Holy War: Latin America’s Far Right

Holy War: Latin America’s Far Right

Old arguments about morality, Christianity, and the essential correctness of postcolonial racial and social stratification have proven a tremendous asset to the reaction against the Pink Tide.

Soldiers at Bolsonaro’s inauguration, where he proclaimed a crusade against crime, corruption, and leftism (Carl De Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

By any measure, the extreme right is ascendant in Latin America. In Brazil, president Jair Bolsonaro boasts of being a proud homophobe, promises to banish “red outlaws,” insists that his country is a “Christian nation,” and sings the praises of the Cold War–era military dictatorship, his only critique being that it tended to torture dissidents instead of killing them outright. In Chile, billionaire president Sebastián Piñera responded to anti-austerity demonstrations by sending the army into the streets, part of a supposed “war against a powerful enemy,” recycling Augusto Pinochet’s language in effectively giving carte blanche to security forces as they blinded hundreds of demonstrators with rubber bullets. And in Bolivia, where neo-fascist paramilitaries based in the Santa Cruz lowlands co-opted the electoral unrest that led to president Evo Morales’s ouster, thugs burned indigenous flags, police massacred protesters, and ministers of the new interim government called Morales and his followers “savages and terrorists.” Self-declared president Jeanine Áñez triumphantly pronounced, “God has allowed the Bible to return to the palace,” as her followers stormed the legislature.

A decade ago, the regional panorama looked very different, with the center-left governments of the so-called Pink Tide working gamely against sobering structural constraints to try and dismantle entrenched economic, racial, and gender inequalities. The results were uneven, but the successes real. What happened?

In one sense, Latin America’s right-wing resurgence parallels dynamics playing out elsewhere in the world, from India to Turkey to the United States. Conservatives, fringe and mainstream alike, are alluding to the Crusades, decrying the influence of “gender ideology  and “cultural Marxism,” and hardening borders both figurative and physical between “us” and “them.” The movements driven by these constellations of ideas complement one another, and regularly collaborate, in their attempts to roll back democratization on a global scale.

Yet while the dynamics have global resonances, many characteristics of the Latin American right are specific to the region’s postcolonial history. The far right’s exaltation of Christianity, patriarchy, “Hispanic” whiteness, and authoritarianism—and its violent rejection of secularism, homosexuality, indigeneity, blackness, and liberalism—reflect how Latin America’s decolonization unfolded, and the nature of its relationships with its former colonizers, Spain and Portugal. Only recently in the United States have the Middle Ages been invoked in right-wing political discourse, used to bolster Islamophobia since 9/11. In Latin America, though, such rhetoric is part of a long-standing right-wing intellectual current characterized by a racist identification with European imperialism; since the 1930s, it has also bolstered religious justifications for campaigns of violence against “communists.”

The wisdom of comparing the world’s present rightward turn to the outbreak of fascism in the 1930s has been hotly debated. In Latin America, however, drawing connections to such moments is not to analogize, but rather—more chillingly, perhaps—to map historical continuities.

Latin America’s republics won their independence from European colonial rule earlier than their African and Asian counterparts, and under rather different circumstances. Instead of seeking to overturn the economic, racial, and cultural hierarchies that had sustained Iberian empire, Latin America’s nineteenth-century rebels aimed to preserve them. Their goal was not to shatter the profoundly unequal status quo but, much more modestly, to install themselves as its enforcers; the revolutions they won were, in Gramscian terms, passive ones. Instead of obeying distant peninsular monarchies, the American-born descendants of European colonizers, known as Creoles, would be self-governing. The Creoles established constitutional and legal frameworks in their new nation-states that provided, as political theorist Joshua Simon writes, “a way out from under imperial rule that would not require them to relinquish the privileges that imperialism had allowed.”

