Latin America’s Resurgent Right

Forrest Hylton

After being elected president of Argentina, and before declaring that he would indeed abolish the central bank, the ‘paleo-capitalist libertarian’ Javier Milei announced a visit to Tel Aviv, thereby breaking ranks with Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and, most important, Brazil. While Montevideo – where the new right is also in power – may be a stop on his pre-inaugural victory lap (along with Washington, of course), Brasília will not.

At the end of November, Bloomberg reported that Milei is thinking of converting to Judaism. On arriving in New York the first place he visited was Rebbe Menachem Schneerson’s grave in Queens. In line with his campaign promises, Milei plans to move the Argentinian Embassy to Jerusalem. He received an invitation to Israel during a conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.

The Israel connection has been a crucial element of the far right’s articulation in the region since the Central American counter-revolution and the invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s. Colombia’s leading rightwing paramilitary narco-warlord, Carlos Castaño, wrote in his autobiography that training with Israelis in Lebanon taught him to pass over the distinction between civilians and combatants.

More recently, in Brazil, the Bolsonaro clan draped itself in the Israeli flag as well as the Brazilian one, and arch-Zionists like Abraham Weintraub held cabinet and ministerial appointments (how neo-Nazis and Zionists negotiated their respective places in Bolsonaro’s coalition remains unclear). Zionism is a key element of opposition to Lula in São Paulo, presently governed by Tarcisio de Freitas, who comes out of the same paramilitary nexus in Rio that produced the Bolsonaro clan. Christian evangelicals in Brazil are fervent Zionists.

Zionism and the Israeli flag are central to the symbolism and commitments of a resurgent new far right in Latin America, just as the Cuban flag was once a potent symbol (and, in Africa in the mid-1970s, a reality) of anti-imperialist revolution. Zionism, strangely enough, is the ideological glue that binds the right together hemispherically as it sets about privatising and exploiting any and all remaining public goods and services, along with Indigenous and peasant lands and ‘natural resources’ – oil and gas but also lithium, cobalt etc. – using violence, threats and intimidation.

With Milei’s victory in Argentina, the surviving architects of and apologists for the military dictatorship, responsible for ‘disappearing’ some thirty thousand citizens from 1976 to 1983 – including a disproportionate number of Jews – will have another day in the sun. They see no contradiction between their celebration of the virulently antisemitic regime of forty years ago and their support for Israel today. Before the Malvinas War, Argentinian military officers worked closely with Israelis, training anti-Communist death squads in Central America.

For the radical right in Colombia as well as Brazil, and perhaps Chile, with Millei’s victory, hopes of a return to power have been kindled, and the knives are being sharpened for the next electoral cycle. Since Bolsonaro is in serious trouble (though perhaps not as serious as Álvaro Uribe in Colombia, at least not yet), Milei is the horse that the rest are betting on to lead the charge. No one else is poised to do so as tirelessly and enthusiastically.

Over the more than twenty years since Argentina nearly collapsed in late 2001, and despite demonstrable, albeit temporary achievements and advances, in the end, Peronism in the key of Kirchner proved unable to cope with poverty, runaway inflation and economic disaster, so Argentinian voters have opted for the political equivalent of base jumping (the same nearly happened in Colombia and Chile in 2022). The void looms ever larger, and it appears doubtful that Lula, Boric, Petro, Arce and AmLo can function as a safety net, much less as a trampoline to something different and better.

This, perhaps, is what marks the current cycle of progressive governments in Latin America off from the previous cycle, led by Hugo Chávez, Lula and, to a lesser extent, Evo Morales: the lack of hope for radical change, the absence of regional unity and the concurrent advance of the far right. The left, such as it is, now fights defensive battles, and mostly loses.

The chronic uncertainty, fear and hardship generated by capitalism’s transversal crisis seems to favour the likes of Milei – advocates of a militarised, disciplinary and punitive neoliberalism that refuses to go away – rather than democratic politicians from the left who stress bureaucratic rationality and class conciliation, but cannot (or can no longer) improve people’s everyday lives or help them solve their most pressing problems. A time of irrational rage, fear and violent projection appears to have arrived, and its principal beneficiaries and conduits are counting the days until they can place their bets on Trump’s return.

Since the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), interstate conflicts in the western hemisphere have been rare and limited (the exception is the Chaco War of 1932-35). In the late 1890s, during the first Anglo-Venezuelan boundary dispute over British Guyana, the US announced that the Monroe Doctrine would henceforth be rigorously implemented. Great Britain, as well as Latin American and Caribbean republics, were placed on notice.

Ultimately unresolved, that dispute now threatens to erupt into war, with the US and Guyana (not to mention Argentina) on one side, and Venezuela – most likely backed by Russia and Iran – on the other. Major oil reserves are at stake. This leaves progressive Latin American governments trapped in no man’s land, with few credible institutional mechanisms left, at the OAS or the UN, with which to guarantee peace.