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Making Sense Of The Radical Right's Rise In Latin America

Across the region, hard-line conservatives use residual fears of communism and uproar over changing cultural mores to drum up support.

Far-right candidate Rafael Lopez-Aliaga  in Lima, Peru, on March 20
Far-right candidate Rafael Lopez-Aliaga in Lima, Peru, on March 20
Farid Kahhat


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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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