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date: 18 January 2020

Characterization, Strategies, and Objectives of the Latin American Right

Summary and Keywords

Work on the Latin American right mainly assumes it is a political phenomenon, despite recognition that it emerges from, and can be supplanted by, groups of actors from within and across business, in the media, in the intellectual sphere, and indeed in the military. A broader approach is provided here to help integrate these (f)actors, using Michael Mann’s work on social power and Nancy Fraser’s concepts of progressive and reactionary neoliberalism. It is argued that elites from these sectors, espousing neoliberalism, and supported by powerful transnational elites with similar views, dominate the areas of ideology, economics, military, and politics in order to install, maintain, extend, and naturalize neoliberalism in the region. This dominance has been challenged from the left and indeed from the right, resulting in at minimum progressive and reactionary forms of neoliberalism centered on inequalities of recognition. Nevertheless, the range and depth of possible change, particularly in stalling and reversing distributive inequality, may be limited, due to the embeddedness of neoliberalism in national, regional, and transnational governance systems.

Keywords: Latin America, right, elites, networks, social power, neoliberalism, inequality, Latin American politics

How should we analyze the right? What is the best theoretical lens from which to approach it? A review of the literature on the Latin American right shows a mix of perspectives. On the one hand, there is a predominance of political perspectives, focusing on political parties. On the other hand, there is a recognition of the importance of de facto powers—in the media and intellectual circles, in the economy, and in the military, as well as transnational influences, especially of the United States. Underpinning this, but much less acknowledged, are the profound class inequalities that still dominate Latin American societies, deeply imbued with an ideological perspective associated with neoliberalism.

Political perspectives dominate in most published volumes on the Latin American right, but not to the exclusion of other power and ideological considerations. In the volume by Chalmers et al. (1992), some chapters highlight that economic (business groups), ideological (Church, media, think tanks, etc.), and military power dominate the right, rather than right political parties. On the other hand, the overall emphasis is on the subsidiarity of these other areas of power to state power. Hence, the main analytical focus remains political parties, even when it is recognized that they have played a minor role in the Latin American right historically speaking. Similar emphases can be found in the work by Middlebrook (2000), as again there is a prioritization of conservative political parties in its research focus, even when Middlebrook himself recognized that such parties are, in fact, of minor relevance. Rather, elites advance their interests through party-mediated clientelism, the “participation of conservative forces in neoliberal policy coalitions led by other parties or political movements” (Middlebrook, 2000, p. 41), and through “conservative hegemony exercised through non-party organizations of civil society” (Middlebrook, 2000, p. 41). The key issue, Middlebrook concluded, “is the relationship between the political role and electoral performance of conservative parties and the right’s broader presence in civil society” (Middlebrook, 2000, p. 290).

Luna and Rovira Kaltwasser (2014), in their edited volume, attempted to balance the importance of non-electoral factors while maintaining a focus on political parties. They recognized that non-electoral strategies predominate in the Latin American right, due to elites’ having “disproportionate access to economic resources” (Luna & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2014, p. 14). Nevertheless, the analytical accent remains on the right’s electoral strategy either through nonpartisan electoral coalitions outside institutionalized politics, often dependent on charismatic personalities (e.g., Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Fernando Collor in Brazil, and Alvaro Uribe in Colombia), or in building strong programmatic political parties (e.g., the PAN in Mexico, ARENA in El Salvador, and RN and UDI in Chile). Hence, the “non-electoral” far outweighs the electoral in right power strategies, yet the Luna and Rovira Kaltwasser volume does not provide full answers as to why this is the case.

Other volumes adopt a more comprehensive approach to the phenomenon, but perhaps underplay the political. In Dominguez et al. (2011), Lievesley & Ludlum, 2011, p. 3) recognized the wider social and military identity of the right, “which enable[s] it to exercise political power even when out of office,” including through important transnational actors, such as international financial institutions and military, financial, and ideological assistance from the United States. They also recognized that elements of right policies retain a broad mass appeal, especially in so- called value issues, such as abortion, the family, and rejection of same-sex marriage, among others, allowing them to form alliances with the Catholic Church and, more latterly, evangelical churches. Nevertheless, they stressed that their volume is “not a comparative text in political science or a theoretical intervention” (Lievesley & Ludlum, 2011, p. 5), and hence does not offer a coherent and comprehensive theoretical perspective from which to examine these different parts of right power as a cohesive, integrated phenomenon.

This overview of the more notable literature on the Latin American right therefore presents some guiding parameters for this article. On the one hand, parties are crucial for an understanding of the right and analysis needs to take them into account as an important tool for right dominance of the state. On the other hand, however, parties remain minor actors in the Latin American right, which is instead dominated by de facto social and transnational powers, underpinned by profound class cleavages, and dedicated to the continuance and deepening of a neoliberal model that reinforces and, indeed, widens the class cleavages. And central to both is a need to understand the role of elites. What is needed, then, is an overarching theory that can take account of these different factors in a systematic way.

In this article, following Cannon (2016), a broader political sociology perspective is suggested, using Michael Mann’s IEMP model of social power—that is, examining elite power in the key areas of ideology, economy, military, and politics, with an additional category of transnational power. It is argued that the right can activate dominance in these areas in a variety of ways, including elections, street protests, media campaigns, and military coups, depending on the level of perceived threat from the left felt by elites. The overall objective is to ensure continued elite dominance within the wider field of social relations, and, from the 1980s until the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the main ideological vehicle for ensuring this has been neoliberalism. This is not to argue that neoliberalism is monolithic; indeed, here, Nancy Fraser’s (2017) distinction between progressive and reactionary neoliberalism is explored as a useful tool for differentiation between more socially inclusive and exclusive forms in Latin America. In agreement with Fraser, however, it is argued here that both seek to guarantee a “deeply regressive political economy” (Fraser, 2017, emphasis in original), and hence maintain associated social hierarchy. In this way, both are essentially right-wing in their orientation, despite some elements of the historical center-left being deeply involved in the promulgation of the former type.

