The newly elected president of Peru identifies as a Marxist and opposes same-sex marriage.
The former revolutionary president of Nicaragua is against abortion.
Leftist leaders across Latin America, like Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, are abandoning progressive values to maintain electoral coalitions.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when leftists ruled countries in Latin America, their movements focused on the plight of the poor and their economic conditions. In the 2000s, the “pink tide” of left-wing leaders in Latin America, like the Brazilian Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, embraced progressive social movements.
But as the evangelical church began to expand in Latin America, a deeply Roman Catholic region, left-wing leaders began to abandon progressive values and embrace “family values,” as well as left-wing economic policies.
“They recognize that a winning electoral coalition appeals to this populist economic message,” said Paul Angelo, Latin American studies researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, who recently wrote on the socially conservative left for the Americas Quarterly. “But they are also sensitive to the fact that these are still very religious countries, and in some cases increasingly evangelical countries, where conservative social positions and machismo reign supreme.”
These increasingly populist left leaders are blurring the line between right-wing politics and what is supposed to be “progressive” ideology.
Angelo said some of the region’s left-wing governments have become deeply mired in corruption as they have failed to achieve lasting economic transformation. To stay in power, the left has at times made strange bedfellows with parties that do not share progressive ideals.
There are a handful of countries in Latin America with leftist leaders who follow progressive ideas, but many do not. In January, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize elective abortions. It was a campaign pledge by left-wing president Alberto Fernández.
But for many other countries in the region, leaders mix left-wing economic policies with conservative values.
Perhaps one of the most striking examples is that of Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, the son of peasants who until recently worked as a teacher in a small town in the Andes. He is a member of a Marxist-Leninist party, but he recited passages from the Bible while campaigning to express his rejection of abortion, same-sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana and euthanasia.
However, economically, he was very attached to the redistribution of wealth. One of his popular slogans at the rallies was “Never again a poor man in a rich country!”
In Mexico, López Obrador sparked skepticism during his campaign in 2018 when he dodged questions about social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. He often spoke of faith and values and focused his campaign on political corruption.
As president, AMLO, as it is popularly called, has evaded questions about abortion, saying it is a “controversial issue” and that it is best for the Supreme Court to decide. The Mexican president has also been criticized by environmentalists for his heavy consumption of fossil fuels, such as coal, and his reduction in clean energy.
During his career, López Obrador campaigned as a leftist and rallied the support of progressives and center-left voters. But he has sought opportunistic policies now that he is in power, Angelo said. “He betrayed the environmental movement, imposed austerity and did little to defend women and sexual minorities. It is difficult to describe his ideology or his position on the political spectrum.
In Nicaragua, a law was passed in 2006 banning all abortions, eliminating exceptions for rape and when the mother’s life is in danger. President Daniel Ortega, the political leader at the time of the adoption of the law, supported him. In the 1980s, Ortega, identifying himself as a Marxist, had promoted the legal right to abortion – but has since spoken out against it.
Human rights organizations condemn the far right positions of leftist leaders.
“It is concerning that many leaders, even those who identify as progressive or leftist, continue to fuel the regressive context on the continent, with anti-rights positions,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Director of the Americas at Amnesty International.
Whatever the political spectrum, there is an “alarming trend of anti-rights efforts” to further undermine the rights of “historically marginalized people”, including women and girls, LGBTQIs, indigenous peoples and blacks, among others.
“Those who define themselves as leaders of the people, like López Obrador in Mexico or Ortega in Nicaragua, perpetuate more conservative policies disproportionately affecting ‘the people’ they claim to represent,” said Guevara.
In Bolivia, President Luis Arce, a socialist, has been criticized by environmentalists for the policies he pursued when he was Minister of the Economy under former President Evo Morales. Arce encouraged farmers and ranchers to settle in wooded areas and allowed slash-and-burn agriculture to clear areas for planting.
And at a time when there has been an increase in migration across Latin America, some leaders like López Obrador and Castillo have taken a tougher stance against migrants.
As leaders cling to conservative policies and social values, younger generations in urban areas embrace more progressive values, as they do elsewhere in the world. Social media has played a huge role in connecting young people with international movements. Angelo says the conservative message is unlikely to resonate with this growing bloc of voters.
“Leaders at all levels are less ideological than they once were. Instead of trying to read the tea leaves and figure out where their electorates are headed, looking five to ten years into the future, ”Angelo said,“ they are focused on achieving and maintaining power, no matter the cost – even if it means giving up vision and values. “
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