The right in Latin America in the era of the ‘pink tide’: towards democratic consolidation?1

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The right in Latin America in the era of the ‘pink tide’: towards democratic consolidation?1

Dr. Barry Cannon, Marie Curie “Cara” Fellow, Irish Research Council, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland and Instituto de Iberoamerica, University of Salamanca, Spain.


Much has been written on the turn to the left in Latin America, while work on the right has been sparse, and most of that party focused. Taking a novel political sociology approach, targeting civil society and political actors, and placing findings in wider contexts of hegemony, democratization and globalization this article seeks to help remedy this situation. Using 63 interviews on state-market relations and class, gender and race inequalities in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela, findings show a strong emphasis on poverty relief and commitment to democratic institutionalism. Nevertheless, these are tempered with pro-market ideological rigidities and a negation of structural inequalities, signalling possible negative impacts in terms of consensus building and democratization. Outcomes will depend on hegemonic struggles within the right, and at a national and global, particularly North Atlantic, level.

Word count: 9,987.


Most current analysis on Latin American politics has been directed at examining the shift to the left in the region. Yet the Latin American right has also been quite active in recent years. Both Colombia, in 2010, and Mexico, in 2012, opted for continuity electing centre-right presidents to replace right incumbents; peaceful, constitutional successions from left presidents to right presidencies took place in Panama (2009) and Chile (2010); unconstitutional or questionably constitutional successions took place against left presidents in Honduras (July, 2009) and Paraguay (June, 2012) respectively; there were also attempted coups against left presidents in Venezuela (April, 2002) and possibly in Ecuador (October 2010); and, for a number of years (2006-9) the right in Bolivia staged an open revolt against left-President Evo Morales. The sheer number of these events and the variety of power strategies used alert us to the continued importance of monitoring the right in the region.

The turn to the left in Latin America is generally seen as a result of counter-movements by subordinate sectors to the implementation of waves of neoliberal structural adjustment policies in the preceding two decades, often, although not always, by centre- or centre-right governments2. This signals that majorities in Latin America have limits as to how far neoliberalization of the economy and society can go before resistance sets in, raising problems for those who support such an ideological perspective. How can such groups respond, on a discursive, policy and strategic level, to this rejection of increased marketization by Latin Americans? And what impact will such responses have for prospects for democracy in the region, particularly taking into consideration that, as we have seen, the temptation to use extra-constitutional means to achieve power is still present? Both these observations suggest an urgent need to examine the proposals of the Latin American right in reaction to the region’s left turn, in order to draw out the reasons for such disparities and so help us assess the prospects for democratization in the region.

Historically analysis has been scarce on the Latin American right, with most studies focussing on party-politics (Middlebrook, 2000), while others seek to take a broader approach (Chalmers et al. 1992) and more recent studies continuing in both these veins3. This article seeks to contribute to this debate in a distinct manner by using a political sociology approach, concentrating more broadly on civil society as well as on parties. The article hence presents findings from a range of interviews held with conservative and liberal “free market” supporters, on the key issues of state/market relations and class, race and gender inequalities. It also provides a comparative dimension, presenting data from four countries in the region – two with right-governments – Chile and Colombia, and two on the centre-left or left - Argentina and Venezuela, in an attempt to provide more generalizable data. Furthermore, it places those findings within a theoretical framework derived from a critical reading of democratization, interpreting it as an open-ended hegemonic struggle taking place within the wider context of globalization. In this way it aims to provide a holistic and novel contribution to the debate on the nature, aims and strategies of the contemporary Latin American right.

In this light, it has five main findings. First, it finds evidence of shifts to more centrist positions with regard to state intervention in terms of poverty relief, hence indicating possible moves towards a consensus on basic social provision between left and right. Second, it finds that nevertheless, these proposals are bound by ideological rigidities in favour of the supremacy of the market, over the state, as the key distributive instrument for wealth and key social services. As such the market is prioritized over social provision, with the potential to block the depth and stability of any consensus found. Third, respondents almost unanimously reject the possibility of structural inequalities on a class, race or gender basis affecting market participation of these groups, risking further blockage of possible consensus. Fourth, generally speaking there is a discursive commitment to continued democratic institutionalism in all countries, but that this could be compromised due to dichotomies between social and market prioritization. Fifth, and finally while resolutions to such dichotomies are conditioned by local and national contexts, such resolutions will also, however, depend greatly on global events, particularly in the North Atlantic region.