The article proceeds as follows. First, the left/right dichotomy is described based on Bobbio (1996), which places issues of (in)equality at the center of the dichotomy. The article explores how this dichotomy developed under neoliberalism, using the aforementioned Fraserian categorizations of progressive and reactionary neoliberalism as an explanatory device to tease out distinctions on issues of recognition and distribution. Then, the article expands on the theoretical framework derived from Mann. Additionally, however, we interrogate the concept of elites to attempt to situate them better in an overall approach to the right in Latin America. Finally, this theoretical framework is used to interpret the impact of the turn to the left in the region in the early part of the millennium, and the right’s reaction to that threat. The article finishes with some reflections on key research questions about the right in 21st-century Latin America, particularly around the emergence of a new, more radical, reactionary neoliberalism in the region.

The Right in Theory

How can we define the left/right cleavage? The left/right dichotomy can be viewed from three perspectives: political, economic, and sociological (Burton, 2011). The political perspective views the left as embracing change as progress, while the right accepts only change that maintains or deepens existing social hierarchies. In the economic perspective, the left supports increased state intervention in the economy to help ensure relatively equitable social outcomes, which the right rejects favoring state intervention that facilitates “the quarantining of democratic social power from any substantive intrusion over ‘market sovereignty’” (Kiely & Saull, 2017, p. 822). Finally, the sociological perspective, following Bobbio (1996), places issues of inequality as essential to the left/right cleavage, both over time and across space; policy solutions may change, but this central concern is constant. It recognizes that each policy option has implicit and explicit outcomes favoring some classes over others, and class—further crossed with inequalities related to gender, race, and sexuality—should be central to any discussion of the right.

Indeed, because class is central to the analysis of the right, so the role of elites is central to such analysis. Here the term elites refers to both a social phenomenon and an ideological construction (Bottomore, 1993). As a social phenomenon, elites can include, following Fischer (2017),1 varied groups involved in the construction of a dominant social class, through a complex, conflictual, relational, historical, and dynamic process, eventually allowing them to act collectively as a class as and for itself. In the present context, this class may, but does not necessarily, include: the governing elite (Fischer, 2017, p. 26); the bourgeoisie, that is, those who “possess, lend, invest in and grow capital, employ workers and who do not themselves work manually or for a salary” (Fischer, 2017, p. 25); “merchants and shopkeepers, owners of real estate, business people, bankers, rentiers and speculators” (Fischer, 2017, p. 25); “high-level managers” (Fischer, 2017, p. 26); and, importantly, certain groups of intellectuals whose work is to discursively validate the power of these social groups as a collective. In other words, this final group can themselves use elite theory to help realize Bottomore’s (1993) second sense of ideological justification for rule by such elites due to their technical superiority. Hence, overall, in this article the term elite means the dominant “power bloc” in its Gramscian sense (and indeed in that of C. W. Mill), straddling the economy, politics, and civil society (that is the bloc’s ideological apparatus), whose aim is to perpetuate its dominance. The transnational element is important, too, in this context, as the developing literature on transnational elites attests (Carroll, 2010; Robinson, 2012; Sklair, 2001; Van der Pijl, 1998, among others).

It is this sociological conception of the right that is privileged here as being most inclusive of those preceding it. First, it can incorporate the political and economic perspectives by providing a unifying rationale for them, in that the degree of acceptance/rejection of change and the orientation of state action are functional in relation to inequality. Second, it lessens observed problems in defining left/right distinctions, such as contradictory ideological elements within a political movement, similarities in extreme manifestations of opposite ideologies (such as communism and fascism), and geographical and temporal variations in understanding of the dichotomy (Heywood, 2016, pp. 16–17). Third, it structures international and global policymaking, giving them an important transnational aspect (Noel & Thérien, 2008; Silva, 2009). Finally, the left/right debate takes place within a wider and never-ending struggle for hegemony between these fundamental world views. While certain consensuses may emerge at times, they are rarely fixed and can, and will, be challenged.

In the 1980s, and more forcefully in the post–Cold War era, such a consensus emerged around neoliberalism as the main means to secure elite dominance. Neoliberalism is understood here as a multidimensional phenomenon: as a set of policy prescriptions grouped around trade liberalization, deregulation, and privatization, with important roles for foreign direct investment (FDI) and financial capitalism (Ther, 2016, p. 17); as an “ideational frame…that shapes the way its holders see the world” (Panizza, 2009, p. 9); and finally as a hegemonic world view due to its deep embeddedness in intellectual and policy networks at the national and international levels (Peck, 2010). Neoliberalism is, however, “a moving target that is constantly being changed and adapted” (Ther, 2016, p. 18), and one of the main differentiations that emerged within it is between what Nancy Fraser (2017) calls its progressive and reactionary variants.

Progressive neoliberalism is characterized by a neoliberal political economy privileging finance and a progressive politics of recognition. It actively seeks to coopt liberal currents within so-called “new” social movements, such as feminism, antiracism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights, to the neoliberal project. Yet, rather than abolishing the existing highly unequal social class hierarchy, progressive neoliberalism simply seeks “to ‘diversify’ it, ‘empowering’ ‘talented’ women, people of color, and sexual minorities to rise to the top” (Fraser, 2017, The Hegemony of Progressive Neoliberalism section, para. 5). Promulgated primarily, but not exclusively, by Democratic President Bill Clinton (1993–2001) in the United States and “Third Way” social democracy in Europe (i.e., British Prime Minister Tony Blair [1997–2007] and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder [1998–2005], among others) it successfully created what Fraser called “a hegemonic bloc,” which had dominated neoliberalism, both at the national and the transnational level, right up until Donald J. Trump assumed the U.S. presidency in January 2017.

