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Why some of Latin America's leftist leaders are against abortion and gay rights

Leftist leaders have scrapped progressive values and embraced traditional "family values" as they forge populist coalitions in what a human rights activist called an "alarming trend."
Peruvian President Pedro Castillo Terrones arrives in the General Assembly hall to address the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2021.
Peruvian President Pedro Castillo Terrones arrives to address the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly  on Sept. 21.Mary Altaffer / AP file

Peru’s newly elected president identifies as a Marxist and is against gay marriage.

Nicaragua’s once revolutionary president is against abortion.

Leftist leaders across Latin America, like Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, are scrapping progressive values to maintain electoral coalitions.

Back in the 1960s and '70s when leftists ruled countries in Latin America, their movements focused on the plight of the poor and their economic conditions. In the 2000s, Latin America’s "pink tide" of leftist leaders, like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, embraced progressive social movements.

But as the evangelical church began to grow in Latin America, a region that is deeply Roman Catholic, leftist leaders began scrapping progressive values and embracing “family values,” along with leftist economic policies.

“They recognize that a winning electoral coalition appeals to that populist economic message,” said Paul Angelo, a Latin America Studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who recently wrote about the socially conservative left for Americas Quarterly. “But they’re 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 rule the day.”

These increasingly populist leftist leaders are blurring the line between right wing politics and what is supposed to be a “progressive” ideology.

Angelo said some of the region’s leftist governments became deeply mired in corruption while failing to deliver a sustainable economic transformation. To stay in power, the left at times made strange bedfellows with parties that do not share progressive ideals.

There are a handful of Latin American countries with leftist leaders that follow progressive ideas, but many don’t. In January Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize elective abortions. It was a campaign pledge of leftist President Alberto Fernández.

But for many other countries in the region, leaders are mixing leftist economic policies with conservative values.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples is Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, a son of peasant farmers who until recently worked as a teacher in a small town in the Andes. He is a member of a Marxist Leninist party yet would recite passages from the bible while campaigning to express his rejection of abortion, same sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and euthanasia.

Yet on the economic side, he was big on redistributing wealth. One of his popular slogans at rallies was “Never again a poor man in a rich country!”

In Mexico, López Obrador drew skepticism while campaigning in 2018 when he dodged questions on 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 he is popularly known, has sidestepped questions about abortion, saying that it’s a “controversial issue” and that it's best for the Supreme Court to decide. The Mexican president has also been criticized by environmentalists for being big on fossil fuels, such as coal, and curtailing clean energy.

During his career, López Obrador campaigned as a leftist and rallied support among progressives and center-left voters. But he's sought opportunistic policies now that he's in office, Angelo said. “He has betrayed the green movement, imposed austerity and has hardly been an advocate for women and sexual minorities. It’s hard to describe his ideology or where he falls on the political spectrum.”

In Nicaragua, a law was passed in 2006 banning all abortions, eliminating exceptions for rape and when the life of the mother is in danger. President Daniel Ortega, the political front-runner when the law was passed, supported it. Back in the 1980s Ortega, identifying as a Marxist, had favored the legal right to abortions — but has since spoken out against it.

"Alarming trend"

Human rights organizations have been condemning the leftist leaders' extreme right-wing positions.

"It is concerning that many leaders, even those self identifying as progressive or leftist, continue to feed the regressive context in the continent, with anti-rights positions," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

Regardless of the political spectrum, there is an "alarming trend of anti-rights effort" to further undermine the rights of "historically marginalized people," including women and girls, LGBTQI, Indigenous people and Black people among others.

"Those who defined themselves as leaders of the people, such as López Obrador in Mexico or Ortega in Nicaragua, are perpetuating more conservative policies affecting disproportionately 'the people' they claim to represent," Guevara said.

In Bolivia, President Luis Arce, a socialist, was criticized by environmentalists for policies he spearheaded when he was economic minister under former President Evo Morales. Arce encouraged farmers and ranchers to settle in forested areas and allowed slash-and-burn agriculture to clear areas for planting.

And at a time when there has been an increase in migration throughout 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 are embracing more progressive values, like elsewhere around the globe. Social media has played a huge role in connecting young people with international movements. Angelo says it’s unlikely the conservative messaging will resonate with this voter bloc, which is growing in numbers.

“Leaders across the board 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 10 years into the future," Angelo said, "they are focused on attaining and clinging onto power no matter the cost — even if that means forsaking vision and values."

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