The paper has four parts. The first part will provide a theoretical framework, setting out a general definition of the right, based on Bobbio (1996) and Noȅl and Thérien (2008), before going on to discuss the nature of the right in Latin America providing three possible typologies for its characterization. It will then discuss democratization theory and place previous discussions within that framework, closing with an explanation of the study’s methodological framework. The second part will outline findings from each country before examining in more detail similarities and differences within and between all four cases. A third part will assess prospects for democracy in the light of findings, while the conclusion will briefly summarize findings and make recommendations for future research.

The right in theory and in context

This study has been developed within a theoretical framework consisting of four main elements. First, the left/right cleavage is envisaged as a dyad which is constantly evolving but which is consistently centred on issues of equality (Bobbio, 1996). In this light this study adopts Ronald Inglehart’s formulation that the core meaning of the left/right distinction “is whether one supports or opposes social change in an egalitarian direction” (cited in Noël and Thérien, 2009: 10), with the left being historically more in favour of such change while the right less. Second, the left and right are recognized as being indicative of a class based hegemonic struggle between what Nef and Reiter (2009: 27) call the “‘haves” and “have-nots” (have-more and have-less)”. Third, this struggle takes place within wider struggles of democratization and de-democratization, “the expansion and contraction of popular rule” (ibid.: 3). Fourth, these processes of democratization and de-democratization are seen from a long-term perspective, as non-teleological and as such not resulting in a final end state such as ‘democracy’.4

Conceptually, the study takes a political sociology perspective, guided by Faulks’s (2000) interpretation of that discipline as “the study of the interdependent power relationship between the state and civil society” (ibid.: 2), which seeks to “move beyond the observable outcomes of competition between political actors…[in order to highlight] the structural constraints that shape the distribution of resources” (ibid.: 14). This perspective, however, is further augmented by an international political economy approach as the study’s concern is not just around inequalities at the national level, but how these are interlinked into wider processes of globalization. Globalization is characterized following Robinson (2003: 6) by “the rise of transnational capital and by the supersession of the nation-state as the organizing principle of the capitalist system” in order to unify “the world into a single mode of production and a single global system” (ibid.: 13). In Latin America, this involves a transition from nationally organized economies and polities to a “full neoliberal opening to the global economy”, the “ascendance of new transnational classes”, and the replacement of “authoritarian systems by polyarchic political systems” (ibid.: 61). Yet this is regarded as an on-going open-ended process equally subject to hegemonic struggles.

Characterizations of the Latin American right are taken from an historical, a political and a conjunctural perspective. On an historical level, Cannon (2011) argues that the Latin American right is influenced by three elements. First, it is drawn from an elite which is ethnically largely of European extraction, and culturally of North Atlantic orientation, with a class/race based rejection of the Indigenous and African traditions, further crossed with a patriarchal view on women’s roles in Latin American societies. Second, ideologically this elite is characterized by a hierarchized world view, Catholic in its inspiration, but mediated and modernized by positivistic science-based rationality which spring from and reinforces ‘North Atlantic’ cultural biases. Finally, politically the right is divided between conservative, liberal and fascist tendencies which historically have resulted in the outright abandonment of classic liberalism in favour of authoritarianism (Boron, 1992).

In an interview for this study, Boron elaborates on this last point in more detail5, which can be taken as a second, political classification, and hence is worth quoting in full:

Liberals are those who believe in individual liberties, and in the sanctity of property, but who will not tolerate a military dictatorship which practices a type of genocide of the poor. Conservatives can be people who on the one hand will defend private property from the most individualist, most selfish conception but at the same time be against any advances in culture, profoundly religious, intolerant and nationalist. There are those [among them] who are more liberal, with a less nationalist attitude, less pro-religion, more open to dialogue and with a better acceptance of democracy. Finally there are fascists, who believe in the violent demobilization of popular sectors, to finish with the threat of communism, which appears everywhere in the vision they hold of the world….But these distinctions are blurred….because they vary in time. Some people have become more fascist in time, and others have had a different evolution. One cannot establish essentialisms: “this is such a thing in essence”. It depends also on the evolution of the class struggle; all this modifies the strategy of the right.