Yet progressive neoliberalism has an important rival in what Fraser called reactionary neoliberalism, which Trump capitalized on and made his own and which is increasingly gaining power in Europe. The main area of differentiation between both variants turns on recognition, with reactionary neoliberalism primarily characterized by “an exclusionary vision of a just status order: ethnonationalist, anti-immigrant, and pro-Christian, if not overtly racist, patriarchal, and homophobic” (Fraser, 2017, The Defeat of Reactionary Neoliberalism section, para. 1). Importantly, however, both strands support the same neoliberal distributive political economy of “‘free trade’, low corporate taxes, curtailed labor rights, the primacy of shareholder interest, winner-takes-all compensation, and financial deregulation” (Fraser, 2017, The Defeat of Reactionary Neoliberalism section, para. 2). In this way, both agree on the maintenance of the existing highly unequal distributive political economy favoring elites. While Fraser used this interpretive frame primarily for analysis of U.S. politics, it is also of use to help understand more inclusionary and exclusionary forms of neoliberalism in Latin America, as explored in following sections of this article.

To conclude, in light of this discussion, the core meaning of the left/right distinction can be conceived as “whether one supports or opposes social change in an egalitarian direction” (Ronald Inglehart cited in Noël & Thérien, 2008, p. 10). Because neoliberalism is recognized by many as leading to increased socioeconomic inequality (Harvey, 2005; Piketty, 2014; Stiglitz, 2012), it can be argued that those who support and actively promote neoliberalism are on the right of the ideological spectrum while those who oppose them, or at least question them, are to the left. As noted, there is also an important social conservative aspect to right-wing formations that has been identified here as reactionary neoliberalism. The emergence of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil in 2019 has been identified as part of this so-called right-wing reactionary movement across the globe, represented most notably in the United States under Trump. Nevertheless, as discussed above, this reinforces, rather than undermines, the characterization of the right as a class-based, elite-led project, at the national, regional, and transnational level, with neoliberalism at its ideological core.

Michael Mann’s Concept of Social Power as an Integrative Framework

Mann’s (1986) concept of social power is a useful tool to help unite the different theoretical strands of the phenomenon into one overarching analytical framework. Mann argued that power operates through “multiple overlapping and intersecting sociospatial networks” (Mann, 1986, p. 13), within a specifically identified territory. He identified four primary networks of power—ideological, economic, military, and political (IEMP)—which are then intersected by a possible fifth—the transnational (Silva, 2009). Ideological power is “when meaning, norms and aesthetic and ritual practices are monopolized by a distinctive group [which must be] highly plausible in the conditions of the time” (Mann, 1986, p. 23). In this article, this is operationalized by referring to ideological norms around inequalities and to ideological transmission belts, such as media and education. Economic power “derives from the satisfaction of subsistence needs through the social organization of the extraction, transformation, distribution, and consumption of the objects of nature” (Mann, 1986, p. 23). This process causes the formation of social classes, with the dominant class monopolizing control over these processes. The main question considered here is the balance between private and public control of the economic apparatus, and the resultant impact this has on social inequalities, particularly around class, but also along gender, race, and sexual lines. Military power “derives from the necessity of organized physical defense and its usefulness for aggression” (Mann, 1986, p. 26). Ideally, in democracies, military power should be subservient to political power, but this is not always the case, as the long history of involvement of Latin American militaries in politics amply demonstrates.

Political power “derives from the usefulness of centralized, institutionalized, territorialized regulation on many aspects of social relations”—in other words, “state power” (Mann, 1986, p. 23). Political power can take despotic or infrastructural forms, the first when elites “take decisions without negotiation with groups in civil society” (Mann, 2002, p. 2), the second when states “possess infrastructures penetrating universally throughout civil society, through which political elites can extract resources from, and provide services to all its subjects” (Mann, 2002, p. 2). In most advanced democracies, state power is despotically weak but infrastructurally strong and can also have a strong transnational element, usually organized along imperial or multistate lines (Mann, 1986, p. 27). A major question considered here is the level of conformity of political power around neoliberalism and the extent to which this facilitates the dominance of despotic or infrastructural power.

Mann (2002) argued that the central issue for Latin American states to develop democratically is the lessening of distributive inequalities, which in turn requires the reduction of oligarchical power with an increase in state power (i.e., increasing infrastructural power). Yet, here it is argued that Latin American elites possess sufficient collective power across each of the four power networks, crossed by transnational power, to successfully resist any move toward greater social equalization, which would by necessity involve a lessening of their own oligarchical power. Moreover, Fairfield (2015) showed that neoliberalism has increased, rather than lessened, the business elite’s structural and instrumental power, using it to reinforce that ideology, both nationally and transnationally, across each of the power networks. Hence, neoliberalism is central to the maintenance and extension of elite power in the post–Cold War/early 21st century historical conjuncture. The main aim of the Latin American right, then, is to install, at a national and regional level, systems of neoliberal governance that cannot be unravelled by possible left, or indeed radical right, alternatives without great difficulty, if at all, and to link the systems to similar emergent transnational systems. Such systems of neoliberal governance are termed right-oriented state/society complexes due to their totalizing nature across the power spectrum.

This is not to say that challenges have not taken place or will not do so in the future. Grugel and Riggirozzi (2012), Wylde (2012), and Riggirozzi and Wylde (2017), among others, have argued that left governments instituted post-neoliberal forms of governance that sought to challenge neoliberalism, strengthening the role of the state in order to reinforce popular citizenship, at both the economic level and the political level. The extent to which these actions challenged neoliberalism’s core principles is questioned by some analysts (Webber & Carr, 2013; Zibechi, 2010). It can be argued, nonetheless, that elite social power was at least threatened, symbolically or practically, in some or all of the identified power networks in a number of left-led states, either on a distributive basis or on a recognition basis, and sometimes on both, to a sufficient degree to alarm those self-same elites. This suggests a direct link between right strategies and the intensity of change to the neoliberal model effected by left governments in the region. Conversely, such left challenges have been met with more radical neoliberal challenges, often in alliance with evangelical groups, and supported by powerful U.S. individuals and groups (Encarnación, 2018; Fang, 2017; Fischer, 2017; Ramiréz, 2018). These seek to radicalize even further the market liberationist project, displacing concerns about poverty with concerns about corruption, law and order, and perceived “moral decay,” meaning policies aimed at achieving greater gender, ethnic, and sexual equality (Duarte Rangel, 2018; Ioris & Mier, 2018). In this way, they are breaking with post-neoliberalism, or indeed progressive neoliberalism, to institute a hyperreactionary form of neoliberalism in the region.

