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Spain’s Vox Sets Its Sights on Latin America

Supporters of Spain’s far-right Vox party attend a closing election campaign event in Madrid, Spain, Nov. 8, 2019 (AP photo by Bernat Armangue).

In September, several senators belonging to Mexico’s National Action Party, or PAN, met with a visiting delegation from Vox, a rising political party from Spain. As the latest far-right party to gain traction in Europe, Vox seemed like a strange bedfellow for the PAN, a center-right party that has produced two of Mexico’s last four presidents.

The meeting was a political gift for leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who seized on it to brand his opponents in the PAN as “almost fascist.” The PAN’s own leadership hastened to assert that the senators had met with Vox in a purely private capacity—even as Felipe Calderon, the most recent PAN ex-president, publicly lamented that his party had “lost its way.”

Vox’s Mexican expedition has not been its only foray into Latin American politics. In Bolivia, it has taken up the cause of Jeanine Anez, the former interim president who took office after Evo Morales resigned under pressure in 2019. She is now in prison facing charges mounted by the leftist government of President Luis Arce, who was elected in 2020. Vox also sent representatives to Ecuador for the inauguration of conservative President Guillermo Lasso in May. And recently, another Vox delegation visited Miami to meet with the Cuban American community.

So what is Vox trying to do in Latin America? And what do Latin American conservatives seek to gain from getting close to Vox?

Far-right populist parties have succeeded in establishing themselves throughout Europe, but Vox is unique in its international orientation. Its meeting in Mexico seems to be part of an aggressive search for like-minded figures in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world. To the extent they are successful, this outreach could give the party additional stature both within Spain and among its European counterparts.

But it is less clear what Latin American conservatives seek to gain from associating with Vox. Some may be attracted to the party’s world view, or at least share its hostility to the left. But in a diverse, multiethnic region like Latin America, siding with Vox and its decidedly Euro-centric vision is a risky gamble—one that is already stoking controversy on the continent.

The Message from Madrid

Vox first emerged in 2013 when its leader, Santiago Abascal, broke away from the center-right Partido Popular, one of the country’s two major parties. Abascal and his supporters were principally motivated by the Partido Popular’s perceived lenience while in power toward Spain’s two linguistically distinct regions, the Basque Country and Catalonia, where demands for greater autonomy and even independence figure prominently.

Four years later, after a failed independence referendum in Catalonia in 2017 moved the issue to the forefront of national politics, Vox began to pick up steam. By 2019, it was Spain’s third-largest party, winning 15 percent of the vote in elections that November and securing 52 out of the 350 seats in Spain’s parliament. Today, it also has four members in the European Parliament, who participate in the European Conservatives and Reformists bloc along with other new, right-wing formations from across Europe.

Vox’s meeting in Mexico seems to be part of an aggressive search for like-minded figures in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world.

Along the way, Vox has branched out from its initial agenda, voicing strong opposition to climate change measures, “totalitarian feminism” and mandatory vaccination against COVID-19. A top priority has been insisting on greater immigration controls—a position it shares with its European counterparts.

More recently, though, as Vox launched its search for allies in Latin America, it began to distinguish between immigration from that region and immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Abascal, for instance, has stated, “An immigrant coming from a brother Hispano-American country, with the same language, the same culture, the same vision of the world, is not the same as immigration from Islamic countries.” Last month, Vox proposed legislation that would require migrants, who largely come to Spain from Muslim-majority or sub-Saharan African countries, to live in Spain for 15 years in order to receive “the treasure of Spanish citizenship,” up from the previous requirement of 10 years. But the bill actually reduces the waiting period for immigrants from Latin America to just two years.

Within Latin America, though, Vox’s calling card has been the “Madrid Charter.” First published in October 2020, the declaration aims to unite the “700 million persons of the Iberosphere” in common cause. That term, “Iberosphere,” seems to be a recent coinage and is associated with Vox in particular. It refers obliquely to the countries on the Iberian peninsula—Spain and Portugal—and other Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, primarily in Latin America, all of which, the charter notes, “share a deep-rooted heritage and possess a significant economic and geopolitical potential.” But beyond expressing common interests, “Iberosphere” is also used to imply the existence of a distinct leadership emanating from Madrid.

Signatories to the charter join Vox’s mission to “defend democracy and freedom” against the “totalitarian regimes inspired by communism [and] supported by drug trafficking” that it says have “kidnapped” governments across Latin America. The charter sets the “Iberospere” in opposition to existing groupings like the Sao Paulo Forum, an ongoing conference series for the region’s leftist parties and social movements, and the Puebla Group, a caucus of former presidents and senior politicians from the Latin American and Spanish left. According to Vox, these groups have “infiltrate[ed] the circles of power to impose their ideological agenda.” The charter further condemns the “advance of communism” as a “serious threat" to development and freedom, and calls for a future “based on respect for democracy, human rights and pluralism.”