This did not preclude bitter conflicts over which colonial-era institutions and practices should be kept, updated, or discarded. Some wished to retain close ties to their former colonizers, while others, inspired by Enlightenment liberalism, wanted a cleaner break. But left intact by elite consensus was a de facto caste system wherein those who could be identified as European descendants by their skin color, Catholic faith, lineage, and language sat atop the social pyramid—and kept a watchful eye on threats to their hegemony, such as those presented by mass indigenous uprisings in the late colonial Andes and by the Haitian Revolution. Creoles thus rejected direct Iberian rule but continued to uphold the supposed superiority of “Iberianness.” In starkly racially stratified postcolonial societies, the Creoles’ political power resided precisely in their claims to European inheritance.

When challenges to this order inevitably emerged, they fueled a current of imperial-era nostalgia among that order’s beneficiaries—not for foreign domination per se, but for the maintenance of the norms and value systems that former colonizing projects had installed. In Hispanophone Latin America, that nostalgia’s most visible manifestation was the notion of Hispanidad, or “Spanishness.” Conservative proponents of Hispanidad held that the world’s Spanish-speaking societies, whose shared cultural and spiritual foundations stemmed from their common colonial experience, made up a transcendent, transatlantic family. (In Brazil, Luso-Brazilian nationalists similarly touted their country’s relationship to Portugal and its other overseas possessions, arguing for their society’s essentially European, rather than Afro-descendant or indigenous, character.) They held that this Hispanic family constituted a distinct raza or “race,” alchemized from Castilian Spanish and the Catholic faith, produced by religious conquest and Golden Age imperial expansion. This last piece was important: Spain owed its existence to the Reconquest, when the early modern Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon vanquished the Muslim caliphate and drove Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Culminating in 1492, the Reconquest coincided with Christopher Columbus’s unanticipated landfall in the Bahamas. Settler colonialism, the evangelizing mission, whiteness, and the very genesis of modern Iberia’s nation-states—all predicated upon the expulsion, eradication, or assimilation of racialized others—were inextricably knotted together. At the dawn of Latin American independence, Creoles who identified as the inheritors of “Iberianness” identified with that nexus of ideas, too.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the mythology of Iberian imperial glory was increasingly embattled. In 1898 Spain lost its remaining Caribbean and Philippine colonies, the last fragments of its once expansive global empire. This produced a profound sense of crisis among peninsular Spaniards, who struggled to reconcile their cultural nationalism with the humiliation of defeat by an upstart United States. Broadly speaking, two intellectual positions emerged from this moment of rupture. One, channeling Latin America’s postcolonial liberals, contended that if Spain was to survive it would need to modernize and cast off the fusty feudal shroud of monarchy, clergy, and aristocracy. The other, channeling Latin America’s postcolonial conservatives, instead contended that Spain was in decline for having strayed from its core ideals, and advocated doubling down on faith, hierarchy, empire, and tradition.

The chasm between the two perspectives took devastating physical form a few decades later in the Spanish Civil War. The democratically elected, defiantly secular Popular Front coalition governing Spain in 1936 earned the right’s wrath for its efforts to dislodge the oligarchic and religious structures dominating economic and political life. Its moves to defang the Catholic Church, break up the landed aristocracy, and institute agrarian reform were polarizing, and its inability to restrain popular anticlerical violence inspired an array of conservative factions to unite to overthrow it. Latin Americans watched Spain’s three-year-long bloodbath closely, as the issues over which it was fought closely paralleled those dividing their own societies: extreme inequality, the relationship of church to state, rising worker militancy, and changing gender norms. The Spanish right finally triumphed in 1939, and the Nazi-backed General Francisco Franco, a leader of the insurgent Nationalist armies and self-styled savior of Western Christianity, established modern Europe’s longest-lasting dictatorship. Portugal took steps not to follow Spain into civil war, but its own Catholic and anticommunist authoritarian regime, led by António de Oliveira Salazar, supported Franco and espoused many of his regime’s ideas.