The so-called pink tide of left governments that emerged at the turn of the millennium provided the greatest threat to elite power in the region, and even at times to the more salient aspects of neoliberalism itself. This prompted a fierce counterreaction from elites along three strategic lines, institutional, mobilizational, and semi- or extraconstitutional, with different emphasis placed on each depending on the particular conjunctural dynamic. Coups, in particular, be they military or “constitutional,” emerge in national spaces where the elites feel the neoliberal project was particularly threatened in a context of weak democratic institutionality. The ultimate aims of these strategies are twofold. First, to institute a restoration and extension of neoliberal systems of governance at the national level, which have the potential to link with those at the regional, transnational, and intercontinental levels, hence making alternative left-oriented governance structures even more difficult to construct. Second, to roll back advances made on inequalities, not just in terms of class, but also in some more radical cases on racial, gender, and sexual lines. This could have the effect of putting the left on the defensive, limiting its ability to challenge neoliberalism even further as neoliberalism is more deeply embedded in social structures. Such right strategies, then, are multiscalar in their approach, involving nonstate, state, regional, and transnational actors to achieve neoliberal governance structures that are dominated by these same actors.

The Right in Contemporary Latin America: Making Politics Irrelevant

In the main Latin American countries that remained dominated by neoliberalism during the pink tide—the Pacific Alliance (PA) countries of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru—policy sought to realize some or all of the neoliberal aims outlined in the previous section. The PA was established in 2012 to “move progressively toward the free mobility of goods, services, resources and people” among its members (Pacific Alliance, 2019). Neoliberalism is so deeply embedded in each of the IEMP areas within these countries that, even when left-oriented governments emerge,2 they tend to adapt to and perpetuate the neoliberal model. Ideological regimes are controlled through highly concentrated and oligopolized media ownership structures that show heavy editorial biases in favor of maintaining and deepening the neoliberal status quo. Moreover, networks of liberal and right-wing think tanks, supporting and espousing neoliberal tenets, are found in each of these countries and often were established with financial support from transnational organizations. Education is often privatized and marketized. As Cannon (2016) found, the political regimes of PA countries show remarkable levels of ideological uniformity in favor of neoliberalism, and even when this is not the case, policy deviance from neoliberal tenets is highly controlled due to the embeddedness of neoliberalism in the other power networks and in transnational relations. Thus there are few differences in the distributive political economy model to be found in these countries. Indeed, Cannon (2016) found a high level of endorsement among right-leaning and liberal actors, in politics and in civil society, in three of the PA countries, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia, of such neoliberal, market-based tenets.

Yet, in terms of recognition, there are some discrepancies among these same actors. On the one hand, scant concern for, and indeed outright scepticism of, class, gender, and race inequalities were found among some of these actors, particularly in Colombia, despite some level of acceptance in Chile and Argentina of the need for limited action against gender inequalities. Similar lack of concern about these issues was found in Venezuela by Cannon (2014) and in Brazil by Reis (2011) in her study of Brazilian elite attitudes on the same issues, suggesting a more generalized prevalence of such attitudes among elites in the region. Such evidence suggests a fertile basis among many elites for the development of reactionary neoliberalism in Latin America.

Economically, PA countries are characterized by little state-controlled enterprise and low levels of market-controlling state intervention, and with high levels of (state-promoted and protected) market freedom, corporatization, and transnationalization of business ownership structures. The countries also have highly open trading regimes, with a large number of free trade agreements (FTAs), most commonly, but by no means exclusively, with the United States. FTAs are particularly important because they usually contain legal clauses that inhibit policy change liable to prejudice profit, regardless of its social or environmental benefits. Equally importantly, these rules are usually governed by courts outside national jurisdictions, often in the United States.

Militarily, these regimes usually maintain alliances with the United States, cooperating with that country within the region and sometimes beyond, including facilitating U.S. intervention under the banners of the so-called war on drugs and war on terror. As can be seen by this account, high levels of transnational influence traverse most of the power networks, mostly from the United States but also from Europe, and increasingly from China. Moreover, the establishment of the PA itself, grouping the neoliberalized states together, suggests a longer-term transnational project with the potential to homogenize this political economy model throughout the Latin American region.

Hence, neoliberalism remains the main ideological project in most PA countries and among right elites in some other key countries, such as Venezuela and Brazil, with a view to its eventual dominance throughout the region. In each of these countries, and across them, neoliberalism has formidable collective power in the sense that neoliberal advocates have horizontal linkages across all the power clusters examined here. The confluence of interests around neoliberalism among elites in each of the power clusters results in a narrowing of space for ideological alternatives to gain traction. There is little concern about class, race, and sexual inequalities, with a limited acceptance of gender inequalities in some countries as an area of concern. This suggests more scope for the emergence of a reactionary neoliberal project to emerge, despite some countries’ membership in transnational organizations that hold more progressive neoliberal attitudes, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).3

As stated, organizations like the PA aim to further embed this model at the transnational level, with the potential of further linkages to the key centers of neoliberalism in North America and Europe4 and then across to the economies of East Asia,5 as well as projecting itself as an alternative to existing regional groupings, such as ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) and Mercosur. Furthermore, such agreements will make it even more difficult to deviate from neoliberal tenets and open up the possibility for their extension across the region. These regimes, therefore, are right-oriented state/society complexes due to the deep embeddedness of neoliberal governance at the substate, state, and suprastate levels. This makes it extremely difficult for anti-neoliberal alternatives to prosper, and instead conditions the eventual acceptance of overall neoliberal precepts, even if neoliberalized states try to alleviate the worst aspects of poverty caused by it, if not inequality. This was the case, for example, in Peru under Ollanta Humala (2011–2016; Adrianzén 2014; Crabtree & Durand, 2017) and in Chile under the Concentración (Clark, 2018), and it may even affect President López Obrador in Mexico (Ellner, 2018). Nevertheless, these tenets were powerfully challenged from around the beginning of the millennium, by so-called post-neoliberal regimes (Grugel & Riggirozzi, 2012; Ruckert et al., 2017) seeking to control the excesses of the market and to bring new forms of political participation into action, as well as to decrease social inequalities to varying degrees around class, race, gender, and sexuality.

