Victor González Coello de Portugal, economic vice-president for VOX, was present at the recent “Foro Madrid” in Bogotá, Colombia. Here a host of political actors and representatives from civil society organizations from across central and south America, as well as Europe and the U.S., met in order to, among other things, articulate an alternative to the Foro Sao Paulo (FSP) and Grupo de Puebla platforms drawing together the continent’s Left. During an interview after his return to Europe, Coello de Portugal referred to the following anecdote to illustrate the situation in the region:
During last year’s elections in Honduras, we realized that the current president, then candidate [Xiomara Castro] enjoyed a frankly dominant social media presence. I asked her opponent’s party about this and was told by their media team that, in order to match her, they would need to spend $300,000 per day on Facebook alone—this was during the last week of the elections.
He went on to suggest that the staggering funds available to certain leftist candidates (presumably those associated with the above-mentioned platforms) in Ibero-America proceed from four sources: the drug trade, Russia, China, and Iran. By “leftist” we refer to a specific political genus, sometimes termed Bolivarian. In reality, the latter term’s namesake, Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), an independence fighter against Spain, has very little to do with the politics that now threaten to consume the region. We may, however, justify using the term on the grounds that it has, by now, caught on, and is not polemical in itself.
Venezuela, along with Cuba, is the mainstay of Bolivarianism, and Russian support for the Venezuelan government has indeed been critical. Russia performs joint naval exercises; sells them fighter jets (thirty-six Su-30MK2s); facilitates investment in Venezuelan oil fields; has sent two TU-160s (in December 2018) and an S-300s (in 2019) when the U.S. seemed to be threatening to oust the government; and has become Venezuela’s largest oil trader.
The situation is one of political alliance, not ideology (except to the degree that a moral case for multipolarity is invoked), as illustrated by Russia’s proximity both to Venezuela’s Maduro and, increasingly, Brazil’s Bolsonaro. Juan Guaido, leader of the opposition against the Venezuelan government, understood this when he asked China and Russia to back him. Modern Russia inherited the leftist brand in Ibero-America from its Soviet past, and has remained aligned with it for geostrategic reasons, in order to limit U.S. influence and to balance its rival’s superior global reach. Factions least amenable to the U.S., whatever their politics, are those that Russia supports. Chinese and Iranian involvement in the region follows a similar rationale.
Interestingly, two opposing blocks, namely Western “woke capitalism,” including the oft-mentioned Open Society Foundation, on the one hand, and, on the other, those rivals of the U.S. who have, for now, found common ground, both fund political parties we may describe as being on the radical left-wing. They may usually do this differently and in different parts of the world, but woe to those theaters in which the two overlap. The overlap may result from a common interest in destabilizing a region, or a genuine attempt to gain patronage rights, so to speak, over the same political actor.
Brazil provides an example of this. The ruling party in Venezuela (the “Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela”) and the Communist Party of Brazil (“Partido Comunista del Brasil”) are both members of the Sao Paulo Forum, but have received support from opposing sources, namely Putin and George Soros, respectively. Again, Putin has helped prop up the Venezuelan government, and Hugo Chavez once bailed out an Argentine firm in order to stop its purchase by Soros. George Soros, for his part, who is at odds with the Russian President, funded the Brazilian Communists, presumably to interfere with the Trump-sympathizing Bolsonaro.
In addition, the sort of causes that are typically marshaled to support the far Left in Ibero-America can also be convinced to (at least tacitly) support its opponents. For example, emails and documents published by Wikileaks suggest that the U.S. lobbied indigenous groups Pachakutik and CONAIE (through USAID and NED) in Ecuador, contributing to their stance against the leftist President Rafael Correa.
Episodes such as these illustrate how today international relations do not always consist of clearly delimited opposing blocks or platforms so much as opposing interests sometimes competing within those blocks (different actors can compete over sponsoring the Bolivarian Left, for example). This is not to imply that the FSP and Puebla Group are not very much committed to supporting Russia at present. They are, as was on display in their opposition to sanctions against the Kremlin following the invasion of Ukraine.