The declaration has already been signed by more than 200 individuals, almost all from Latin America. They include political figures of varying shades of conservatism from Mexico to Chile to Argentina, including parliamentarians and former ministers. Journalists and some pro-democracy and human rights activists, including many from Venezuela, have also signed on.

Signatories from the United States include Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, who both worked on Western Hemisphere affairs under former U.S. President George W. Bush. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia, a “new right” party with roots in post-World War II neo-fascism, has also signed on, as have several members of the European Parliament representing new parties of a conservative, nationalist stripe.

Beyond the Madrid Charter, Vox has fit itself into an ecosystem of related organizations and websites that cater to both Spain and Latin America. Several Vox figures have ties with “Make Yourself Heard,” a highly conservative Catholic entity dedicated to opposing abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia and other progressive policies. The group has also had to defend itself against accusations that it is connected to El Yunque, or The Anvil, a secret, conservative, Catholic organization from Mexico that is alleged to have had a role in the creation of the PAN in the 1950s. A Vox leader denied knowledge of any connection to an alleged Spanish branch of The Anvil, which would be illegal, as secret political organizations are banned in Spain. However, he said that he could not control which organizations individual Vox members join.

Viva Cortes!

The Fundacion Disenso, Vox’s ideological and policy arm, maintains a polished website replete with Renaissance-era artwork and historical maps. Much of its content is devoted to Spanish or European matters. Right now, it is promoting an event series on “perennialism” hosted by a follower of Julius Evola, an Italian quasi-Fascist mystic much admired by Steve Bannon, chief strategist for former U.S. President Donald Trump. Previous events also included celebrating the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, in which a coalition of Christian European forces defeated an Ottoman fleet, as a decisive victory of Spanish Christian civilization over a Muslim empire.

But Vox has by no means ignored the “Iberosphere.” Indeed, the party and its think tank have a vigorous presence on social media and through their daily digital newspaper, The Iberosphere Gazette. In addition to promoting Vox personalities and initiatives, its posts have extensively covered the misdeeds of left-wing governments and politicians across Latin America, with special attention to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Through its online engagement, Vox has waded into murky waters, taking sides in a debate percolating in Latin America regarding the Spanish conquest of the region and its impact on Indigenous peoples. In August, for instance, Vox fired off a tweet celebrating the 500th anniversary of Hernan Cortes’ conquest of Mexico, through which, it said, “Spain freed millions of people from the bloody and terrorist regime of the Aztecs.” An article on the Fundacion Disenso website heaped on additional praise, crediting Cortes with “founding cities and building bridges, roads and mines,” while lamenting that modern Mexico views him “with more complexes than pride.” The think tank further claimed that commemorations of the anniversary had been used as “an opportunity for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to feed hatred against a fundamental historical figure.”

An Indigenous man applies body paint during an annual three-day protest in Brasilia, Brazil, April 24, 2019 (AP photo by Eraldo Peres).

AMLO, as the Mexican president is commonly known, has indeed been harshly critical of the Spanish conquest, and has even asked Pope Francis to apologize for the role the Catholic Church played in it. His ally Claudia Sheinbaum, the mayor of Mexico City, has also ordered the removal of a statue of Christopher Columbus from a downtown plaza; it will be replaced with a replica of a pre-Hispanic sculpture depicting an Indigenous woman.

In the hands of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the history of conquest has become a club with which to beat Spain. Last month, when the Spanish government criticized Ortega for rigging a recent election and imprisoning his political rivals, Ortega fired back, “What right do these Spanish colonizers, with sword and bible, have to intervene?”

This cultural warfare has been catnip for the Spanish right, not limited to Vox. For instance, in September, when Pope Francis sent an apology to Mexican bishops “recognizing the very painful errors committed in the past,” Isabel Diaz Ayuso, the mayor of Madrid and a rising representative of the Partido Popular’s right wing, expressed her surprise that Francis, as “a Spanish-speaking Catholic, should speak that way,” given that Spain brought “civilization and freedom” to the region.

Vox’s rhetoric regarding the “Iberosphere” harkens back to the concept of “Hispanidad,” or pan-Hispanic identity, an ideological construct promoted during the era of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Of course, there is nothing inherently sinister in stressing the links between Spain and Latin America. But Vox’s version, which celebrates Catholicism as a fundamental uniting link and stresses the primacy of Western values, is inseparable from its historical context.

It also demonstrates the right wing’s suspicion of efforts to highlight the region’s Indigenous character. In an article on Hispanidad, Fundacion Disenso even claims that “the new wave of Indigenous identity (indigenismo) is an attack on the Western nature of Iberoamerica.” It continues to say that, because many of the region’s countries are in “full economic and institutional crisis,” Iberoamerica now “runs the risk of distancing itself from its founding values.”