Right-Wing Prospects in Left-Led Latin America

The pink tide phenomenon, which swept Latin America from about the beginning of the millennium until the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina (2015) and the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil (2016), presented a considerable challenge to right-wing, neoliberal hegemony. In four countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and, above all, Venezuela—right hegemony was challenged to an important degree in each of Mann’s IEMP power clusters, with each government introducing heterodox policies contradicting important neoliberal tenets around free markets and/or liberal democracy, and in some cases deeply rooted social inequality around ascribed identities. Yet this challenge was also felt in a number of other countries, especially in the regional powerhouse Brazil, but also in some Central American countries, such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, where there is evidence of a shift in emphasis in at least some of the five areas, although not to the same intensity as in the above-mentioned states.

In terms of ideological power, changes can be seen in ideological practice around social hierarchies and in ideological transmission belts. In terms of ideological practice, important moves were made toward greater social equalization along class, gender, race, and sexual identity lines. Grugel and Fontana (2019) pointed to important advances in socioeconomic inequality, with increased social expenditure leading to improved compliance with social rights, especially in the Southern Cone (Grugel & Fontana, 2019). Workers’ rights, on the other hand, advanced more slowly or even declined. With regard to gender, Blofield et al. (2017) found that Latin American “left governments do provide more propitious environments for advancing gender equality than right parties or right presidents” (p. 347 emphasis in original), but that this was uneven in outcomes, especially in those areas that “challenge religious doctrine, namely abortion, . . . or that require redistributing economic resources to explicitly address the interactive effects of class, ethnic, and gender inequalities” (Blofield et al., 2017, p. 362).

An area where many of the greatest progressive strides were seen was in cultural rights, with extensions of these rights for indigenous people in the Andean countries, among others, and the institution of important affirmative action programs in Brazil where, for example, 50% of university places were reserved for low-income and Afro-Brazilian students, as well as in Uruguay with quotas for Afro-Uruguayans in a variety of state sectors, including education (Grugel & Fontana, 2019, p. 17). Friedman and Tabbush (2018) pointed to advances in LGBTI issues under some pink tide governments, with some (mostly Southern Cone countries) legalizing same-sex marriage and allowing trans people to claim their own gender identity. Overall, they pointed out that the emergence of the pink tide opened up space for feminist and queer groups to articulate and press their demands. While application of such rights has been patchy within and between left-led countries, the left nonetheless “set new standards for social inclusion” in the region (Grugel & Fontana, 2019, p. 19), which has proven deeply challenging for its traditionally conservative elites.

In terms of ideological transmission, many left governments strengthened state broadcasters, including at the regional level with the launch of Telesur, a type of Al Jazeera for the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region. A variety of laws were introduced by the three Bolivarian governments, and kirchnerista Argentina,6 to attempt to limit concentration of ownership and to increase control on content. Community ownership of media was especially encouraged in Venezuela, but also in Bolivia and to a lesser extent in Argentina. While there are questions about the effectiveness of these measures in terms of increased democratization of the media (Doleac, 2015), the moves were sufficient to set off alarm bells among elites, who most benefit from the existing ownership structures, not least due to the questioning of the neoliberal model and the unequal social structures underpinning it that the changes facilitated. These moves in the media, along with reforms in education—strengthening state intervention, incorporating social equalization issues into curricula, extending coverage to poorer and traditionally excluded sectors, and in some instances increased South–South cooperation—also threatened traditionally conservative norms in both these areas (Muhr, 2010).

Economically, it could be argued that the threat to right-wing hegemony developed at three levels in the region. In the Bolivarian countries of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, as well as in kirchnerista Argentina, the threat can be assessed as medium to high. These are the only countries in the region where significant reversals of privatization took place as well as the introduction of other measures aimed at controlling, intervening in, or contradicting the freedom of the market, including exchange controls (Venezuela, Argentina), interfering with the “autonomy” of the central bank, price controls, debt defaults (Argentina, Ecuador), and land redistribution (Bolivia, Venezuela), among others (Flores-Macias, 2010, pp. 415–416). Even in the so-called “social democratic” left-led countries of Brazil and Uruguay, privatization was stalled, and in Brazil, state intervention in the economy remained high during the first presidency of the Workers' Party’s (Portuguese: Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) Dilma Rousseff (2010–2014). Hence, while the greatest threat to the neoliberal project during the pink tide era was posed by Venezuela, followed by the other Bolivarian countries of Ecuador and Bolivia, there were also medium-level threats in kirchnerista Argentina and even a low to medium threat in PT-led Brazil.

Militarily, there were profound differences between the Bolivarian countries, other left-led countries, and neoliberalized countries, with the latter participating enthusiastically in U.S.-led military initiatives, while the Bolivarian countries reduced or eliminated such cooperation and those in the middle remained neutral (Bitar, 2016). In the political arena, the Bolivarian countries particularly distanced themselves from liberal representative models toward more participative ones. These were accompanied by strengthened executives, reduced checks and balances, and restrictions on civil and political liberties, creating a climate of “class-based polarization over the very meaning of democracy” (Smilde, 2014, p. 29). Finally, in terms of transnational power, left-led countries embarked on new regional initiatives, such as UNASUR (Union of South American Nations), CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), and ALBA, in contradistinction to the U.S.-dominated OAS (Organization of American States), the regional, neoliberalized PA, and the involvement of the PA countries in the (erstwhile) U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).7

As mentioned, there is discussion about whether these changes represent a move away from neoliberalism toward a form of post-neoliberalism (Grugel & Riggirozzi, 2012; Riggirozzi & Wylde, 2017; Sader, 2011; Wylde, 2012) or an adaptation and strengthening of neoliberalism in the region (Clark & North, 2018; Webber & Carr, 2013; Zibechi, 2010). In this latter case, it could be argued that the pink tide governments represented a form of progressive neoliberalism. Nevertheless, in terms of perception by right-wing elites, the pink tide posed serious challenges, at the very least on a symbolic level, to right hegemony in many countries in the region, disturbing preceding attempts to establish stable structures of neoliberal governance, not just at the national level, but also at regional and hemispheric levels, questioning and sometimes contradicting neoliberal political economy models, and in some cases challenging long-established social hierarchies along class, ethnic, gender, and sexual lines. Right-wing elites, however, did not take this situation lying down, and instead developed multilayered strategies for the removal of these governments.