In any case, it seems likely that, regardless of ideological content, whatever political trajectory is most willing to sideline the U.S. and interfere with its geopolitical projections in the region will also receive support from that superpower’s rivals. For now, that space is occupied by the Bolivarian brand, and it has been remarkably successful, recently impelling candidates to electoral victory in Honduras and Peru.
So detached is ideology from larger power dynamics that the Bolivarian Left often embraces the causes championed by Western leftism. During its 20th meeting in 2014, abortion was described as an elemental right, which now, according to the concluding remarks by the FSP’s Youth Commission, is being blocked by fundamentalist conservatives throughout the region. Colombia recently approved abortion for women up to six-months pregnant, a decision decried by the country’s president, but supported by Gustavo Petro, leader of Movimiento Progresista (also called Colombia Humana), a Sao Paulo Forum member (although Petro’s position is equivocal).
One of the points of the general resolution formulated by the Forum’s youth group during the FSP’s 25th Congress in 2019 was that of “support for feminist struggles, among them access to legal, safe and free abortion, and the liberation of women against the patriarchy.” Feminism is thereby specifically equated with abortion and a certain understanding of patriarchy and its historical operation. The FSP’s final declaration on closing this congress also included the express commitment to “support the fight for the LGBTTI community’s rights.” For its part, the Grupo de Puebla has hosted ex-Spanish President Rodríguez Zapatero and ex-Uruguayan President Mujica, praising them for legalizing homosexual marriage, liberalizing abortion and, in the case of Zapatero, facilitating euthanasia and divorce.
Enthusiasm for such causes makes sense, as the supporters of these platforms in central and south America are subject to the same international media outlets and the same debates as the rest of the world, nor do the international initiatives that push for “progressive” causes limit their activities on the basis of great power rivalries. Of course, those parties that militate within the FSP and Puebla are diverse. The Peruvian President Pedro Castillo is quite socially conservative, for example. But in general the Boliviarian Left is at least officially aligned with today’s prevailing leftist western ideological causes, even as it is supported by Russia and China, who do not domestically conform to these (except in the case of abortion).
The idea that Russia is a bulwark for Christian tradition abroad is therefore spurious. It simply pursues its interests and uses certain ideological platforms, with which it shares specific areas of agreement, as do other world powers. Changing conditions could theoretically shift its support towards other platforms.
Turning to the U.S., it is by now a cliché to point out that this country has historically sought to negotiate bilaterally with its fellow American states to the south, and that this has consistently led to Ibero-Americans playing with a weak hand. Of course, the region’s economic woes cannot be wholly blamed on foreign influence, U.S.-American or otherwise, but it partly can.
Today, the force of changing global conditions may be leading to a different orientation. The participation of the Heritage Foundation at the Foro Madrid will no doubt raise eyebrows in circles accustomed to viewing any U.S. involvement with suspicion. This may also be used to play into the region’s political dialectic, in which a disastrously managed economy under neo-Marxism and, nowadays, the politics of ethnic resentment, are presented as the only alternative to a mismanaged liberalization of the economy that leads to foreign, corporate penetration rather than internal economic dynamism.
But this easy, knee-jerk reaction (“if it isn’t Marxist, it must be a U.S. plot”) is precisely liable to obfuscate new opportunities when they emerge—opportunities likely to proliferate, now that the international system is in flux. The Madrid Forum presents such an opportunity, a chance at a multilateral approach to Ibero-American geopolitics, forging internal unity as well as strong links to other regions (prominently Europe).
Certain U.S. policy-shapers may begin to see Ibero-American unity and economic prominence as a necessary counterweight to the success of rival forces in the region. The global rise of Russia and China might encourage U.S. support for initiatives that will keep those rival powers out of the western hemisphere, even if these initiatives also lead to a stronger Ibero-America, renewed ties with Europe, and a less influential U.S. (relative to its historic role in the region). A superpower on the ropes, so to speak, may be willing to support projects it would have once considered un-strategic. Ibero-America, like any other region, should consider how crises and the protean state of global affairs can be leveraged to its benefit.