Hence, while there are differences in terms of outlook and strategy with regard to each of these types, especially the fascist tendency vis á vis liberals and conservatives, all are agreed on the sanctity of private property and the supremacy of the market and all are subject to modifications, within the context of hegemonic struggle on a global, national and local, including group level.

Finally, conjuncturally, in the current context of ‘pink tide’ Latin America, Zibechi (2008) argues that the impact on the right has been twofold. First a resurgent left has succeeded in placing the social, if not exactly inequality, at the core of political debate, hence laying down a challenge to the right. Second, this in turn has caused, the emergence of three types of right. First, in the cases of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, there is a right in crisis as it sees itself being challenged by powerful social movements in alliance with popular governments against the right’s traditional core constituency. In these cases, the traditional right has been thrown into disarray and replaced by figures from civil society, including from the media, sometimes recurring to extra-constitutional means to gain power. Second, in the Southern Cone, the right has been supplanted by a left-of-centre embracing seemingly successful development strategies, and as a result finds difficulty in contesting left parties in government, but remains within constitutional structures in its quest for power as it does not see its essential interests threatened. Third, and finally, in two emblematic cases, Colombia and Mexico, the right puts liberalism under question, while maintaining its hold on power, as at least parts of it embrace pacts with the Armed Forces, security forces and/or paramilitaries in US sponsored wars against drug cartels and/or insurgent groups, destroying in the process the social basis of the left’s possibilities for a counter-hegemonic challenge. These three rights are furthermore developing within a continent wide ideological offensive being carried out through civil society and led by international organizations with links to local right entities.

Yet this characterisation masks nuances in terms of the actual extent of neoliberal dominance in the region. First, many development regimes in left-led Latin American states are being referred to as post-neoliberal due to their hybrid political economies (Grugel and Rigirozzi, 2012), with no fixed development model having emerged (Silva, 2009: 280). Further, an ongoing University of Salamanca study on parliamentary elites (Alcántara Saéz, 2006) finds that there is debate on these key issues not only between left and right but also within both in the search for a new consensus.

Methodologically the study takes the Gramscian view that ideology and policy at party and government level emerge dialectically from the above described class stratified civil and political societies in the context of hegemonic struggle (Gramsci, 1971). In the case of the right the study identifies civil society as being dominated by elites, using Gibson’s (1992), concepts of “core constituency” and “non-core constituencies”. Core constituencies are “those sectors of society that are most important to [a party’s] political agenda and resources” and non-core constituencies are other groups whose support is garnered in the “quest to build an electoral majority” (ibid: 28). Hence, the study’s aim is to gain an in-depth, qualitative insight into thinking among the Latin American right’s “core constituency”, on central ideologically defining issues namely, state/market balance and class, ethnic and gender inequalities. Taking Gramsci’s recognition of civil society as a key area for the spread of ideas, liberal think tanks, the media, elite private universities, peak productive and business organizations, and conservative, business oriented religious organizations were targeted as well as right/centre-right party deputies and members and academic experts knowledgeable of local politics. Methodology used is entirely qualitative, based on a triangulated strategy of sixty-three in-depth semi-structured interviews, contextualized by inter-disciplinary critical readings drawn from political science, history and sociology.

State-Market Relations and Class, Gender and Ethnic inequalities


As stated in the previous section the four countries selected have governments on the left – Argentina and Venezuela, and on the right – Chile and Colombia. Within these there are a number of preliminary observations to take into account to help understand findings further. In Argentina, first, it is important to note that, in the words of analyst Atilio Borón, “the expression ‘the right’ has very negative connotations” associated with the dictatorship of the 1970s/80s and the human rights abuses perpetrated by the security forces during that era6. Furthermore, much of the political space is taken up by Peronism, in which both left and right have strong factions. Indeed it was the Peronists, under Carlos Saúl Menem, who implemented one of the most radical neoliberal programmes in the 1990s. Hence, it is unsurprising that most people interviewed, chose to identify themselves ideologically as centre or centre right, differentiating themselves from the right, seen as being much more radical, not just in terms of human rights abuses and the type of ardent nationalism which led to the Falklands War (1982), but also in terms of radical liberalism, or neoliberalism. Second, subjects interviewed had negative views of the governments of the late Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007) and of the present government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK) (2007-present), accusing them of authoritarianism, especially with regard to freedom of the press, arbitrariness in its decision-making, due to its “populist” nature, expressed as much through discourse as through social policy, and even as supporters of “terrorism” by some of those involved with the previous military dictatorship. Third, some subjects questioned the left-wing credentials of their social and economic policies. One right wing deputy pointed to contradictions between discourse and actions, displaying a “statist” discourse but in effect failing to pursue nationalizations, more progressive taxation system, or a stronger health service7. In effect the accusation is that CFK is not fulfilling Peronism’s main programmatic and ideological banner – social justice – despite discourse to the contrary.