Right-Wing Strategies in Left-Led Latin America

Three levels of right strategy can be identified in response to the disturbed neoliberal hegemony by left-led governments in the region: institutional, mobilizational, and semi- or extraconstitutional. Institutional strategies meant the building of parties, including highly institutionalized parties, such as the UDI (Independent Democrat Union) in Chile, as well more vertical, personalist vehicles, such as the “U” party of ex-president Álvaro Uribe in Colombia (Luna & Rovira Kaltwassser, 2011). While these parties may have differed in terms of structure, both types “have a privileged link with business sectors, which coincides with their free-market positions” (Luna & Rovira Kaltwassser, 2011, p. 17).

Further strategies were the colonization of parties that have been historically left, left-populist, Social Democratic, Christian Democratic, and indeed conservative in their ideological orientation. Some examples are AD (Democratic Action) in Venezuela, the MNR (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement) in Bolivia, Carlos Menem’s Peronist Party in Argentina, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in Mexico, and the Liberal Party in Colombia. This has contributed to the steady decline of the existing party structure, such as it was, in most countries in the region.

Finally, the use of democratic institutions to discredit sitting left politicians was also a favored strategy, thereby creating conditions of crisis, which can favor the removal of a left leader. In this strategy, right-wing politicians who dominate the institutions blame institutional crises on left leaders, rather than on the very institutions that the former dominate, Brazil being a particularly notable case (Cannon, 2017; Ioris & Mier, 2018; Santana, 2018). In tandem, elites use their considerable structural and instrumental power, particularly in the media, to amplify such charges.

Mobilizational strategies involved a variety of activities beyond institutionalized, party-based politics that nevertheless aimed to install right parties and presidents in institutionalized power. Instances of such strategic maneuvers against left governments were experienced in a considerable number of countries in the region, including Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela. Key features of the mobilizational strategies were, first, that they were led by elites as opposed to poorer groups, although the latter may have become involved. Second, a wide variety of activity was used, from mass demonstrations, to more direct actions usually associated with the left, such as road blockades, production strikes, etc. Third, they were almost always accompanied by comprehensive private media campaigns in support of the demonstrators. Fourth, in Bolivia and Venezuela in particular, U.S. moral, strategic, and financial support was provided to right forces. Fifth, in almost all cases the ultimate aim was the removal of the left-led government, except in Bolivia, where the aim was secession, which if it had succeeded would probably have resulted in destabilization of the government. Nevertheless, it is important to note that these strategies did not result in the abandonment of electoral strategies and other institutional strategies, but accompanied them.

Finally, in terms of semi- or extraconstitutional strategies, the cases of Venezuela (2002), Honduras (2009), Ecuador (2010), Paraguay (2012) and Brazil (2016) demonstrate clearly that coups continued as a live strategy and indeed largely succeeded when national and international contextual circumstances were right (i.e., in all cases except Venezuela and Ecuador). The first three cases conform more strictly to classic conceptions of coups because they involved the armed forces (Venezuela, Honduras) or at least the security services (Ecuador). However, it has been argued that the successful removal through impeachment proceedings of President Lugo in Paraguay (Lambert, 2012) and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil (Duarte Rangel, 2018; Miranda, 2016; Santana, 2018; Watts, 2016) constitute a form of “soft” or “smart” coup (Cannon, 2017), combining “hard” (i.e., violence) and “soft” (i.e., media campaigns, etc.) strategies to achieve the desired outcome, but which remain, notionally at least, within constitutional norms.8

Most, nonetheless, share key characteristics. First, they build on previous institutional and mobilizational strategies, providing a multilayered, dynamic, relational, and varied strategic approach. The strategies involved demonstrations and mobilizations of some sort as well as media campaigns in all cases against the sitting left president; United States and allied government support (again with the partial exception of Paraguay, at least with regard to the United States), with mostly solid regional rejection of the coup; attempts at providing a veneer of institutionality to the removal of the government (except in Ecuador, and with the most successful examples being Paraguay and Brazil); and the direct involvement of all or some elements of the armed forces (with the exceptions of Paraguay and Brazil).

Second, in all cases, the aim was to reverse or to stall any modifications to the economy and institutionality by the sitting left government: that is, a return to threatened models of elite-dominated polyarchy and market freedoms. Third, in each case, almost all the power networks were involved: economic, often landed interests; ideological, especially the media; political, not just opposition political parties, but also state institutions; military, even in the case of Paraguay, although not so overtly; and transnational, most notably the United States, but also conservative governments in other parts of the West, such as Canada, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom. These cases, then, used multilayered strategies, involving substate, state, regional, and supranational agents, working at various levels of cooperation to achieve a mutually agreed goal—the removal of an elected, left leader.

The result of the strategies was a renewed turn to the right, most notably in Brazil and Argentina, leading to a restoration of neoliberalism that sought to embed itself more deeply in governance structures. In Argentina, Mauricio Macri, elected in December 2015, very quickly sacked tens of thousands of public-sector workers, in what amounted to a purge of those suspected of supporting the previous Kirchner administration; brought a wide range of business personnel into his cabinet; reduced taxes on mining and on the agro-industry, leading to massive price rises on agricultural goods for the Argentine public; removed subsidies for electricity, gas, and water, leading to price increases of 300% to 500% for these utilities; realigned Argentina’s foreign policy with that of the United States, while distancing it from the regional policy of previous leftist administrations (Casullo, 2016); renewed ties with the International Monetary Fund (Kozameh, 2016), leading eventually to its drawing down a loan from that institution (Goñi, 2018) despite its much-criticized role in the 2001 economic collapse in the country; almost immediately rescinded laws limiting concentration of media ownership brought in by the Kirchners (Kozameh, 2016); and increased military autonomy and competencies in order to participate in the U.S.-led war on drugs (Milani, 2019), including using it as a pretext to give the armed forces an internal policing role, despite the military’s role in the infamous “dirty war” of the 1970s (Salomón, 2018). Notably, however, Macri, like Piñera in Chile (2010–2014), did not dismantle the more popular social policies instituted by his predecessors, including cultural rights like gender-equality laws (Blofield et al., 2017, p. 362) and LGBTI rights.

