Latin America’s ‘good’ right versus ‘bad’ right

John Paul Rathbone

There has long been a “good” Latin American left and a “bad” one. With the start of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency of Brazil this week, it is worth asking if there might also be a similar “good” versus “bad” divide in the region’s political right and, if so, where he fits in.

At his inauguration, Mr Bolsonaro pledged that Brazil’s green-and-yellow flag would “never be red” and portrayed himself as a long-awaited break from 30 years of social democracy. Brazilians could free themselves from “socialism . . . state gigantism and the politically correct”, he said.

His words delighted the 57m Brazilians who, disgusted by the corruption scandals and mismanagement of the previous leftist government, elected the former army captain. Some of the 47m Brazilians who voted otherwise, though, fear Mr Bolsonaro could be a “bad” rightwing president — strident, nationalistic and closed-minded, as suggested by the provocative rhetoric of his campaign.

The idea of “good” versus “bad” political currents reprises a 2006 essay by Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s former foreign minister. He divided the leftist “ pink tide” — which at its height covered 17 of Latin America’s 20 republics — into two camps: the responsible and the authoritarian.

The pragmatic first strand included leaders such as Michelle Bachelet in Chile, and were “modern, open-minded, reformist and internationalist”. The second, which included Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, were intransigent ideologues from “the great tradition of Latin American populism”.

The two types — one modern and democratic, the other anachronistic and authoritarian — transcend political ideologies. Which camp might Mr Bolsonaro fall into?

His pledge to respect the constitution and promote liberalising reforms suggest the first. Brazil’s stagnant economy needs change. Its pension system is regressive; state spending needs to come under control, as do state-owned banks. Privatisation of inefficient state companies is necessary.

Such reforms, while painful, are responsible and would probably be broadly supported in Brazil and certainly abroad. Other members of America’s “responsible right” include Colombia’s Iván Duque, Chile’s Sebastián Piñera and Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, who is trying to make his own economic turnround, backed by the G20 and IMF.

But the Brazilian president’s nostalgia for the dictatorship, plus his gun-toting persona and apparent disregard for human rights, suggest the second “bad” camp.

Other examples here include the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras, Jimmy Morales and Juan Orlando Hernández, suggests James Bosworth, founder of risk consultancy Hxagon, in a thoughtful blog on Latin America’s “two rights”.

Of course such taxonomies are problematic because while they clarify, they also over-simplify, as Mr Castañeda admits. “Bad leaders can do good things, just as ‘good’ leaders can do bad,” he told the Financial Times. A “good” leader, such as Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, now convicted of corruption, “can also switch into the ‘bad’ camp, and vice versa”, he added.

Nonetheless the idea is useful because it transcends stale ideological divides. Take Mexico’s new leftist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Mr Castañeda, a fierce critic, places him in the “bad” camp “because of what he has done and where he comes from, namely a tradition of populism”. By that token, Mr Bolsonaro belongs in the “bad” rightist camp too.

For now, Mr Bolsonaro enjoys a 65 per cent approval rating. His presidency is one week old. The real test will come if, in pursuit of his policies, he challenges the institutional constraints that keep authoritarianism at bay and maintains Brazil as a liberal democracy. In the end, that is what defines whether a leader is truly “good” or “bad”.

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