LIMA — With the presidential candidacy of Rafael López-Aliaga, Peru joins the list of Latin American countries with an ascendant "radical right," as defined in my book El Eterno Retorno, la derecha radical en el mundo contemporáneo ("The Eternal Return: the Radical Right in The Contemporary World").

In some countries the radical right has even managed to take power, and while it's tempting to see this as merely the regional expression of a worldwide trend — which emerged earlier in Europe and the United States — , certain circumstances differentiate the Latin American case.

The first distinctive trait, as it pertains to Latin America, is the political context. In Europe, the radical right gained momentum when the traditional left (social-democracy) had begun a process of decline. In France, the radical right has twice reached the second round of presidential elections, first in 2002, in a face-off with the traditional right, and again in 2017, against a more liberal candidate, current President Emmanuel Macron. In the United States, social democracy was a minority current, though buoyant, in the Democratic Party when Donald Trump won the presidency.

The first distinctive trait, as it pertains to Latin America, is the political context.

In our region, in contrast, the radical right has grown in the wake of an unprecedented period of electoral success by the left, and it's there that the explanation may lie. In the United Kingdom, the Brexit movement involved spontaneous cooperation between radical wings on both the right and the left. Similar elements come together in the Yellow Vests movement in France. But in Latin America, the radical right tends to dismiss the left as "cultural Marxism" and considers it an existential enemy with which conservatives could never deal or coexist.

A second contextual difference has to do with the challenge posed by the liberalization of social values. In South America, same-sex marriage is now recognized in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay. In contrast with the radical right in Europe (which includes prominent gays), the right in Latin America and the United States forge a non-negotiable political program rooted in their conservative values. This typically focuses on opposing abortion, gay marriage and any kind of consideration regarding gender.

This agenda guides its voting constituency (especially Evangelicals) even when these areas are not issues in particular elections. In 2016, the conservative social agenda was likely decisive in ensuring a referendum defeat for the peace deal that Colombia had signed with leftist FARC guerrillas. Certain Evangelicals even spelled out why they were calling on Christians to vote against the deal: namely as parts of it would allow "men, women, homosexuals, heterosexuals and people with diverse identities to participate under and enjoy equal conditions." In other words, the peace pact itself became less important than parts of it, which threatened a political agenda that was crucial to sectors of the radical right.

Colombian President Santos signing the peace accords with FARC leaders in 2016 — Photo: U.S. DoS

The case of the Colombian peace accord highlights another difference between the rising fortunes of the radical right in Latin America and its peers in the Western world: criminal and political violence. Latin America suffers from some of the world's highest homicide rates (which explains the recurrence of the "tough on crime" discourse at election times). The elevated level of violence — both criminal and political — in some countries has more than made up for the relative absence of cross-border conflicts in Latin America.

In the case of insurgency situations, most of the groups taking part were leftist. But they can be divided into forces, on the one hand, that that rose against dictatorships in keeping with international humanitarian law (like the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua), and those that fought elected governments, such as the FARC in Colombia and Shining Path in Peru. Nothing polarizes a society like war, and within wars, nothing is quite as divisive as terrorism.

Terrorist acts may explain why Colombia and Peru did not see the left grow as it did in most Latin American countries. In Peru, conservative sectors like to associate established left-wing parties with far-left terrorist groups (in spite of the Maoist Shining Path murdering numerous socialists in its war on the state), and may even accuse liberal elements of sympathizing with terrorism (as López-Aliaga has specifically done against President Francisco Sagasti).

Following this logic, there is another reason why Peru's right-wing radicals are blind to political nuances (and thus fuel irreconcilable social divisions). That is the trauma caused to the upper and upper-middle classes — who are the rump of López-Aliaga's voters — by the military regime, in the early 1970s, of General Juan Velasco, a leftist.

Nothing polarizes a society like war, and within wars, nothing is quite as divisive as terrorism.

Embracing socialism, the Velasco regime confiscated big properties, estates and businesses from both Peruvian and foreign interests, and challenged one of the pillars of the conservative worldview: the sanctity and defense of private property.

Decades later, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic interventions by the Peruvian government bring back lingering memories of those years — regardless of the fact that capitalist states like Britain were taking similar measures by obligating firms, for example, to switch production and make ventilators.

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