In Brazil, Michel Temer, upon becoming president in August 2016, immediately announced standard neoliberal policies, such as a fire-sale privatization of state assets, including possibly parts of Petrobras, the state-owned oil giant (Robinson, 2016) and areas of the defense industry (Adghirni, 2016), as well as cuts in public spending on social programs, and increased autonomy for the central bank (Leahy & Pearson, 2016). He also introduced a new law to set constitutional limits on spending for the next 20 years (Robinson, 2016), hence institutionalizing austerity for the foreseeable future, eliminating the minimum allocation for education and health, reducing access for the poor to these social goods, and making it much more difficult for any future government to increase social spending. Moreover, Temer was consistently criticized for a negative attitude to gender and other cultural rights.

Jair Bolsonaro, who became President of Brazil on January 1, 2019, winning over 55% of the vote, radicalized further the Temer agenda (Duarte Rangel, 2018). Using the IEMP structure derived from Mann above to examine Bolsonaro’s initial measures on assuming power indicates the installation of a hyperreactionary neoliberalism. Ideologically, there was a pronounced rejection of previously instituted measures aimed at reducing class, gender, or racial inequalities, directly relating these to “communism” (Berron, 2018). This was evidenced by Bolsonaro’s pledge in his inaugural address to fight “nefarious ideologies” that destroy Brazil’s “values and traditions,” including “gender ideology” (Smith & Lloyd, 2018). Bolsonaro’s election was heavily supported by evangelical leaders, a support rewarded by his appointment of Damares Alves, an evangelical pastor and adviser to the evangelical parliamentary caucus, as Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights. This appointment ensured the removal of LGBTI concerns from consideration by the ministry, building on Bolsonaro’s notoriously negative attitude to LGBT rights (Associated Press, 2019). A major part of the conservative agenda is in education, with Bolsonaro promising that he will ensure that schools prepare children “for the job market and not for political militancy”(BBC News, 2019), and with his Minister for Education, conservative philosopher Ricardo Velez Rodriguez, shutting down the agency responsible for diversity in the Education Ministry (Lopes & Faiola, 2019) and hence jeopardizing the aforementioned affirmative action policies in favor of Afro-Brazilian and poor students.

A further interesting characteristic of Bolsonaro is his rejection of the media establishment in Brazil (Demori et al., 2018) and his successful use of social media, especially WhatsApp, in his election (Nemer, 2018). However, his animosity to mainstream media is less concerned with the high ownership concentration of Brazil’s media, and its unequal outcomes, than with his desire to hegemonize public discourse. It is more likely that Bolsonaro will favor the media who support him, such as Record TV, owned by billionaire evangelical bishop Edir Macedo (Greenwald, 2018), as indicated by his promise to review the distribution of funds for official publicity (Latin American Herald Tribune, 2019), rather than to interfere with property rights of non-Bolsonarista media.

Economically, Bolsonaro aims to radically deepen neoliberalism, as evidenced by his choice of Paulo Guedes, former Chicago School professor and acolyte of Milton Friedman (1912–2006), as Minister of Economy, giving him free rein to choose his team (Latin American Herald Tribune, 2019). A key part of this program will be to deepen privatizations, with promises to privatize or liquidate 100 state-run companies (Reuters, 2019), including Electrobras, the state electricity giant, and many airports and seaports (Conley, 2019). Equally, Bolsonaro has shown his antistate animus by closing the Labor Ministry (and hence undermining state regulation of employment conditions), by installing a federal hiring freeze on state employment, and by promising to reduce state employment by 30% (Lopes & Faiola, 2019). Moreover, Guedes has promised to slash taxes for the rich, aiming at halving the tax take in GDP terms from 36% to 20% (Conley, 2019).

Bolsonaro has never made any secret of his admiration for the military and the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Bolsonaro himself is a former army captain, his vice-president Hamilton Mourao is a retired army general, and seven of Bolsonaro’s 22 cabinet ministers are former military personnel, more than in any administration since the dictatorship (Tsaavkko Garcia, 2018). Bolsonaro intends to move Brazil closer to the United States militarily, pledging to open a U.S. military base in Brazil (Brooks & Paraguassu, 2019), although this has been questioned by some members of the Brazilian military (Viga Gaier, 2019). He has also made clear his intention to fully embrace the U.S.-led war on drugs, adopting “iron fist” policies on drugs and crime, relaxing gun ownership laws, and reducing citizens’ legal protection against shoot-to-kill policies on the part of security forces.

Politically, Bolsonaro has signaled his intention to “rid Brazil of socialism.” Immediately on assuming office, he launched a purge of left-wing government officials, with approximately 300 people expected to be dismissed, in order to “do away with the Socialist and Communist ideas that during 30 years have led us to the chaos in which we live” (Khan, 2019). Ernesto Araujó, the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, is an extreme right-wing radical, seeing left-wing plots in global warming, so-called “cultural Marxism,” and international media like The New York Times, and arguing that the left (broadly defined) seeks the “suicide of humanity” (Tsaavkko Garcia, 2018). Furthermore, the new National Congress is primarily dominated by like-minded members, signaling the mainstreaming of such discourse (Costa, 2018). This increased presence of far-right ideology in the Congress, along with moves to privilege such sectors in the media, all point to greater ideological homogeneity in Brazilian politics around market freedoms and elite privilege.

