Latin America’s far-right surge: A chip off the not-so-old block

Riding a global wave of populist nationalism, radicals with a disdain for democracy, an urge to deregulate, and an aversion to globalisation are seizing power in Central and South America.

Argentina's new president, Javier Milei, plays by the same far-right populist playbook, criticising a shadowy “elite” and “useless, parasitic” politicians who he describes as “rats”.
Eduardo Ramon
Argentina's new president, Javier Milei, plays by the same far-right populist playbook, criticising a shadowy “elite” and “useless, parasitic” politicians who he describes as “rats”.

Latin America’s far-right surge: A chip off the not-so-old block

It began with Jair Bolsonaro’s election victory in Brazil in 2018, followed by Nayib Bukele’s success in El Salvador in 2019, and Javier Milei’s crowning in Argentina in 2023. Like much of the world, Latin America is experiencing a surge of fervent national conservativism mixed with neoliberal extremism and far-right populism, whose adherents have developed a recent habit of winning presidencies. The likes of Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Giorgia Meloni, Benjamin Netanyahu, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, and even Vladimir Putin now have their Spanish—or Portuguese—speaking equivalents in Central and South America.

While election results in this part of the world often come down to factors that are country-specific, recent ballot box victories of the extreme right are a global phenomenon, as seen in the European Parliament elections last week. The Élysée Palace in Paris may soon be home to another paid-up member. Countries like Brazil and Argentina matter, so if there are trends, patterns, and common features, these need to be identified, defined and understood. Yet right-wing extremism in Latin America is not new.

Lessons from history

When Europe experimented with fascism, there was an appetite and an interest in the former colonies, too. In the 1930s, for instance, Getúlio Vargas seized power in Brazil and ran a dictatorship, serving 19 years across two spells. During his rule, authorities arrested thousands of communists and trade unionists and seized their property.

In the 1940s, Juan Perón of Argentina also led a military junta. His ideology (Peronism) has been described as “an Argentine implementation of Italian fascism”, although others consider it centrist. He served three terms. After being ousted from power, both men returned in the 1950s through elections, only this time in a more progressive guise, blending non-alignment with social reforms, something akin to Egypt’s Nasserist movement. Vargas committed suicide in 1954 after the army made it clear he had to resign, but Perón reclaimed the presidency for a third time in the 1970s after overthrowing a military dictatorship.

A second wave of right-wing extremism in Latin America was linked to a series of military coups sponsored by the United States, by then knee-deep in the Cold War and keen to combat the rise of leftist ideology. Right-wing coups in Brazil (1964), Uruguay and Chile (1973), and Argentina (1976) coincided with the introduction of liberal economic theories ascribed to the free market economist Milton Friedman.

Proponents of these policies included Chile’s so-called ‘Chicago Boys’, whose economic training under Friedman at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and 80s led them to initiate a neoliberal economic model upon their return to South America. Many of these students reached the highest positions in governments and central banks, where they initiated privatisation and deregulation, introduced the free market, cut national spending, tamed inflation, and promoted growth.

After Britain’s victory in the Falklands War of 1984, Argentina’s military dictatorship collapsed, thus ending a spate of military rules across the region. The transition to democracy and liberalism coincided with Ronald Reagan’s US presidency.

In the 1940s, Juan Perón of Argentina also led a military junta viewed as "an Argentine implementation of Italian fascism"

Rise of the left

Left-wing ideologues have found receptive ears in Latin America over the years—most famously with Fidel Castro, a Marxist and nationalist who led Cuba for 50 years from 1959, surviving several CIA assassination attempts. In Chile, Salvador Allende's victory in 1970 and that of Nicaragua's Sandinistas in 1979 were left-wing victories, with Allende beginning the nationalisation of several big industries before a CIA-inspired coup led to his death in 1973.

In the late 1990s, Latin left-wingers were again able to convincingly blame neoliberalism for countries' rampant unemployment, inflation, and impoverishment. The message landed well, especially in Venezuela, a country burdened by debt. It soon spread throughout the region, and the left began sweeping elections. Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999, serving until his death in 2013, during which time he won four elections. He used money from oil sales to fund public services to improve economic, cultural, and social conditions.

In 2003, he was joined by metalworker and trade unionist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (aka 'Lula'), who won the presidency in Brazil with his Workers' Party. Lula (who was re-elected as Brazil's president last year) governed for eight years in his first term, fighting child hunger, increasing affordable housing, investing in water purification, and tackling poor construction in the favelas.

In Paraguay, the country's 61-year rule by the Colorado Party ended in 2008 when Fernando Lugo, a left-leaning Catholic bishop, was elected president after backing peasant claims for better land distribution. Likewise, trade union organiser Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia in 2006 and served until 2019, introducing legal protections for indigenous people and forcing big oil and gas companies to pay more tax on their profits. Also, in 2006, Manuel Zelaya won the Honduran presidency. A centrist who shifted to the left, he introduced free school education and meals, gave subsidies to small farmers, reduced bank interest rates, and established a national minimum wage.

Change as a constant

With neoliberalism being blamed for a range of social problems, the emergence of several socialist governments in the United States' backyard was a White House headache, with China now one of Latin America's primary economic partners. Rising commodity prices had created a surplus that was being utilised to redistribute wealth, further supporting this shift. Meanwhile, the policies of traditionally centrist Latin American parties were not that much different.

Times change, though. In the 21st century, commodity prices fell as the US began looking inwards, and left-wing governments struggled to implement their promises. Zelaya was overthrown and exiled by the military in 2009. Lugo was toppled in 2012. Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, was kicked out in 2016, and Morales was forced to flee Bolivia in 2019 after a coup in which his life was threatened.

Yet change also provides opportunities. After 15 years, Zelaya's wife Xiomara was elected president of Honduras; Lula is once again the president of Brazil; and Morales is back in Bolivia, looking to run for president next year.

In addition to Lula, left-wingers have been elected in recent years, including López Obrador in Mexico in 2018, Gustavo Petro in Colombia in 2022, and Gabriel Boric in 2022, so the Latin left is far from dead. However, the continent's nationalists and far-right populists seem to be having a moment. They also have the momentum, which will only be reinforced if Donald Trump retakes the White House in November.

Radicals take hold

Troubles encountered by left-wing governments have opened the way for a resurgent and radical right, whose adherents thrive on polarisation. Their success has seen power change hands in several states across the political spectrum. In Brazil, the retired military officer and Trump fan Jair Bolsonaro easily won the presidency in 2018. An opponent of same-sex marriage, abortion, environmental regulation, and secularism, he lionises Brazil's military dictatorship from 1964-85 and supports the privatisation of state-owned companies.

Eduardo Ramon

In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele—originally a leftist—broke a period of polarisation, won the presidency in 2019 by promising a crackdown on gangs, and shifted to the hard right. In common with Trump, Orban, and others, he is staunchly anti-abortion and pro-Israel, criticising the "fake news" media, legislating against "foreign interference", calling for the death of globalisation, and criticising liberal donors like George Soros. After the jailing of tens of thousands and a constitutional amendment to remove presidential term limits, he was re-elected and now refers to himself half-jokingly as El Salvador's "dictator".

In November 2023, political outlier Javier Milei won by a large margin in Argentina, again ending decades of rule by two established Argentine parties. An economist, university lecturer, author, TV personality, DJ, and self-described "anarcho-capitalist", he plays by the same far-right populist playbook, criticising a shadowy "elite" and "useless, parasitic" politicians who he describes as "rats".

Another opponent of abortion and ardent fan of Israel, Milei believes in free markets and deregulation. Since taking office, he has managed to bring Argentina's sky-high inflation rate down, but poverty rates have shot up at the same time. Honing his image as an outsider, Milei is a prime example of the new brand of populist candidate being elected to the highest public office without the backing of a large, established party, marking a sharp break from the past.

Global vs local

To some, Donald Trump's surprise ascent to the US presidency in 2016 paved the way for the likes of Bolsonaro in 2018. For others, the situation in Brazil was the more decisive factor, with Lula (whose first term ended in 2010) having been arrested and barred from running again.

Commentators are divided over the origins of the current far-right wave in Latin America, but many think Trump simply lit a fuse, riding the anger of millions whose jobs and lives were affected years by globalisation and the 2008-09 financial crisis. Playing on voters' fears, he derided immigrants as the source of many problems and promised to "drain the political swamp" while defending white nationalists, cutting taxes for the richest, and telling Americans to put 'America First'.

Guilherme Casarões, a political analyst and professor at the School of Business Administration in Sao Paulo, says Trump and his disciples win votes by blaming others. "What they have in common is the ability to recruit the impoverished middle classes... by looking for who is responsible for their situation."

