Today, more than half of the sovereign states in Latin America and the Caribbean are governed by left-wing presidents, including the big three: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Only five years ago, Latin America’s left held power in less than one-third of the region.
This political shift prompted claims that political change in Latin America resembles a pendulum effect, a series of reactions to social crises, which lead to perpetual oscillation from left-to-right-wing governments. Although pervasive in the foreign policy world, the claim holds no ground.
Some self-described Latin Americanists, who all too often reveal themselves to be Castro-sympathizing historians, assert this theory ad nauseam. They, along with a growing group of liberal policy wonks, profess that these sorts of political shifts are natural and unavoidable. Many have fallen into the trap of oversimplification, while others have simply benefited from perpetuating the myth.
Concretely, in recent years, many promoting the pendulum effect—as if it were fact and not merely theory—have posited that the rise of anti-Americanism and left-wing governments in the region is nothing but yet another chapter in a long book; one that will soon be followed by one of pro-Americanism and right-wing governments. Although reassuring, as theory usually is, this schematization does nothing but constrain the proper understanding of realities on the ground.
It is true that political transition originates in part from reactions to changing local dynamics. After all, no socialist has ever risen to power when income inequality in a given country is small. But local politics in and of itself is insufficient to explain the recent political shifts in Latin American countries in the twenty-first century.
For sure, some regions in the world are characterized by institutions and histories that facilitate the success of particular ideas over others. In the case of Latin America, it is often said that the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the so-called Pink Tide, which began in the early 2000s, followed the failures of widespread neoliberalism in addressing poverty and inequality. Before that, some go further to explain that the rise of neoliberalism in Latin America in the late twentieth century was itself a reaction to the high inflation and mounting debt generated by the dominant import-substitution-industrialization framework of the 1970s.
Still, while looking at these trends complements a proper analysis of why nations change, it is insufficient without acknowledging the role of ideologically motivated domestic elites in Latin America and the role of external actors in enabling, if not guiding, these political transitions.
Both Michel Foucault and Karl Marx understood that knowledge and power are closely linked, and that revolutionary elites play an instrumental role in spreading knowledge, guiding the masses, and achieving systemic change. They knew that to take control, revolutionaries must not only distance themselves from “bad” elites, but also need to embrace “good” elites. After all, the legendary Che Guevara was not necessarily poor, and the same Hugo Chávez who spent decades exclaiming that “¡ser rico es malo!” (meaning that being rich is evil) died a billionaire. Some might call men like these hypocrites, and in some cases, they were. But more often than not, the Marxist text that inspired them justified their actions.
Times may have changed, but the same remains true: these revolutionaries are a-ok with the wealthy… if the wealthy support them. Extend this to the next logical conclusion, and one can understand that they also favor imperialism, if the empire supports them.
For some, these observations are not brain-boggling at all: they are common sense. In the United States’ foreign policy community, politically dominated by a class of self-loathing narcissists, these views sound alien. But for a group of rising U.S. and Latin American scholars and thinkers that grasp on-the-ground realities better than most, it is time for a change.
Earlier this year, on a damp night at the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., more than one hundred twenty U.S. and Latin American political leaders, think tank scholars, and national security experts from eleven countries gathered in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), along with the organization’s Western Hemisphere Security Forum.
At this event, you could hear a variety of Spanish accents. But aside from diversity in that regard, what was palpable, if not ubiquitous, in the cocktail reception before the panels began was the group’s desire for the rise of a new conservative movement in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Participants in the Forum, including Venezuela’s highest-polling opposition leader Maria Corina Machado and Colombian presidential-candidate-in-the-making Senator Maria Fernanda Cabal, understand, unlike many Latin American elites, that what has hit the region is even stronger than the so-called Pink Tide that plagued the region for the first decade of this century.
Moreover, inside the walls of the Spy Museum that night, there were no doubts that the political shift in the region is not the result of the pendulum’s bob swinging back. Rather, it is due to the progression of bad ideas that have slowly but surely moved to the political Left under the guidance of internal illiberal forces and external actors that wish to challenge American hegemony.
More than two decades ago, the rise of Hugo Chávez came after a piecemeal process of expanding Cuban influence that swallowed Venezuela’s institutions, which culminated with an uprising—demonstrating that, as Ernest Hemingway said in his 1926 breakthrough novel The Sun Also Rises, change can happen “gradually, then suddenly.”
After Chávez’s success, through petrodiplomacy and with the help of Russian-Iranian-Cuban intelligence and Chinese credits and loans, a new wave of authoritarian governance was reciprocated across the region like a viral pathogen. This wave came with a prescribed set of enemies and friends, along with several go-to institutional reforms—which always came under the guise of promoting a form of “equity” that ultimately deteriorates democracy. For example, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa both advanced constitutional reforms to end presidential term limits, following the footsteps of the Venezuelan tyrant.
In that same vein—unexpectedly for some, but predictably for many at the SFS Forum—the Latin America ideological map today is even more politically red than what it looked like a decade ago.
Joseph Humire, the executive director of SFS, told me that “the last so-called conservative wave in Latin America lacked a geopolitical vision that understood the new realities in the era of great power competition; you cannot maintain China as your top trade partner while asking the U.S. for loans and development assistance, or continually buy military armament from Russia while sucking up to SOUTHCOM for more military support.” This lack of understanding of how the world was shifting, led, according to Humire, to “the return of not just leftist presidents in Latin America, but rising authoritarians who are seeking to take the region further away from the United States and toward greater conflict.”
With this in mind, it is evident that what the region has observed is no pendulum effect. A better metaphor would be that of a driver that occasionally makes small adjustments to the steering wheel to keep the car on track, but overall, the car stays on course, moving toward a specific destination.
In this case, that driver is a mix of malign regional actors, namely Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, as well as neo-imperialist totalitarian regimes from Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran. Today, more than ever, the car's fuel is provided by these extra-regional actors who benefit from this change in Latin America — primarily China.
Neutrality in the hopes of the pendulum’s bob bouncing back will only lead to the rise of new anti-American authoritarians in our proximity, impacting America’s economic relationships and worsening the migration crisis, as it already is. If Latin American conservatives want to win, they need new drivers, new cars, and new fuel. With prudence, the United States must back a new wave of Latin American leaders, and, with determination, Latin America must course-correct.
Juan P. Villasmil “J.P. Ballard” is a commentator and analyst who often writes about American culture, foreign policy, and political philosophy. He has been featured in The American Spectator, The National Interest, The Wall Street Journal, International Policy Digest, Fox News, Telemundo, MSNBC, and others.