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Could Latin America give rise to ‘new Bolsonaros’?

With Bolsonaro in Brazil, other countries in the region are beginning to look at their own authoritarian and reactionary figures within their politics

On June 6, a group of protestors gathered around the Obelisco monument in central Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, to show their opposition to President Alberto Fernández’s extension of mandatory social isolation until the end of that month. Looking similar in phenotype and behavior to the regular crowds of Bolsonaro-supporting protestors that would take the streets every Sunday for the same cause, the mob decried the Argentinian press and screamed that “the pandemic doesn’t exist.” Amid the crowd, one demonstrator stood out, wearing a shirt bearing the face of Argentina’s former military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. [restricted]

“We need our general,” said the elderly man, clutching an umbrella. Mr. Videla, who died alone, sitting on the toilet in the Marcos Paz prison in 2013, was one of the bloodiest leaders in Latin America, responsible for leading Argentina’s cruel military regime of 1976 to 1981, which resulted in a death toll of between 20,000 and 30,000 people. Reverence for such authoritarian and violent past leaders is something we have seen regularly in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

Since the former Brazilian captain emerged as a serious political candidate in 2018, the world has been shocked by his anti-democratic politics, authoritarian bluster, and conspiratorial demagoguery. The pandemic brought to light similar denialist movements in neighboring countries, resembling the one headed by Mr. Bolsonaro. But are they powerful enough to produce a leader like him, or are they no more than paranoid reactions to the pandemic? 

As explained in 2019, countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay — that were part of the CIA-promoted political-military Operation Condor in the Southern Cone — have never elected a far-right leader of the likes of Mr. Bolsonaro since their redemocratization processes in the middle of 1980s. They have also been persistent in punishing crimes that happened during the times of repression, something Brazil has long neglected.


Some experts believe that despite the fact President Bolsonaro’s toxic politics are unlikely to be exported, this doesn’t mean these countries are safeguarded against the radical and conservative mentality that is seen as the president’s mantra. For Argentinian psychiatrist and writer Alfredo Grande, an Argentinian answer to Jair Bolsonaro “is not even necessary.”

“Like Brazil, Argentina is also a conservative country. I don’t know if there are new Bolsonaros hidden in the country, but, surely, we don’t even ‘need’ one to advance a very conservative agenda. Especially in the [provinces], where politicians rule for 30, 40 years, we have our own anti-abortion, racist, zero environmental or indigenous people awareness figures,” Mr. Grande told The Brazilian Report.

Argentina is an example of how a reactionary agenda can be pursued behind an elegant façade, which does not allow for the official message to veer too far to the left or right. “I do not believe that the psycho-physical figure of Jair Bolsonaro can be elected here. The closest we had was [former President Mauricio] Macri, who had to stay behind an image of cheerful populism and pure republicanism. Therefore, the impossibility of a Bolsonarito is bad news: they will, in a way, remain camouflaged.”

latin america radicalism
Demonstrator wears a shirt in honor of dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, one of the most vicious in Latin America. Photo: Twitter

Latin America: Make your own Jair

Indeed, though these societies have yet to elect ultra-nationalist leaders, these characters do exist.

According to the Global Peace Index (GPI), which ranks states and territories according to their level of peacefulness, Latin America is one of the worst-ranked regions in the world. Brazil, which is in the 123rd position out of 163, has four other Latin American neighbors in even worse positions.

With this unstable scenario, you only need the right ingredients. Chile’s answer to Jair Bolsonaro, for example, is José Antonio Kast, a 54-year-old lawyer who said that he would be supported by dictator General Augusto Pinochet “if he were alive.” The independent candidate finished fourth in the 2017 elections but obtained more than 500,000 votes, around 7 percent.

While Mr. Kast is still considered a fringe figure in Chilean politics, the same could have been said about Mr. Bolsonaro during his time as a congressman. In an interview with Radio Agricultura, Mr. Kast followed the Bolsonarist script and praised U.S President Donald Trump for the leader’s response to the Black Lives Matter street protests, saying that Washington “has much much more character in the issue of protecting the order, as we did not see in Chile.” If Mr. Bolsonaro sees manifestations of opposition in Brazil as “terrorism,” Mr. Kast did the same with the 2019 social uprising in Santiago.


At face value, Uruguay comes across as the least likely country to produce its own equivalent to Jair Bolsonaro. But the post of a boisterous far-right man in uniform is already filled by former General Guido Manini Ríos. In 2019, then-President Tabaré Vázques discharged Mr. Ríos from his army commander-in-chief post, after the general questioned the government in a radio interview.

In Uruguay’s stable democracy, these types of interference are unconstitutional. Ousted, Mr. Ríos decided to run for president in 2019, and though he was highly criticized for his positions, he won almost 270,000 votes in the first round, almost 11 percent. According to Uruguayan columnist Estaban Valente, Mr. Ríos is even “smarter” than Jair Bolsonaro: “we should compare him less to Bolsonaro: Manini Ríos is smart and knows where he wants to go now and in the 2024 [elections].”

It is important to note that these hard-right experiences also touch countries above the southern cone. In Peru, which already had its “own Bolsonaro” in the figure of former dictator Alberto Fujimori during the 1990s, a repeat is possible. In Colombia, where everything from the left-wing is associated with Marxist guerrillas — such as the FARC and ELN — the country bounces between moderate conservatives and copies of Jair Bolsonaro. 

Whether the continent will see new versions of Jair Bolsonaro crop up in the future, only time will tell. But as the famous Cervantes quote goes: yo no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay. I don’t believe in witches, but I know they exist.[/restricted]

By Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.