What’s in It for Us?

So what would Latin American conservatives hope to gain from engaging with such a controversial party?

Some in the Americas may sense an affinity with Vox, such as Chile’s Jose Antonio Kast, who came from behind to win a plurality in the first-round vote for president last month, sending the race to a runoff. Kast is a signatory of the Madrid Charter, and like Vox’s Abascal, he also split off from an existing party, quitting the center-right coalition of current President Sebastian Pinera to form his own group, the Republican Party.

A Madrid-centric “Hispanidad” will only have limited appeal in a region where cultural links to Spain may be important, but are by no means exclusive.

The similarities do not end there. Kast also shares Vox's reputation for aggressively hammering leftists and accusing the existing center-right of timidity. His hard-line approach to recent protests in southern Chile, where Indigenous Mapuche and their supporters have clashed with logging companies, parallels Vox’s antipathy for Basque and Catalan separatism. And he has embraced Vox’s ultra-conservative, Catholic, family-values agenda. With Chile’s political center seemingly in collapse, Kast has gathered support from traditional conservative parties ahead of the second-round vote, in part by softening his rhetoric. He may indeed be further along in institutionalizing his brand of politics in Chile than Vox is in Spain.

Another rising figure who may resonate with Vox is Argentina’s Javier Milei, who also signed the Madrid Charter. Milei gained a seat in the Argentine Congress in last month’s midterm elections, doing surprisingly well in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires and gaining international attention. The economist and radio personality has condemned both the ruling Peronist movement and the center-right coalition of former President Mauricio Macri as part of an entrenched political “caste.” He opposes abortion, but mainly dedicates his energies to espousing a variant of libertarian economics.

Others who signed the Madrid Charter may have done so because of its opposition to the leftist dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, without embracing the whole range of Vox’s politics. Some important opponents of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro are signatories, including both the former mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledesma, whose roots are in the left-of-center Accion Democratica party, and Maria Corina Machado, a civic activist and former member of parliament.

Other signatories have weaker democratic credentials, such as Arturo Murillo, who served as Bolivia’s interior minister during the short-lived government of Anez. Back then, he sought the arrest of the ousted President Evo Morales, and is now in prison in the United States on charges of bribery and money laundering. Another dubious signatory is Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and himself a member of congress, who in 2019 suggested that Brazil revive the infamous 1968 decree that shuttered Congress and suppressed a range of civil liberties.

A Dead-End Street

For most Latin American conservatives, though, it is more difficult to see how climbing into Vox’s bandwagon could be in their interest. The Latin American parties might share Vox’s distaste for both the radical and relatively moderate left, as well as, in many cases, its aggressive rhetorical style. They might also be comfortable with Vox’s Catholic, family-values agenda—but the region generally seems to be going in the other direction, with abortion recently legalized in Argentina and Mexico, marijuana in Uruguay, and LGBT rights gaining a measure of acceptance across the region.

As for Vox’s signature issue, opposition to immigration, Latin American countries have a history of receiving immigrants, including from Spain during the Franco era. And many of them produce a large number of emigrants, mainly to the United States, though Latin Americans certainly can be found in Spain. Vox’s line that immigrants from Latin America are acceptable, in contrast to those from the Middle East and North Africa, may not be thoroughly convincing—especially since the welcome many Latin Americans receive in Spain can be cold. The word sudaca, a pejorative term for a South American, is hardly unknown.

That said, immigration is becoming a hot-button issue in some countries in the region, as political and humanitarian crises in Haiti and Venezuela provoke massive outflows to Colombia and elsewhere. In Chile, Kast has called for digging ditches along the border with Bolivia to keep migrants out. So Vox’s approach may find an echo in some quarters; in 2019, Abascal similarly called for Spain to build a wall around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

Nevertheless, Latin America is multiethnic to its core, with large populations of people with Indigenous and African heritage, as well as those of Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European origin. While some leaders indeed use the country’s Indigenous heritage as a political prop, the reality is that a Madrid-centric “Hispanidad” will likely only have limited appeal as an organizing principle in a region where cultural links to Spain may be important, but are by no means exclusive. And one element of Vox’s “Hispanidad”—its particularly militant version of Catholicism—may be unattractive to Latin America’s growing numbers of evangelical Protestants.

Right-wing populism has long been in the political mix in Latin America, dating back as far as World War II, with figures such as Brazil’s Getulio Vargas and Argentina’s Juan Peron. But if the region’s conservatives, many of whom have learned to appeal to broader publics and govern effectively in the region, seek to build ties with Vox, with its Franco-era rhetoric and core anti-immigrant values, they may find that they have headed up a path that leads to a dead end.


(c) 2021, World Politics Review


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