Of course, the above is extremely speculative. But if it is to be conjured into reality, the Madrid Forum (and any organization seeking to rival the FSP and Puebla networks) should not limit itself to “conservatism INC” talking points. Any call for freer markets should be balanced with calls for policy aimed at developing high value-added industry (which is in line with VOX, Fratelli d’Italia, and Chega, all of which support the Madrid Forum’s statement of principles, the Carta de Madrid). It should foster civil society’s involvement in the economy through the kinds of entities most likely to organically produce a widespread distribution of wealth and protect against poverty, such as cooperatives and mutualities. A school such as Genovese’s economia civile, for example, would be more appropriate than Milton Friedman’s.
As for the culture war, such an organization should enter that fray not only by invoking the rule of law and the rugged aesthetic of free enterprise, which by now sound like rigged games to many of the continent’s poor, but through a thick civilizational appeal to unity. The reason why the ‘Black Legend’ against Spain and Catholicism has been historically promoted in the region, at least since the days of U.S. envoy to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett in the early 1800s, is that it keeps the region from tapping into an obvious source of unity (language and faith, for starters) and causes energies to be expended on identity-construction. Under this paradigm, Ibero-American unity would arrive only as a function of common allegiance to political projects that are not specific to the region and are spearheaded by some foreign power.
The leftist regimes favored by La Habana and Caracas continue to invoke the Black Legend (we have only to remember Hugo Chavez gifting Barack Obama with a copy of Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America), unwittingly playing into the hands of foreign interests. The Black Legend allows for a radical critique of the past, especially of imperial and religious structures, which justifies their revolutionary programs and facilitates the narrative that indigenous people have historically been victims. Victim-status can then be harnessed to generate political support, which is one of the major strategies of the Bolivarian Left. Of course, adherence to the Black Legend is not ubiquitous in Ibero-American left-wing thought, but by now it is at least thoroughly hegemonic.
In contrast to the Black Legend, we may appeal to civilizational unity based on what is best in the shared past of Ibero-American states. This would constitute a call for the political operability of la Hispanidad or la Iberofonía, that is, the legacy of the Spanish and Portuguese empires, recovered as the precedent for a contemporary commonwealth. In this context, the obvious gambit to which Bolivarian rhetoric will have recourse is that of a dialectic between Hispanidad and indigenismo (native-American, ‘nativism’).
Proponents of unity based on imperial and religious ties must remind their opponents of the tremendous pluralism that existed within that imperial administration under which much of their continent was once united. In particular, they should point to the autonomy and prosperity of the Republicas Indias (“Indian Republics”), and their role in preserving and developing native American culture, within the over three hundred year-long reign of the Catholic Spanish Monarchy. These remarks may seem far-removed from the concrete work to be done in rolling back the political and economic ills that afflict America, but the construction of false dichotomies has been absolutely critical to the success of Bolivarianism, and so dispelling them must be a key part of building an alternative.
We end by highlighting certain key-points from the above. The international system is malleable and is undergoing epochal changes. Rivals can seem to act towards the same ends when they have overlapping interests, or when they compete for sponsorship over third-parties. Confidence in the long-term loyalty of a local political faction to one specific global power block is, therefore, foolish, as is assuming that a superpower will maintain the same modus operandi towards a given region in spite of changing power dynamics.
Those nations and regions who have reason to feel dissatisfied with the international division of labor and their place within it must carefully consider the geopolitical strategy they are to adopt in order to gain the most from larger players. In the case of Ibero-America—and of Europe, for that matter—articulating common positions, building commonwealths, and demanding that powerful interlocutors negotiate multilaterally with the members of those commonwealths should be treated as a condition sine qua non in order to avoid being divided, and thusly dominated, by foreign agendas in what is poised to be an era of continental power politics.