was represented by clerics, former legislators from the center-right Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), and anti-abortion activists.

Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe gave a short and lackluster address, while Senator María Fernanda Cabal, a rising star of the Colombian Right who was introduced to the audience as “the iron maiden against communism,” gave a fiery one. Ghosts from the past were present as well, such as Ramfis Domínguez-Trujillo, grandson of Dominican despot Rafael Trujillo, and Zury Ríos, current Guatemalan presidential candidate and daughter of convicted genocidaire General Efraín Ríos Montt.

U.S. political figures made appearances, most via videoconference. Propagandist Steve Bannon, Senator Ted Cruz, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Chris Landau, conservative pundit Jack Posobiec, and CPAC's leading power couple Matt and Mercedes Schlapp all boasted about the growing strength of the conservative cause across the Americas. Even Donald Trump delivered a short, rather tepid video message, which the audience nevertheless noisily applauded. Europe, too, had a small but meaningful representation. A message from Santiago Abascal, head of the Spanish party Vox, met a warm reception, while Polish anticommunist icon Lech Walesa delivered a rambling keynote address that was not nearly as combative as those of his U.S. and Latin American peers.

CPAC Mexico was an occasion for reckoning. Contrary to the optimism that followed Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s elections and the fall of Evo Morales in Bolivia, recent defeats in Chile, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Honduras, and Brazil seem to have put right-wing forces against the ropes. Yet these losses have galvanized conservatives, who, like they have in the past, are turning to internationalism to bolster their rise. Even in defeat, recent elections across the continent reveal that right-wing platforms are not only viable, but popular and capable of rallying grassroots and elite sectors, building coalitions, and gaining power in local and national arenas.

Three decades after the end of the Cold War and the consolidation of a widespread consensus supporting electoral democracy, the Old Right has sprung back as a seemingly good faith participant in the democratic game. This right wing sits at a crossroads. Given the decline of established center-right parties like Venezuela’s COPEI or Chile’s Christian Democratic Party over the past 20 years, a new constellation of hardline conservative actors is uniting internationally against new enemies like “globalism,” “gender ideology,” and “the gay lobby.”

But the roots of their grievances are decades old: their Cold War battles did not collapse with the fall of the Soviet Bloc, but rather they reconfigured in opposition to the 1990 creation of the São Paulo Forum (FSP), a continent-wide alliance of leftist and reformist parties, and with the rise of left-leaning Pink Tide governments in the early 2000s. Old tropes about communist subversion are joined today by warnings against “cultural Marxism” and its “woke,” progressive, feminist, and “politically correct” incarnations.

Fifty years before the CPAC Mexico gathering, Mexico City hosted a different mixture of fervent conservative crusaders. In 1972, the World Anti-Communist League, created in 1966 in the heat of the Vietnam War to foster a united international anticommunist front, held its first meeting outside of Asia. Thanks to its active anticommunist movement, Mexico was chosen as host. Activists welcomed over 300 committed cold warriors to Mexico City from around the world, including officials from Taiwan, Korea, South Vietnam, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Nicaragua; Cuban exiles; former fascist collaborators from Germany, Croatia, and Ukraine; Middle Eastern and African activists; and Latin American clerics and university students, among many others. For the Mexicans, it was a moment of pride and the culmination of decades of domestic and international activism, lobbying, fundraising, and proselytizing.

Literature at CPAC 2022 in Florida: "Unmasking the São Paulo Forum." (VOX España / CC0 1.0)

The WACL was the offspring of the Asian People’s Anti-Communist League, a 1950s effort by East Asian governments to push back against Cold War neutralism and “contain” communist China. In the 1970s, as military regimes swept across most of Latin America and initiatives emerged for interstate collaboration against communism, most of them brokered by the United States, entities such as WACL provided spaces for expanding these alliances.

A major ally of the Reagan administration, the WACL became a global platform for U.S. neoconservatives such as Senator Jesse Helms and retired Major General John K. Singlaub, as well as for powerful religious organizations including Korean religious leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. During the 1972 conference in Mexico, Latin American members founded the Latin American Anti-Communist Confederation (CAL), which soon included top civilian and military figures from across the region and became a key component of the multinational state terror initiative known as Operation Condor. The CAL also fueled conflict in Central America with fighters, funding, weapons, and a well-oiled propaganda machine.

While 50 years apart, the 1972 and the 2022 summits in Mexico are kindred spirits. Yet, unlike the East Asian-dominated WACL, CPAC’s clear center is in the Western Hemisphere, specifically the United States, and it traces its origins to the U.S. “New Right” of the 1960s and the conservative response to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. But CPAC has become increasingly less U.S.-centric. Meetings in Brazil, Japan, Australia, Hungary, Israel, and now Mexico are evidence of the willingness of Latin American and other global allies to participate in its expanding network.

At CPAC Mexico 2022, Eduardo Bolsonaro and Verástegui repeated Jair Bolsonaro’s claim that his defeat was the product of electoral fraud—a favored right-wing tactic for discrediting elections. At the same time, conservatives rejoiced in the defeat of Chile’s progressive draft constitution in the September 2022 plebiscite, which José Antonio Kast previously deemed a victory against “the ideology and the violence of the few.” In the political world the Right inhabits, the battle has just begun and is as wide and hostile as they ever imagined it.

Right-Wing Resistance?

In recent years, the idea of “resistance” has become central to the Right’s political imagination. According to journalist and researcher Pablo Stefanoni, the Right’s success in positioning itself as the rebel victim of a globalist-progressive “establishment” allows it to compete with the Left in “being outraged about reality and propose ways to transform it.” For Stefanoni, the phenomenon is related to the fact that “the Left has stopped reading the Right, while the Right, at least the ‘alt-right,’ reads and discusses the Left.” While arguable and perhaps simplifying, this perspective has been borne out at CPAC’s Latin American summits: the Right is evidently adept at constructing an image of their leftist-progressive enemies, in picking apart and weaponizing their discourse, and in capitalizing on anti-establishment rhetoric to position their pro-life, pro-business, pro-traditional family messages in mainstream channels and among a sizable support base.

Claims about a political landscape in which globalism and nationalism have displaced left and right distinctions often ring hollow in the ears of these conservatives. Despite its different tendencies, the Right is trying to build a clear sense of unity against its enemies. On stage at CPAC Mexico, combative taunting of zurdos (lefties), progres (progressives) and la derechita cobarde (the petty cowardly Right) combined with a slew of calls to defend free enterprise, private property, the traditional family, and life from conception on. Religious slogans such as “Viva Cristo Rey” (Long Live Christ the King) and appeals to defend Christianity and religious freedom abounded. Messages about combat, battle, and struggle against “globalism”—a malleable term that often encompasses the Left, feminism, and LGBTQI+ groups—are key to the Right’s discursive arsenal.

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Luis Herrán-Ávila is a historian of the Cold War in Latin America and assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico. His research focuses on Mexican and other Latin American conservative, anticommunist, and extreme right movements.

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