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U.S. Neo-Conservative Thought: Its Influence in Latin America

Luis Maira and Ernesto Calvo seek to explain the influence of U.S. neo-conservatives on right-wing political parties in Latin America.

Date & Time

Oct. 29, 2010
12:00pm – 1:30pm ET


On October 29, 2010, the Latin American Program hosted the discussion "U.S. Neo-Conservative Thought: Its Influence in Latin America" featuring Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar Luis Maira, former Chilean ambassador to Argentina and Mexico, and founding member of the group at Mexico's Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica (CIDE) studying the United States; and Ernesto Calvo, associate professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.

Seeking to explain the influence of U.S. neo-conservatives on right-wing political parties in Latin America, Ambassador Maira started by describing the emergence of neo-conservative thought in the United States and the and its eventual migration to Latin America. Citing Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater as examples, Maira explained that prior to the 1960s, the Right in the United States was, for the most part, reactive, pragmatic, anti-intellectual, anti-communist, and in search of "simple" enemies. The events of the early 1970s created the environment for the rise of neo-conservatism in America. According to Maira, this new conservative surge was an answer to "three crises": 1) Watergate, the abuse of the presidency, and President Richard Nixon's eventual impeachment; 2) economic dislocations reflected in stagflation, the OPEC oil embargo, and the end of the gold standard; and 3) the loss of the Vietnam War.

From Nixon's resignation to the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the neoconservative movement was being propelled forward by a passionate core of first-rate academics that included Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Samuel Huntington, all disenchanted former leftist or liberal activists. The exhaustion of the New Deal and the decline of the political coalition that supported it gave way to resurgent "conservative pride" that blossomed as the Right gained confidence in its political viability as much as in its ability to compete in the "war of ideas." No longer purely reactive, neoconservatives began to recognize the value of investing in ideas, creating or expanding such prestigious institutions such as Stanford University's Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation as well as magazines such as Commentary. This institutionalization of neoconservative thought and research, Maira explained, resulted in systematized thinking regarding such issues as smaller government, lower taxes, and reduced government spending on social programs. The 1980 elections marked not only Ronald Reagan's assumption of the U.S. presidency but also the defeat of such liberal standard-bearers as Senators George McGovern, Frank Church, and Birch Bayh.

In terms of foreign policy, Maira characterized neoconservatives as "enemies of detente" and proponents of a "Second Cold War" against the Soviet Union. Latin America, already an important Cold War battle ground in the wake of the Cuban revolution, became an important battleground in the new Cold War as neoconservatives staked the political unrest in Central America as a principal battleground. During the first Cold War, the Right in Latin America drew its inspiration from Generals Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy, as well as from U.S. national security doctrine that resulted in programs of military training to protect against internal enemies.

It was neo-conservatism, however, that acquired civilian influence in Latin America. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1990s saw a dramatic increase in right-of-center governments in Latin America, including those of Carlos Salinas in Mexico, Carlos Menem in Argentina, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in Bolivia, and Alfredo Cristiani in El Salvador. Policies of neoliberal structural reform reduced the size of the state but produced low levels of growth as well as increased poverty and inequality. Social conditions produced yet another political shift to governments of the center-Left as well as Bolivarian populism.

Ernesto Calvo noted that U.S. neo-conservatives left an imprint that can be felt in public policies throughout Latin America even if there are no neoconservative governments in the region. The discourse of the Right emphasizes freedom whereas that of the Left focuses on equality. The economic side of the freedom coin, Calvo said, emphasized lover taxes and the reduction of social spending, but that position was losing space in the region. The triumph of neoliberal economic thought in the 1990s has given way to a more pragmatic Right. Given the simplicity of the neoliberal, neo-conservative message and its exclusion of social issues, Calvo questioned its viability in the long term.


Hosted By

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

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