In Venezuela, similar, if not more extreme criticisms were prevalent with respect to the government of President Hugo Chávez (1999-present). These criticisms can be summarized in political, social, and economic terms. Politically, the opposition accuses the Chávez government of authoritarianism, to the extent that his government is in fact a “castro-communist” regime with totalitarian intentions. Economically, it is seen as inept allegedly leading to investment flight, shortages of basic goods, threats to private property, including expropriation, and general economic crisis. Socially, the government is accused of wasting resources, principally the oil rent, on marginally effective social programmes in an attempt to shore up popular support.

Since President Chávez was first elected in 1998, the Venezuelan opposition has tried civil disobedience, mass demonstrations, a coup, strikes/lock-outs and a recall referendum to remove him from office. None of it has worked. Since losing the 2006 recall referendum against Chávez’s mandate, the opposition has concentrated primarily on the electoral route and has sought a united political and discursive front through the MUD – the Democratic Unity Coalition (Mesa de Unidad Democrática). The MUD portrays itself as centre or indeed centre-left and has a wide variety of groups and parties from left to right as members. As a result in Venezuela we did not target right wing groups per se, but rather looked to engage with groups close to the MUD. Nevertheless, findings on key issues express broad similarities with those in other countries.

In Chile, it is important to draw attention to two important issues, which distinguish it from Argentina and Venezuela. First, as noted Chile has a right wing government since 2010, led by businessman Sebastian Piñera from the National Renovation party (Renovación Nacional – RN) in alliance with the UDI (Unión Democrata Independiente – Independent Democratic Union) and coming to power after 20 years of centre-left Concertación governments, that is since the return of democracy in 1990. Second, since 2006 the country has experienced one of the greatest popular mobilizations since the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), with students consistently protesting in favour of free, state provided education. Both these facts colour many of the replies given by subjects in interviews. It is also interesting to note that unlike in Argentina (or to an extent Venezuela), subjects have little problem assuming their ideological position as right-wing.

In Colombia, all discussion was framed by the over-riding issue of the country’s long-running armed conflict with the FARC guerrillas, which is a key defining factor for explaining factional divisions, strategies, organizational expressions and even core constituencies in the right in particular. Nevertheless, this definitional role for the armed conflict is intimately bound with wider discussions about how best to achieve economic objectives. Hence, the solution to the armed conflict, the needs of capital and the prospects for social justice are almost indistinguishable in right discourse emerging from interviews.

Further, it is important to note that in Colombia, unlike in the other cases, the right (and the left) has both legal and illegal groups. These two expressions of the right are not mutually exclusive, however, with degrees of contact between them being noted. Such contacts spring in part from differences among the legal right on how best to defeat armed groups, primarily the FARC, and so achieve economic objectives. The legal right then can further be divided between what we can call “institutionalist” and “flexible” strategic currents. The first advocates a stricter respect for institutions and constitutional norms, while the latter sees these more as barriers to effective solutions to armed conflict. These distinct positions are politically defined less by parties than by personalities. Hence the institutionalist wing is led by sitting President Juan Manuel Santos while the “flexible” wing by ex-President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), the first generally supported by Bogota- based, urban, transnationalized, business elites aiming at positioning Colombia within the globalized economy, the latter regional and rural based, representing more traditional economic sectors, mostly landowners and associated industries.

Despite such differences, however, what is most remarkable in terms of findings on the issues of state/market relations and inequalities is the level of ideological coherence across each of the four cases, as can be seen in the brief summaries of findings below.