The Spanish Civil War was pivotal in the evolution of Latin American conservatism, because it entrenched one of the most dangerous and enduring political weapons of the twentieth century: the braiding of “official” Christianity and anticommunism. This happened well before the dawn of the Cold War and the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Franco’s forces made liberal use, so to speak, of analogies to the Crusades and the Reconquest; in their updated telling, however, the foreign “invaders” in need of purging for the sake of the nation’s survival were not Muslims but communists. The Nationalists racialized communism, blaming the combination of a so-called “red gene” with sexual libertinism for threatening the degeneration of the Hispanic raza. The Vatican, for its part, brought its full authority to bear on the matter; Divini Redemptoris, the papal encyclical released in March 1937, as the war raged, described communism as “an evil of the spiritual order” that obeyed a “satanic logic.” The encyclical recommended that “all diligence should be exercised by States to prevent within their territories the ravages of an anti-God campaign which shakes society to its very foundations.” Echoing Pope Pius XI, a group of Spanish bishops penned a pastoral letter in July 1937, which was circulated widely among Latin American clergy and defended the rebels’ efforts to dislodge the Republican government as a just war, necessary “to safeguard the principles of religion and Christian justice which have for ages formed the nation’s life.” From that point on, insurrectionary violence was not only justifiable if the enemy was “communism”—it was holy.

Latin American rightists took notice. As the Argentine priest Julio Meinvielle enthused, “With the Spanish war begins the Christian conquest of the apostate world.” Not all the region’s conservatives were so strident in their views. But those who were vocally and persistently sought to yoke their national identities to conservative Spanish notions of faith, morality, race, language, and ideology, shifting the bounds of mainstream political discourse rightward. Less militant conservatives could, meanwhile, make perfunctory objections to Spain’s fascist turn while forging alliances with local rightists to hold the line against restive labor movements, peasants demanding land, and other calls for meaningful socioeconomic change. For many Latin American supporters of Franco’s crusade against the Second Spanish Republic, its appeal resided less in the specifics of the Falange’s political program than in the general principles the Nationalists purported to defend: order, the church, whiteness, and “traditional” values; moderate conservatives favored authoritarian solutions where necessary, and shared a skepticism of liberalism and democracy. Meanwhile, the true believers wrote, marched, advised, and plotted, their activities helping to naturalize paramilitary activity and ideological violence. Nicaraguan intellectual Pablo Antonio Cuadra saw in Franco’s victory a positive resolution to “the eternal dilemma of our races: Hispanidad or cannibalism.”

In the decades that followed Franco’s rise, those hardliners received moral and material support from their Iberian lodestar. Spain and Portugal, whose dictatorships survived well into the 1970s despite the Allies’ claims of having crushed all fascism in the Second World War, became a global hub for right-wing Catholic organizing. From these two countries conservative priests, educators, publications, diplomats, and exhibitions made their way to Latin America in the name of cultural exchange, fostering, for example, the transatlantic growth of the ultraconservative Opus Dei order. Francoist discourse—which relied on a nostalgic vision of an early modern society without suffrage, political parties, or rights—made Spain a useful reference point for those who would just as soon have dispensed altogether with the messy demands of modern democracy. It reinforced a set of ideas that proved to have real staying power: that literally any kind of political regime was preferable to “communism” or anything that might lubricate the slippery slope toward it; that the war against “communism” was a spiritual, civilizational war to the death; and that anything perceived as an attack on the institutional pillars of church, military, and nobility merited extermination.

These were the ideas, funded and weaponized by the United States, that undergirded the spectacular political violence of Latin America’s Cold War decades, informing key flashpoints throughout the continent. Numerous coup attempts, whether thwarted or victorious, drew explicitly on the right-wing mythology of the Spanish Civil War, such as in Guatemala, where, in 1954, the clergy mobilized believers to support the overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz by calling it a “reconquest” of the country, or in Bolivia, where, in 1959, Óscar Únzaga de la Vega, who had founded the Bolivian Socialist Falange in honor of Spain’s, died attempting the overthrow of the MNR revolutionary government. The Franco regime’s subordination of women and harsh repression of gender and sexual nonconformity, spurred by Hispanist eugenics, was echoed in Brazil, where twenty years of dictatorships equated gender and sexual nonconformity with subversion and argued that only military rule could arrest the moral decay of Christian civilization. Argentina’s juntas made abundant use of the holy war concept in the mid-1970s, deploying messianic rhetoric to sacralize the mass killings of leftists, while in neighboring Chile, the Gremialista civilian opposition movement, steeped in Catholic mythology and notions of a glorious Hispanic cultural inheritance, was central to undermining Salvador Allende’s socialist government. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, in El Salvador, a mid-1970s death squad gave itself the unwieldy name of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Anti-Comunista Nacional Guerra de Exterminación, purely to produce the acronym FALANGE.

