November 23, 2015
It has been over a decade since a new wave of left-leaning governments won presidential elections throughout Latin America, on the tail end of post-Cold War triumphalism and the so-called end of ideologies.
The progress made by these governments in transforming their countries is indisputable — although some would say that, as of now, even more should have been done — and the popularity of these leaders has remained strong through the years. As the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe recently told teleSUR, one of the right’s biggest challenges is to oust governments through democratic elections, although they haven’t been very successful at it.
Nevertheless, right-wing forces are gaining momentum across the region, attempting diverse tactics to delegitimize, destabilize, or overthrow progressive governments in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, and even Chile. They are also shifting their rhetoric. The right has understood that in Latin America promoting the privatization of state-owned assets and calling for lower taxes are no longer platforms that move voters. They are learning their lessons.
Understanding how their tactics have changed is key to recognizing the new contours of Latin America’s right.
Right-Wing Tactics to Take Power
Three distinguishable tactics have characterized the right’s strategy throughout this period of time. The first — as a natural backlash to the progressive regional gains — is the right’s attempt to delegitimize the electoral triumphs of the left, accompanied by a challenge to democratic institutionalism.
With the help of the U.S. government, the Venezuelan opposition confronted President Hugo Chavez as early as 1999, with less than a year in office, rallying against a new Constitution and deeming it illegitimate since before its birth, and despite the constituent assembly that drafted it and its passage in a nationwide popular vote. In the following years the opposition would continue to reject electoral results, despite being consistently recognized internationally as free and fair.
In Bolivia, the far right organized independence referendums in four provinces that led to violent clashes as early as 2008, two years after Evo Morales took office. These regions argued that they did not recognize the legitimacy of the Bolivian Electoral Tribunal.
A second tactic can be identified by the radicalization of the right, and steps toward destabilization. As the progressive governments solidified important transformations, the right’s desperation has led them to openly call for, and attempt, coup d’etats.
From the 2002 coup against Venezuela’s Chavez, to the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and the parliamentary coup that ousted Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo in 2012, extreme levels of polarization have accompanied these tactics and periods.
In Brazil, congress is using its powers to frustrate the government of President Dilma Rousseff, as the right-wing opposition continues to call for the president’s impeachment.
We are now seeing a third tactic in which the right is altering its rhetoric to assimilate to what they would rather avoid: that the electorate wants a strong state that will intervene in favor of its citizens’ well-being, including the passage of social programs and poverty alleviation programs, very much like the welfare state that predominated in Europe throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Instead of questioning the legitimacy of governments and institutions, and instead of promoting individual rights (for example taxes, privatizations, and freedom of the press), the right has shifted its rhetoric to collective issues that appeal to a much larger audience.
Shifting Right-Wing Rhetoric, Mobilizations and Lobbying
Let’s take, for example, the case of Leopoldo Lopez and the Venezuelan opposition. Despite the politician’s personal history, and the violent credentials of those who surround him, his case is not presented as being about the political leader itself, it’s about justice, human rights and what is presented as a corrupt judicial system.
Or for instance in Brazil, calls for the impeachment of President Rousseff are usually accompanied by the notion that corruption has increased during the Worker’s Party governments and that the fight is not against Dilma but against a corrupt party that wants to continue to govern, regardless of whether this may or may not be true.
In Ecuador, the opposition and the mainstream media led thousands to believe that the government’s proposed inherited wealth tax was going to affect all of the population and not only the richest few. These groups quickly shifted their attention from the tax to a proposed government reform that would eliminate term limits on elected officials. In other words, the opposition focused its struggle on supposedly defending democracy. Their battle gained the legitimacy of incorporating those who they had marginalized in the past, when they were joined by a sector of the Indigenous movement, giving a fresh appearance of something new.
Perhaps the most striking example can be seen in Argentina. After Attorney Alberto Nisman died, the opposition leader and Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri renamed a metro stop after the AMIA Jewish Center, which was bombed in 1994. He decorated the station with a mural and called for truth and justice. Nisman had been the chief investigator of the bombing of the Jewish center. When he was found dead in his home in January, the right-wing attempted to pin the blame on President Cristina Fernandez, saying that he had been bumped off because he had found incriminating evidence against powerful people in her government.
However Macri’s call for “truth and justice” was selective. That same slogan had been a demand of Argentine human rights groups since the last right-wing military dictatorship, which forcefully disappeared thousands of Argentinians in the 1970s and 1980s. owever, when it came to approve a law in Congress to investigate businesses linked to the dictatorship, Macri’s party voted against it without giving any explanation.
Mobilizations are also part of this new strategy. As the Chilean Political Scientist Cristobal Rovira explains, demonstrations have become a growing element in the right’s agenda, specifically to block reforms that don’t cohere with their ideological principles.
By moving hundreds to the streets, the right seeks to legitimize itself as a serious political force, in an attempt to regain public trust, after years of being tagged as anti-democratic and traditional. The last time some of these right-wing groups and individuals took the streets was in the 1970s, when they marched in support of the right-wing military dictatorships and against the dangers of communism.