State-market relations and socio-economic inequality

Responses were unclear as to what should be the ideal balance between state and market, beyond generalizations. It was generally felt that the Argentine state was much too interventionist, and that instead it should be a “neutral” referee between competing private interests, with an efficient justice system central to this role, ensuring respect for the law and for contracts, that is judicial security (seguridad juridica) for the private sector. Socially, there was a consensus regarding the obligation of the state to guarantee access to health, education, justice and security (all of these coincidentally guaranteed by the National Constitution). Further, those close to the Catholic Church show belief in a moral duty to combat poverty. Yet it was generally agreed that the state should only “rescue” those who are vulnerable or those unable to succeed in the market, and such support should be conditional on a return to self-dependence as soon as possible. When questioned, however, if taxes should be raised in order to improve state social services and so reduce inequality, interviewees almost unanimously were against such a proposal, arguing that the tax burden was already very high in Argentina. Rather than higher taxes, what is needed is improved administration and implementation of public spending – which according to some should be reduced. Hence the state already has the means to effect redistributive measures, the problem is the wasting of such resources, and the chief recommended remedy is more efficient management of these resources.

Further, interview subjects see personal progress as something which derives from natural talents and personal efforts, and that Argentina is a country where there is sufficient social mobility to reward such talents. What is needed is not new taxation or more state intervention but increased and improved employment opportunities to facilitate such rewards. In general, respondents are in favour of social programmes to help the poor, but not to the extent that they encourage a situation of dependency amongst those who receive them. A recurrent fear is that beneficiaries do not want to work and prefer to take advantage of such programmes, sometimes taking advantage of several of these so as to avoid working. Moreover, many interviewees believed that these programmes were essentially clientelistic in nature, in favour of particular political parties. Hence in making such comments, the popular sectors of Argentine society, or at least sections of them, are implicitly receiving a double criticism from respondents. On the one hand those availing of government social programmes are seen as capable of deceiving the state by accruing benefits in order to avoid working, while on the other hand they themselves are open to deception by governing parties disbursing such benefits in order to get elected. Despite this, however, almost all those interviewed insisted that such social programmes should be tightly focussed on specific needy or vulnerable sectors, in order to ensure that those who are capable of work, do work.

Attitudes to ethnic and gender inequalities

In contrast, few were concerned with problems of ethnicity in Argentina, most claiming that it was not a problem due to Argentina being a country of immigrants. By that respondents meant those who came primarily from Italy and Spain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and their descendants, not the more recent waves of immigrants from nearby Andean states such as Peru and Bolivia. As a result of the earlier waves of European immigration, Argentina is seen as a relatively ethnically homogenous country. This immigration is referred to in mythical terms, in the sense that European immigrants – parents or grand-parents no doubt of many of the interview subjects - arrived with little in terms of material goods or money and made good of themselves through their own efforts and hard work. Those that did not achieve this were thought not to have done so due to their own inabilities or lack of effort, tying in to earlier discourses about the vagrant poor, and further justifying the lack of necessity for state intervention to mitigate social and ethnic inequalities. Poverty and inequality hence are perceived by some subjects as personal choices and not as the result of structural imbalances in Argentinean society and economy.

Three positions regarding the role of women in society, particularly with regard to care of children and the elderly emerged in interviews. First, a strictly liberal position emerged whereby it was a simple choice for a woman whether she wanted to work or to dedicate her time to her family. The weight of tradition, the existence of machismo, and economic considerations are excluded from this account. A second position, however, does take these factors into account, and argues for more state provision of nurseries and playschools, and even extended paternity leave, alongside existing maternity leave rights, in order to allow women to effectively make that choice. A third, very minority tendency argues that the natural role of women is to care for others, due to her greater emotional sensibility. This last point, expressed by very few interviewees, ties into more widespread views on the nature and purpose of marriage in the context of the debate on same-sex marriage, legalized in Argentina in 2010. Most interviewees expressed the view that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, primarily in order to procreate and raise children, hence declaring their opposition to this law, which was therefore seen as contranatura. It was notable that this opinion was generalized between liberals and more traditional conservatives, hence questioning the degree to which such analytical divisions are valid. A general picture emerges of the need for state and society to maintain the “well formed” family (familia bien constituida) as an essential social value.

In this respect, education emerges recurrently as an essential tool for the preservation of moral values as well as an aid to material advancement: to preserve family values, to respect social rules and institutions, to resist “populist” tendencies (meaning manipulation by politicians), to promote cultures of caring for the less vulnerable, and to inculcate cultures of work and facilitate access to work, and hence social mobility, amongst other benefits. Education is hence seen as the most effective social mechanism to achieve greater equality in all aspects of the term, and public education specifically was seen as the ideal agent for such promotion, but never to the extent of restricting availability or access to private education, the existence of which went entirely unquestioned.

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