However distasteful more moderate actors and their U.S. State Department friends may have found the means—torturing union activists, throwing students out of airplanes into the sea, massacring indigenous communities, and the like—they were quite content with the ends, which included the systematic decimation of organized labor, the suspension or reversal of badly needed agrarian reforms, the punishment of progressive tendencies within the church, and the gutting of the social movements that could have fought the debilitating, externally imposed structural adjustments of the 1980s and 1990s. The international investors heralding, and exploiting, present-day Central and South American markets as prime business opportunities have decades of conservative repression to thank. Put simply, it is not an accident that Latin America today remains the most unequal region in the world.

Eduardo Galeano, the lion of Uruguayan letters, once wrote, “In the history of humankind every act of destruction meets its response, sooner or later, in an act of creation.” Left politics in Latin America was no exception. What came to be known as the Pink Tide began, of course, as a reaction against the region’s lurch toward austerity, but it was also a repudiation of past blood-soaked reactionary decades, symbolized by the elevation of former torture victims like Chile’s Michelle Bachelet and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff to national office. And for all its understandable failures to dislodge entrenched power structures, the Pink Tide nevertheless suggested the dawning of a new era: one in which revitalized mass organizations could propel their leaders to political power, as in the case of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; one in which the countries most deeply beholden to international lenders, such as Argentina, could throw off the shackles of IMF debt; one in which majority-indigenous societies, like Bolivia, could be governed by an indigenous president who dared to redefine the modern state as plurinational.

Though the far right kept relatively quiet during the early years of this phase, it remained attentive to the mounting challenges faced by the Pink Tide states—falling commodity prices, corruption, U.S. meddling, the divisive temptations of extractivism—and awaited an opportunity to strike. Its strategic orientation was fundamentally insurrectionary, if not always successful; the conservative coalition behind the 2002 coup attempt against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, for example, fragmented when coup leader Pedro Carmona passed over coalition members in favor of Opus Dei operatives in naming his cabinet. The right’s rejection of anything approaching a systemic challenge to the Washington Consensus was all but guaranteed, but the contours of that rejection are historically rooted and contextually specific.

The forms taken by the backlash against Pink Tide leadership also reflect, to some extent, the mixed results of the Pink Tide itself. In the main, as many analysts have observed, the Pink Tide states turned out to be far more reformist than revolutionary. The truly radical constituencies were the grassroots base movements, which over time found themselves demobilized and alienated from the very party structures whose rise to power they had enabled in the first place; this hampered leftist governments as they sought to defend themselves from right-wing challenges, including judicial coups of the type seen in Brazil, Honduras, and Paraguay. Moreover, some of the most visible successes of the Pink Tide states involved the empowerment of historically marginalized constituencies, evidenced by the vigorous affirmative action programs introduced into Brazil’s higher education system under Lula and the region’s wave of gay marriage legalizations. These moves incensed the religious right, which found common cause with more economically focused technocrats and oligarchs, whose financial and political power bases remained largely intact given how the commodity boom allowed progressive governments to infuse cash into working-class hands without having to claw it back from the wealthy. Ironically, the Pink Tide governments made themselves more vulnerable to right-wing backlash not because they went too far with their transformational socioeconomic reforms, but because they did not go far enough.