Finally, transnationally, some evidence could be found to suggest a contradiction of neoliberal tenets. Bolsonaro has expressed support for President Trump, who has returned the favor, and Bolsonaro rapidly moved to follow the White House’s lead in increasing criticism of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, among other local leftist governments, and in pledging support for U.S. policy toward these countries. He has also pivoted Brazil toward the right-wing Israeli government, pledging to follow the United States in moving the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem. In terms of trade, he seems to be following the U.S. lead in casting doubt on multilateralism. Bolsonaro has expressed criticism of “globalism” and the need for reform in multilateral bodies, such as the World Trade Organization, as has his foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo (Paraguassu & Brito, 2019). President Bolsonaro also announced Brazil’s withdrawal from negotiations on the TPP (following again the United States; Lopes & Faiola, 2019) and threatened to withdraw Brazil from the Paris climate accord (again following the United States’ example) but later retracted that threat (Leal, 2018). Nevertheless, such moves are limited by other important relations, such as the relation with China, Brazil’s foremost trading partner (Lopes & Faiola, 2019), or Brazil’s Middle Eastern markets for its beef, putting a question mark over the move of the embassy to Jerusalem. Judging by Trump’s 2018 renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), after previously threatening to abandon it, there is little reason to suspect that Bolsonaro will differ with respect to international trade.

In sum, Macri, Temer, and Bolsonaro have restored and reinvigorated neoliberal policies, repealing and replacing pink tide state interventionist reforms in many of the power areas identified by Mann. Nevertheless, while Macri has largely refrained from removing the more popular social policies installed by the kirchnerista governments, including, for example, gender quotas in politics and pro-LGBTI rights legislation, Temer and more notably Bolsonaro have launched a full-frontal assault on such policies, with the latter branding them “communist.” Accordingly, it can be suggested that Macri is more in line with Fraser’s (2017) progressive neoliberalism category, while Bolsonaro represents a hyperreactionary neoliberalism along the lines of U.S. President Trump. Nonetheless, both are linked by the essential neoliberal political economy model underpinning existing social inequalities along class lines.

Conclusion: Elites and the Latin American Right

Khan (2012) identified two “basic questions” in elite studies. They are, first, how elites maintain their rule despite increased popular power in democracy, and, second, regarding “the structure of the elites . . . their interconnectedness, concentration, and capacity [for], and interest in, colluding and competing” (p. 363). This article attempts to shed light on the right in Latin America by essentially equating dominant elites with the right. A brief overview of major work on the Latin American right to date has been provided, identifying a difference of emphasis in analysis between institutional and structural perspectives, suggesting that a unifying (f)actor in both is elites. An alternative, overarching IEMP framework derived from Michael Mann’s work on social power has been suggested that puts elites at the center of analysis and takes both institutional and structural power equally into account. This approach is used to show the extent to which the different power networks identified by Mann are dominated by neoliberalism in Latin America, hence suggesting a co-relation between elites and the right in the region.

However, this is a broad-based overall framework, and many questions remain about how it can be operationalized, questions that can be grouped around the three main themes of characterization, strategies, and objectives. First, with regard to characterization, the article raises questions about how to define the right, about whether a basic definition can be formulated as a minimum concept that nonetheless is meaningful and operational for research purposes. Here a sociological explanation is advanced based around inequality, but other economic and ideological definitions are also current in research. Another question concerns which groups and organizations should be included in the right, and indeed if it is better to discuss not one right, but several rights. An important characterization here is the emphasis on networks in the four main areas of social life as identified by Mann as a means to characterize the right. Further questions arise, however, about how the networks are formed and how they interact with each other. For example, to what extent is there unity around neoliberalism, or commitment to its ideological principles? Is there a hierarchy within and between the different networks, and, if so, how is it established and how does it operate? Specifically, how do the areas of ideology and economics, much of which are found outside the state, relate to politics and the pursuit of state power? Additionally, to what extent are these networks stable over time and space, particularly with regard to the transnational? Here Fraser’s (2017) important differentiation between progressive and reactionary neoliberalism offers a partial answer to some of these questions.

Second, with regard to strategies, the article identifies three types, or layers, of strategy: institutional, mobilizational, and semi- or extraconstitutional. However, questions remain about how the different sectors within the right interact on a national, regional, and transnational level in order to formulate such strategies. Moreover, the strategies outlined here are relevant to the Latin American right in political opposition, sometimes in a clear situation of disarticulation. How do these strategies change when the right is in power? Do they adapt, moderate, or radicalize, and might new alliances emerge? The use of Fraser’s (2017) framework seems to suggest that both radicalization and moderation are present in different iterations of right governments, with perhaps differing sets of transnational alliances characterizing each.

Finally, considering objectives, it is argued that the right’s main objective is to implant, secure, and extend neoliberalism, which is equated with elite power. Can these objectives change, and, if so, how? For example, how does the reactionary right’s insistence on revision of cultural issues around identity affect socioeconomic policy? How do these changed objectives get translated into policy, how are the policies implemented, and how does such implementation affect the overall objective? Overall, such questions point to the need for more case studies to tease out and test such research questions. Nevertheless, Mann’s IEMP framework is particularly useful as a starting point for analysis because it does not privilege one area over others, thus providing a more equitably balanced field of inquiry than is found in traditional political science.


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(1.) All translations from Fischer’s Spanish original done by the author.

(2.) Chile for most of the period since the transition to democracy (1989–2018, with an interlude of right-led government from 2010 to 2014) and Peru under Ollanta Humala, (2011–2016).

(3.) For example, Chile and Mexico are members of the OECD, and Colombia and Costa Rica are in discussions on membership.

(4.) FTAs have been signed between the PA countries and the United States and between the European Union and Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Central America, with ongoing negotiations with Mercosur.

(5.) Through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, as well as individual FTAs with Asian countries, including China and India.

(6.) Referring to Argentinean governments between 2003 and 2015, led first by Nestor Kirchner and then by his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

(7.) President Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP in January, 2017, but a modified agreement was renegotiated by the remaining members with the hope that the United States will rejoin.

(8.) This is derived from Joseph Nye’s concept smart power, which he defines as “the ability to combine hard and soft power into a successful strategy.” See Nye, Joseph, Smart power.