The conservative leftists of Latin America

Latin America’s history of socialist and progressive governments dates to the 1960s and ‘70s, with a resurgence during the “pink tide” of the 2000s. Leftist economic values and social progressivism have always gone hand in hand with each other in the ideology of left-wing parties and political movements of the region, also confronting themselves with the strong presence of the Roman Catholic Church.

A new political phenomenon

Over the past decade, however, a new phenomenon of socially conservative left-wing movements and parties has begun to emerge. This scenario is very likely influenced by an ever-growing presence of new conservative Christian communities, especially linked to Protestant Churches. A few exceptions can be found – for example, Argentina recently legalized abortion on request thanks to a campaign by President Fernández (Peronist and left-wing) – but in most Latin American countries this trend is described as “alarming”. In Peru, President Castillo (member of the Marxist-Leninist party “Free Peru”) expressed rejection of abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and the legalization of marijuana, while publicly reciting the Bible. In Mexico, the leftist President López Obrador often speaks of Faith, not expressing otherwise opinions on important topics, like abortion and same-sex marriage, and openly adopting anti-environmentalist policies. In Nicaragua, the current socialist President Ortega was one of the biggest supporters of the complete abolition of legal abortion in 2006, during the ratification of a law on this topic. During his tenure as Minister of Economy, Bolivian President Arce (member of “Movement for Socialism”) also supported anti-environmentalist policies.

Politics in Latin America is thus going towards an anti-rights direction: while one would expect this kind of position by right- and far right-wing politicians (as shown by the example of Brazilian President Bolsonaro, which openly expresses his misogynist, homophobic, classist, and racist views), this should not also apply to leftist political leaders. It is indeed striking how minorities and historically marginalized social groups are seeing their rights taken away by governments that identify themselves as progressive, socialist, or in general as left-wing. This scenario became even more confusing when Chile, a few days ago, legalized same-sex marriage with a bill heavily sponsored by right-wing President Piñera – in office until March 11th.

It is thus clear how the issue is no longer about differences between left and right. For this reason, analysts tend to differentiate between two types of left: the “new socially conservative left” and the “new millennial left”. The former is represented by the above examples (López Obrador in Mexico, Castillo in Peru, Ortega in Nicaragua), while the latter by younger political figures, like the brand-new social-democratic President of Chile, Gabriel Boric, or even by former leaders like Lula da Silva in Brazil and Mujica in Uruguay, who strongly fought for social equality in the 2000s and early 2010s.

To understand at least partly this situation, we have to focus on the constraints in which these political figures operate. While the populist and socialist economic model is an effective way to gain the support of large electorates, the socially progressive messages of Western left-wing parties clash with a very religious population, increasingly Evangelical and Pentecostal, and the pressure groups that support these views of society. This situation would seem paradoxical in the eyes of left-wing voters of North America and Western Europe but has become a reality in Latin America. Left-wing parties of this region have begun to form populist coalitions with socially conservative political movements to maintain power, after the growing loss of consensus due, among other reasons, to the wave of corruption that involved them.

The pre-eminent role of religion

Religion is, for sure, a relevant factor in the creation of this political trend. The growth of Evangelical and Pentecostal communities is seen as a major demographic change in the region as the Protestant population is seeing an increase that is outpacing total population growth. This newly powerful Protestant clergy and the Latin American Catholic Church found in each other good allies and started to support common battles against abortion and LGBTQ rights, becoming more and more active in national political lives.

The partnerships between Protestants and left-wing parties, however, are not totally unprecedented in Latin American history. Given the fact that the Roman Catholic Church was always seen as a natural ally of conservatives, such associations were not uncommon in order to diminish religious and political power of the Catholics. Of course, this reasoning does not always hold: the Catholic Church, for example, has been a very active part of the Resistance against Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, while Evangelicals were more aligned with Presidential power. This example also shows how pragmatic the choices of religious congregations have been and how different the situation can be on national basis. In more recent times, a general alignment of the different Christian sensibilities brought to common political goals, that can be easily described as conservative.

A further differentiation, with regard to LGBTQ rights, can be drawn between Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries and the Anglophone Caribbean. In the former, the legalization of same-sex relationships was implemented in the 19th century and thus they are more accepted, albeit not in the form of marriage. In the latter, LGBTQ rights are often described as a foreign imposition, as Victorian morality was an important part of national identity.

The “new socially conservative left” is a phenomenon that cannot be underestimated by pro-rights organizations and activists, since it is leading towards an even broader conservative front, which includes the whole political arch. However, the fact that some centre-right politicians in the region are also fighting for more inclusive and progressive societies represents a relevant possibility. Moreover, parts of the clergy can also be considered progressive, and as younger generations are entering the ranks of different Churches, they could play a key role in pro-rights activism. The distinction between left and right cannot thus be considered a good proxy to differentiate between social progressivism and conservatism. Understanding the constraints behind single political leaders is the right way for pro-right advocates to fight more effective battles in the region, which is doubtlessly entering the economic first world and should have progressive values to accompany such economic growth.

A cura di Francesco Di Nardo



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