The malleability of older arguments about morality, Christianity, and the essential correctness of postcolonial racial and social stratification has proven to be a tremendous asset to Latin America’s resurgent far right. Promises to wage war against “communism,” or to wage a new “crusade” against dissent, can be made by anyone, whether Catholic or Pentecostal, whether or not the Soviet Union still exists. In societies not far removed from periods of horrific right-wing political violence, these promises are clearly understood as threats. What connects them is the claim to a just and holy war against the “other,” the conviction that the ends justify the means, the affective identification with order in the face of destabilizing changes, the posture of conquest. It is what ties together the Bolsonaro regime’s zeal to invade and burn the Amazon; the defeat of Colombia’s 2016 peace accords referendum on “family values” grounds; the incitements to violence against Venezuela’s Maduro government by groups like ORDEN; the vicious mob attack in the Bolivian town of Vinto that saw Patricia Arce, the indigenous mayor, shorn and covered in paint and dragged through the streets; and the comments by Cecilia Morel, Chile’s first lady, likening the recent wave of anti-austerity protests to a “foreign invasion” by “aliens.”

The Pink Tide, at its very best, represented a decolonizing effort, while the current moves to reverse its gains make explicit use of colonial tropes. The region’s right-wing regimes seek the restoration of an older social and economic order rooted in hierarchy and orthodoxy, in which black, indigenous, poor, female, queer, and left-wing people are conflated and cast as external to the body politic. “Never again will the Pachamama return,” vowed a pastor supporting Luis Fernando Camacho, the ultra-right Bolivian paramilitary leader who masterminded the recent coup. He was referring to the Aymara and Quechua divinity often invoked by Morales, whose 2009 constitutional reform declared the state’s fundamentally secular orientation and affirmed the equality of all spiritual practices, including indigenous cosmovision. “Bolivia,” the pastor intoned as Camacho placed a Bible atop the country’s tricolor flag, “is for Christ.” It could have been Meinvielle, the Argentine cleric, writing about the Spanish Civil War nearly a century earlier: “The fight is not simply for something political or economic, nor even for something simply cultural or philosophical. The fight is for something immensely greater: the empire of Christ versus the Antichrist.”

Even if the avowedly Christian and nationalist far right is a political minority, history shows that it possesses both staying power and the power of persuasion—partly thanks to the very liberalism it professes to despise. Falangist and integralist movements, with their apocalyptic worldview and paramilitary theatrics, are always willing to call the question: when push comes to shove, and the choice comes down to “communism” or anything but, whose side are you on? And when the right has called that question, mainstream liberal sectors have readily abandoned their stated devotion to constitutional principles and opted to take up the crusade against communism, whether in 1930s Spain, 1970s Chile, or contemporary Brazil and Bolivia. Words like “fringe” and “marginal,” when applied to the far right, underestimate its centripetal force, its appeal as a lesser evil, the relative freedom with which it is allowed to operate, and the smoke screen it creates for leaders with more moderate conservative agendas. Having Bolsonaro next door, for example, was useful for Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, even if the distinction between them was hardly more tenable than the “two lefts” discourse once used to try and separate Lula and Bachelet from Morales and Chávez.

Time will tell how solid recent right-wing victories in Latin America really are. Could Bolsonaro have managed to win Brazil’s 2018 presidential election if Lula, the most popular candidate heading into the campaign, had not been jailed on spurious corruption charges? Could the Movimiento al Socialismo have maintained control of Bolivia if Morales had handled the 2019 vote differently? Counterfactuals are, of course, a mug’s game, especially while social movement activists across the region are being murdered for defending their lands, resources, and communities. But it remains noteworthy that the individuals and movements making the most impact in the face of this onslaught, from Marielle Franco to Las Tesis, are the ones most directly targeting the far right’s toxic nexus of patriarchal militarism, racial capitalism, and religious nationalism.

The task for the Latin American left, then, is no less urgent for being daunting: not just to regain power in the short term or hold politicians more accountable to their activist bases, but to keep moving toward the long-overdue repudiation and dismantling of the region’s toxic historical inheritance. As the Bolivian feminist and decolonial activist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui notes, “the main obstacle we face in combating colonialism in our work is the legacy inherited by the state, the internalized mentality of colonialism, which tells us that the enemy is within.”

Kirsten Weld teaches history at Harvard University. She is the author of Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (2014).

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