Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Resilience of the Latin American Right

Reading Time: 4 minutesEdited by Juan Pablo Luna and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser: Paperback, 392 pages
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Unlike the internationalist left over the past century, the Latin American right has never been united by a single symbol or slogan. This was not accidental. In a region that only recently abandoned military dictatorship, why would political parties openly identify with repressive authoritarian regimes? And with 165 million people still living in poverty, hoisting the banner of laissez-faire capitalism against popular demands for redistribution seems politically unwise. For many conservative political actors in Latin America, political survival has usually required hiding their ideological roots, especially during the region’s on-again, off-again experiments with democracy prior to the 1980s. As the Latin American electorate veered left in the late 1990s, one might expect the right to be both invisible and impotent.

That expectation would be wrong. An exciting new collection of essays, The Resilience of the Latin American Right, makes clear that rumors of the Latin American right’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The editors of the collection, Juan Pablo Luna of  the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Catholic University of Chile) and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser of Chile’s Universidad Diego Portales, wisely do not try to speculate about the right’s electoral prospects. Instead, they write that they are more concerned with the “mechanisms of political action of right-of-center forces in the region.”

Thus, this edited volume analyzes how the Latin American political right is organized “on the ground,” using a mix of country studies and thematic cross-national research to describe the structure and influence of the contemporary right. As the editors note, “That the left is in power in most countries of the region does not preclude the right from having considerable maneuvering room to influence governments […] by building political parties that are well represented in congress, using the mass media to shape the public agenda, mobilizing experts and technocrats to shape the policy-making process, funding electoral campaigns, or lobbying elected officials.”

The intellectual approach of the volume is clear from the opening essay, a thoughtful theoretical analysis by Luna and Rovira Kaltwasser that attempts to move the definition of right-wing politics away from specific economic policies or social values, and the notion that the right draws its votes largely from the upper strata of society. Instead, the editors argue, what unifies the region’s right is the belief that the state is not responsible for inequality. They point out that rightist parties have often been very successful at winning votes from social sectors other than the upper class.

One interesting theme covered in this volume is the emergence of new arenas of engagement for the right. Kent Eaton of the University of California, Santa Cruz, shows that the traditional political crutches of the right, such as corporatist structures and the military, have clearly faded in importance; the right’s locus of action has necessarily been displaced into legislative and/or subnational politics. James Bowen of St. Louis University builds on this by showing that right-wing resistance to the so-called “left turn” in the region’s political makeup has sometimes been regional or territorial, demonstrated by the examples of Guayaquil, Ecuador, and Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where private- sector opposition to national reforms played out locally.

The book is at its most innovative in the second section, when exploring the contours of the new “movement” politics of the right. Rovira Kaltwasser returns to three game-changing examples from the 1990s: the administrations led by Presidents Fernando Collor in Brazil, Carlos Menem in Argentina and Alberto Fujimori in Peru. These three politicians redefined the Latin American right, he argues, by adopting anti-party strategies and mimicking the populist rhetoric of the anti-establishment left. In another essay, Carlos Meléndez of the University of Notre Dame makes the point that the only modern personalistic movement that has managed to span generations is fujimorismo in Peru, now led by Fujimori’s daughter Keiko.

Laura Wills-Otero of the Universidad de los Andes provides an interesting take on the case of Colombia, where the mainstream civilian left has long been marginalized and delegitimized by ongoing conflict with the FARC. She points out that the repeated failures of traditional parties to resolve the conflict opened space for a political entrepreneur who could combine an anti-party discourse with a hard line on public security: former President Álvaro Uribe.

The scarcity of serious academic analyses of conservative parties in the region makes the case studies in the third section of the book extremely valuable. The chapters on Mexico (by University of Redlands’ Steven Wuhs), Chile (by Peter Siavelis of Wake Forest University), and El Salvador (by Riitta-Ilona Koivumaeki of the University of Texas at Austin) illustrate the advantages of long-standing and readily identifiable conservative parties, yet the studies of Brazil (by Alfred Montero of Carleton College) and Argentina (by Sergio Morresi and Gabriel Vommaro of the University of General Sarmiento) have less to draw on and are more diffuse.

Montero focuses on how the socioeconomic modernization of the Brazilian northeast has undercut traditional clientelistic networks in the region. Morresi and Vommaro face the challenge of identifying any viable right-wing opposition to the Kirchner machine in Argentina, and focus their efforts on Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri and his Propuesta Republicana party. The case studies are uniformly well done, and they return to the theme of ideology proposed by the volume’s co-editors.

Nevertheless, the book raises many questions. Generally, the authors posit that democracy in Latin America is mostly secure, and that the region has come a long way from the anti-democratic, golpista right of the past. Some readers might have preferred to see more attention given to the right’s (presumed) conversion to democracy. Another question concerns the shelf life of a definition of the right that is so reliant on the concept of inequality. Inequality in the region has been falling for a decade, inducing interesting realignments. The conservative Sebastián Piñera government in Chile did not reverse the equity-enhancing reforms of earlier Concertación administrations, and several conservative parties in Brazil have given strong backing to the conditional cash transfers of the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party—PT) government. In those cases, the Latin American right has shown itself to be pragmatic in ways that challenge the conventional understanding of the right as relentlessly hostile to the reduction of inequality.

What is also implied, but never fully explored, is that the traditional struggle between left and right in Latin America has shifted to an entirely new plane. Intriguingly, both sides borrow from each other’s strategic toolkits. In Brazil, for example, the PT has increasingly begun to rely on mainstream political consultants and modern fundraising techniques, just as the anti-PT right has recently resorted to street mobilizations. Clearly, any understanding of contemporary Latin American politics requires a re-examination of the traditional left-right divide—and this book fills a gaping hole.

Democracy is built on the notion of alternation in power, and the tide is bound to turn. When, and if, the right again becomes a dominant force in the region, this book makes clear that it will be spearheaded by increasingly sophisticated conservative actors who have closely studied the tools and methods of the left.

Tags: Latin America, Partisanship, Right-Wing Politics
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