Political lobbying, through think-tanks and other organizations, are also playing a role in exerting pressure on these left governments. As Rovira points out these groups are increasingly involved in shaping public policy nationally and internationally.
In countries such as Argentina and El Salvador, right-wing forces from within the judicial system have also taken part in the efforts to block progressive governments.
“After they lost the elections, they called for a coup d’etat. But the Salvadorean army is now much more institutionalized,” explained Salvadorean lawmaker Nidia Diaz in an interview with teleSUR, referring to the army’s place as a legitimate institution in El Salvador’s democracy. “It is not the same armed forces that used to stage coups.”
“When this strategy failed, they began looking for a way to destabilize. And they found a powerful ally in the Constitutional Court, which now blocks everything related to government funding to asphyxiate the government,” she added.
A similar case occurred when the Argentine Congress and Senate approved a landmark media law in 2009. Due to a ruling by a local court in Mendoza, the law could not be implemented fully until 2012.
All of these efforts have counted on consistent backing from highly concentrated media outlets that hold historical prestige in each country.
Colombia’s Juan Manual Santos
Maybe the best example of the future of Latin America’s right is Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. The former defense minister swiftly launched a historic peace process to end an armed conflict with the FARC guerrilla. Peace talks were made possible with the cooperation of nations such as Cuba and Venezuela, giving him international recognition and popularity.
However, internally, Santos has embraced Tony Blair’s “Third Wave” which, as the British political theorist Alex Callinicos has documented, promotes a benevolent view of neoliberal capitalism under the attractive ideal of a new political option that is neither left nor right.
Santos has maintained diplomacy as a guiding principle for his relations with Colombia’s two left leaning neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela. But within the country little has changed for human rights activists, union leaders and left-wing politicians, who are still victims of selective murder.
Santos’ domestic policies have not turned back from the neoliberal program of his predecessors. During his government, concessions to foreign investors have been the rule, as the government has given away Colombia’s mines and oilfields.
This does not mean that all of the right has moved uniformly toward these new strategies. Instead, the fragmentation of right-wing parties and movements has led them to try different coexisting strategies.
This is why, for example, former Colombian president and now Senator Alvaro Uribe continues to oppose the Santos administration and is constantly featured in mainstream media, calling for confrontation as the solution.
“What we have seen from former President Uribe is an attitude of confrontation, of permanent attack against peace in Colombia,” Colombian Senator Ivan Cepeda told teleSUR.
Despite Uribe’s outrageous allegations, he is not considered an isolated player in Colombian politics. In fact, President Santos has reached out to Uribe, seeking to neutralize the political strength of his former ally.
In Venezuela, the international media’s attempt to whitewash Leopoldo Lopez through a “good versus evil” dichotomous narrative, inside Lopez’s Popular Will party, has been stained by political murders and paramilitary links.
It is no coincidence that Henrique Capriles – the former presidential candidate of the opposition coalition – has backed away from marches in favor of Lopez. The opposition Movement of Democratic Unity (MUD) has made deals with the government while respecting the country’s Constitution, and Lopez is not happy about it.
Lopez was jailed after he and the opposition leader and former National Assembly member Maria Corina Machado launched a campaign dubbed “The Exit” to oust President Nicolas Maduro. The campaign led to increasingly violent demonstrations. Capriles stayed away from his long-time ally and criticized him for creating unreal expectations.
Capriles’ 2013 presidential campaign was characterized by his use of clothing similar to that of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (wearing a jumpsuit, a hat with the Venezuelan flag, etc.) and the promise of maintaining social welfare programs initiated during the Chavez era.
Challenging the Neoliberal Legacy
The political discourse has certainly moved toward the left, though it hasn’t necessarily translated into a cultural change in the population.
This can help explain why the right is turning once again to the benevolent rhetoric that presents “capitalism with a human soul.” Rarely has a right-wing candidate, over the last five years, argued that social welfare programs should be reduced or that state companies should be privatized.
Right-wing campaigns are now focusing on corruption, human rights, security and other issues that affect society as a whole, and in which the left has failed to deliver long-term solutions.
Of course, 10 or 15 years of left-leaning governments will not solve the problems that decades of neoliberal policies caused. But the average citizen is looking for the quickest solution to his or her problems, and the Latin American right has no time to lose.
“Neoliberalism is not only a set of economic policies in action through the mindset of financial speculation, but it is also a cultural guideline, revolutionary in the sense that it has penetrated global society,” explains Argentine philosopher Ricardo Forster.
The task ahead for progressive movements and parties in Latin America is now, more than ever, to win the battle of ideas, to create a notion of common shared ideals and values in society, to fight back against the cultural legacy of the neoliberal experiments in the region.
As Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera explains, “there cannot be a rise to power … without a previous transformation of the cultural parameters (in society).”
Although a lot has improved throughout these years, deeply-rooted neoliberal values will always surface in times of crisis and the left’s success will depend on challenging and succeeding in dismantling the premises on which they are based.