And while the former Soviet Union once backed communist parties around the world, the 'local nationalism' current has no international backer or advocate. Instead, supporters have gradually formed their own networks. The Atlas Network, founded in 1981, provides common frameworks for radical ideologues and hardliners via intellectual forums, including more than 100 in Latin America.

The right-wing Christian Forum of Spanish-speaking countries, created in 2000, is a response to a similar left-wing variant, while Vox, Spain's far-right party, has set up the Foro de Madrid, a network of like-minded politicians in Latin America. In addition, there is the local affiliate of the Movement. Coordinated by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, this seeks to organise conservatives around the world. Bannon appointed Bolsonaro's son Eduardo to the group after his father's win.

Pillars of the right

How is the new breed defined? Italian scholar Giancarlo Summa lists six 'pillars,' or underlying characteristics, on which the new far-right phenomenon is based. The first is a rejection of the politics of personal rights, which it labels "cultural Marxism". This can include issues like social inequality, the size of the state, taxation, climate change, gender discrimination, abortion rights, and education. The only rights it reveres are the right to own property and the right to bear arms.

Other pillars include the backing of majority ethnic groups, heralding traditional values and glorifying the past, relying on charismatic leadership, and holding in contempt collectivism, centrism, and trade unionism, which it considers criminal. Additionally, Summa says there is an acceptance of symbolic state violence and, if necessary, actual physical force. Finally, there is a propensity to polarise, to divide between 'us' and 'them', categorising people as either friends or enemies.

Troubles encountered by left-wing governments have opened the way for a resurgent and radical right, whose adherents thrive on polarisation.

These contours define the common ground shared by these groups, yet far-right leaders do not stand in national silos. They meet and talk to one another, learning from each other and exchanging support.

In the Americas, far more so than in secular Western Europe, religious fundamentalism and social conservatism are big factors in their success. European far-right parties, by contrast, prioritise opposition to immigration and immigrants, downplaying religion. Wealthy and well-attended evangelical churches, which often value their ties to Israel, can be amongst the biggest supporters of these far-right candidates in Latin America. This helps explain why the God-fearing Bolsonaro—an anti-vaxxer and climate change sceptic who thinks that torture is a "legitimate practice"—insisted on being baptised in the Jordan River.

The right rises

The left once drove internationalism, but the rise of the right and its successful demonisation of globalisation have forced left-wing candidates to 'look local' to win. Furthermore, whereas once the nationalist tendencies of the right ended parties' appeal at the door' (border), now they feel part of a wider movement, one with US origins whose chief cheerleader is set for a White House return in January if the polls are right.

Channelling a range of identity politics, this brand of righteous nationalism and scapegoating of minorities manages to attract the attention it craves, which helps it spread with sudden and remarkable success.

In Peru, President Dina Boluarte seems to have come full circle. Having started as a communist, she has now aligned herself with the right and the far-right, gaining the army's support in the process. These days, as the public voices its anger against her, she is more likely to be found declaring states of emergency, calling protesters "terrorists", implementing measures to increase the "control of foreign citizens", and blaming Venezuelan migrants for crime.

In Trump, We Trust

Like many others, Boluarte appears to be borrowing from the same ideas, phrases, images, and techniques used by a clutch of politicians for whom Trump is the standard bearer. When, for instance, Trump poured scorn on COVID-19 and then on the vaccines, others followed in actions that may have killed thousands. Likewise, when they lose elections, they claim the results were rigged, just like Trump. Bolsonaro's supporters even attempted an insurrection in the Battle of the Three Powers Square in Brasilia.

To date, no Latin American populist has won a second term except Bukele, who had to amend the constitution to win and later garnered a suspiciously high 85% of the vote. Not only do opponents gradually learn how to counter their tactics, but populists also find out during their second election campaign that it is far more difficult to defend a record in government than it is to stoke protest and unrest from outside, baiting and blaming systems, elites, and minorities.

Nevertheless, the populist far-right is now an established global political force, including in the US, Europe, and Israel. Even India's ruling BJP thrives on Hindu nationalism, building huge temples where mosques once stood.

Latin America is no different. As a genre of politicians, they are here to stay and lining up, primed for campaigning in the social media age, where angry soundbites and scapegoating are worth more than knowledge, experience, and policies. In Chile, for instance, José Antonio Kast is just biding his time. The founder of a new hard-right Republican Party, he got 44% of the vote in a presidential run-off in 2021, and his party won an election for a constitutional council last year.

Milei seems not to be the last—but the latest.

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