Is This Latin American Conservatives’ Last Chance?
With a rising China and other bad actors on its shores, this could be Latin America’s last chance for lasting progress. It’s time for the new Right in Latin America to rise to the occasion.
The Left’s winning streak in Latin American presidential races screeched to a halt on April 30 with the election of Santiago Peña, an economist and conservative member of Paraguay’s ruling Colorado Party. Peña’s election gives center-right Latin Americans reason to hope that the tide is turning against the socialist wave that has swept through the region in recent years.
Prior to Peña’s victory, five of the last six presidential elections in Latin America have gone to Leftist leaders, many of whom are showing signs of authoritarianism and rabid anti-Americanism.
Colombian president Gustavo Petro purged political moderates from his coalition government the day after he held an international conference to whitewash Venezuela’s criminal Maduro regime. Honduran president Xiomara Castro abandoned Taiwan in favor of Communist China. Brazil’s newly elected president, Lula da Silva, traveled to Beijing to promote the end of the U.S. dollar’s dominance in global trade and later criticized Western support for Ukraine against Russian aggression.
And that was just last month.
Many voters who pulled the lever for these Leftist leaders now realize they chose poorly. Latin American businessmen from the region’s five largest economies, including Colombia and Brazil, withdrew roughly $137 billion out of their countries in 2022. And in 2023, according to sources within the Customs and Border Patrol, Colombians became the second-largest nationality arriving on the U.S. southern border. Capital flight and outward migration are the direct consequences of Petro and Lula’s leftist policies.
But elsewhere, things are starting to shift.
In a blow to leftist President Gabriel Boric, Chileans on May 7 voted overwhelmingly for conservative parties to draft a new Constitution. Upcoming presidential elections in Guatemala and Argentina later this year could see conservative candidates win. Could this be the beginning of a rightward shift in the hemisphere?
From roughly 2012–2018, Latin America saw at least ten pro-business, pro-U.S. presidents come to power. They focused on fixing their country's financial portfolios and strengthening relations with the United States. Except for Peru, which ran through six presidents in six years, all of them finished their terms with a healthier national balance sheet. But that didn’t translate into popularity. Except for Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, most of these conservative presidents ended their term with lower approval ratings than when they began. They were succeeded by far-left candidates.
Among the many mistakes made by Latin America’s conservatives was that they focused too much on policy and not enough on popular messaging. The result was their countries fell prey to brutal disinformation campaigns that fomented organized riots and violent protests. In 2019, a simple four-cent hike in Chilean public transit fares led to violence, the destruction of the country’s infrastructure, and, ultimately, the election of a thirty-five-year-old Marxist. Something similar happened in Colombia.
Digital forensics analysis found that foreign disinformation accounted for at least 30 percent of the online noise during the 2019 Chilean protests. The same blueprint was followed in Colombia in 2021, where Venezuela and Russia interference exacerbated the crisis. These foreign campaigns irreversibly weakened Colombia and Chile’s conservative governments who relied on conventional reelection strategies in the face of an unconventional threat. Both countries saw left-wing governments replace them.
Radical leftist politicians capitalized on these mistakes by using non-state networks to entrench their power. Even after leaving office, autocrats such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa or Bolivia’s Evo Morales remained powerful. Their on-the-ground, horizontally aligned grassroots movements persistently attacked their successors, allowing them to control the political narrative. The leftist wins in Latin America have led to a geopolitical realignment toward China, Russia, and Iran.
Unfortunately, it is not clear that Latin American conservatives have learned these lessons. The day after he won the presidency, Paraguay’s Peña recognized Latin America’s worst dictators and Russian, Chinese, and Iranian clients in Caracas and Havana.
Should Latin America’s new Right retake and hold power across the region, they will need to adopt a policy vision that embraces individual liberty and economic freedom, while prioritizing national sovereignty and national security. That is not consistent with flirting with China’s neo-imperial ambitions. Half the region lists the People’s Republic of China as its top trading partner, but that doesn’t mean it must acquiesce to its economic coercion. For Latin America, creating distance from China by prioritizing relations with the West and Taiwan, is not just in the U.S. national interest, it’s critical for its own sovereignty and stability.
In sum, mass migration, crime and violence, inflation, poverty, and food insecurity are all on the rise in Latin America. But so is a new conservative consciousness that has been yearning for new leaders.
Paraguay, Guatemala, and Argentina have the opportunity to right the wrong in 2023. With a rising China and other bad actors on its shores, this could be Latin America’s last chance for lasting progress. It’s time for the new Right in Latin America to rise to the occasion.
Joseph M. Humire is the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) and a visiting fellow of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy.