Latin America: Evangelical Churches Gaining Influence

By Carlos Malamud*

Five people stand up in front of a screen with their arms raised

The evangelical political party Partido Encuentro Social (PES) held a rally earlier this month in Mexico City. / Twitter: @PESoficialPPN / Creative Commons

The line between religion and politics is getting increasingly blurred in Latin America as evangelical churches grow in strength and candidates try to curry the support of – or at least avoid confrontation with – the faithful.  Tensions over mixing religion and politics have historic roots in Europe and Latin America and persisted throughout the 20th century, but we are witnessing a new phenomenon in Latin America now.  In much of the region, evangelical churches are showing an increased political presence and institutional representation in partisan politics.

  • In Mexico, the secular Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (MORENA) and the Partido del Trabajo (PT) have struck an alliance with the evangelical Partido Encuentro Social (PES) to back presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is an evangelical, and Costa Rica – if current polls prove correct – could soon have Fabricio Alvarado, an evangelical pastor, as President.  In Brazil, presidential aspirant Jair Bolsonaro has been building popular support by, among other things, appealing to the an evangelical base, even though most Brazilian evangelical churches aren’t reaching for executive power but rather support parties concentrated on building local, provincial, and congressional influence.
  • The evangelical churches’ membership has grown steadily but unevenly in recent decades. About 20 percent of all Latin Americans are evangelicals.  In Mexico, they account for more than 10 percent of the population.  In Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Panama, observers estimate more than 15 percent.  In Brazil and Costa Rica, the number reaches 20 percent, while in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua it surpasses 40 percent.

The evangelical churches’ political agenda is centered on defense of family values – basically opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, euthanasia, and what they erroneously call “gender ideology.”  On these topics on certain occasions, there’s a striking convergence with the Catholic hierarchy, Social-Christians, and conservative parties.  The evangelicals do not usually take positions, however, on other issues in which the government has a strong role, such as the economy or international relations.

The evangelical phenomenon reflects a double dynamic:  the unstoppable surge in non-Catholic faithful poses an enormous challenge for the region’s deeply rooted bishops conferences, and the growing distrust for political leaders and parties has facilitated the emergence of new options, including evangelicals, with barely articulated platforms.  The faithful who profess the tenets of evangelicalism are disciplined, and pastors’ positions have a lot of influence over them.  Even if not linked directly to candidates through the parties, voters’ evangelical affiliation and their churches’ recommendations have a strong influence over them.  The evangelical vote, moreover, is highly desired by all candidates and at least indirectly influences campaigns.  Candidates in Colombia, Brazil, or Mexico, as in other Latin American countries, are making that increasingly obvious as elections approach.

March 20, 2018

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  A version of this article was originally published in El Heraldo de México.

Prospects for Reproductive Rights Dim with End of “Left-Turn”

By Merike Blofield and Christina Ewig*

A large group of women and men gather in front of statue in a plaza.

A demonstration against abortion in Córdoba, Argentina, shortly after President Mauricio Macri’s election. / Marco Camejo / Flickr / Creative Commons

The end of Latin America’s “pink tide” suggests the region will make little progress in protecting reproductive rights in coming years and may even face some policy reversals.  With five Latin American governments slated to elect new leaders in 2018, and with recent elections of right-leaning governments in Chile and Argentina, Latin America may well be concluding the left-turn that has characterized the region’s politics since the early 2000s.

  • The past two decades of pink tide governments coincided with a flurry of legislative activity on abortion policy – in sharp contrast to previous decades of policy stasis, when high rates of clandestine abortions coexisted with restrictive laws. Since the turn of the millennium, abortion laws have been revised by Latin American legislatures and courts on 11 separate occasions in eight different countries.  Even in countries where legal reforms did not go through, legislatures debated bills at a prevalence not seen before.
  • Several left governments have carried through liberalization in response to public opinion and social mobilization. Last August, for example, the Chilean Supreme Court upheld its Congress’ liberalization of abortion law – to allow for abortion under three circumstances (threat to life; fatal fetal defect; rape) – overturning the absolute prohibition that had been in effect since the last days of the Pinochet military regime in 1989.  Some left governments went even further:  Uruguay legalized abortion in 2012, and Mexico City did so even earlier, in 2007.

Yet left governments have not been unequivocally liberal; some have actively upheld or enacted conservative laws, even absolute prohibitions.  In 2006, the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua reversed course from allowing therapeutic abortion to supporting absolute prohibition, while Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa in 2013 rejected a provision allowing abortion in the case of rape.  The FMLN in El Salvador has doggedly, even brutally, enforced a total prohibition, to the detriment of many (primarily poor) women’s lives.  In a recent study (published in Social Politics), we show this split in policy roughly follows the “institutionalized” vs. “populist” typology of lefts.

  • Institutionalized parties – like those in Chile and Uruguay – have channels in place for civil society organizations, including feminist ones, to have bottom-up influence. Given their respect for the rules of the game, however, the institutionalized lefts are also likely to face well-organized conservative opposition, which slow down reform, shape final legislation, or even veto it altogether.  In Uruguay and Chile, feminists had a voice, but conservatives were also are able to block, slow down, and water down liberalization.  This is why the Uruguayan reform took so long and why in both cases the final legislation is less liberal than the original proposals.
  • By contrast, populist governments, like those of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega and Ecuador under Rafael Correa, often see advocates for liberalization as political threats – particularly feminists who also represent more general claims for individual autonomy and pluralism. Moreover, an issue like abortion, where the practical costs of a restrictive stance are born almost exclusively by low-income women, is likely to be used by populist leaders as a pawn in a power struggle with well-organized, influential religious forces.

Although we systematically analyzed only abortion politics, we found that sex education, contraceptive access, and other reproductive health policies more broadly have followed similar dynamics in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Uruguay.  For example, the Uruguayan left government expanded sex education after assuming power in 2006, while in Ecuador, leaders appointed in health bureaucracies sought to reduce access to publically provided reproductive health services.  Nicaragua, on the other hand, has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies outside sub-Saharan Africa.

As Latin America’s left shift appears to be coming to a close, reproductive health policies promise to remain contentions – and abortion continues to be a public health crisis across most of Latin America even with the limited liberalizations of the past decade.  The Alan Guttmacher Institute recently estimated that 6.5 million abortions are annually performed in the region.  The vast majority are still done in clandestinity, resulting in high maternal mortality and tens of thousands of annual hospitalizations, which affect low-income women the most.  While it is unlikely that recent changes will be reversed in the more institutionalized settings, the rightward shift that is occurring among especially these countries does not bode well for further liberalization and resolution to the abortion crisis.

 January 18, 2018

 * Merike Blofield is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami.  Christina Ewig is Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

Gay Rights Amidst Uneven Cultural Change

The lower chamber of Uruguay’s legislature passed a bill legalizing gay marriage on December 12 that is expected to sail through the Senate. The law, which polls show is supported by a majority of Uruguayans, comes just two months after the country legalized abortion.  Even for Uruguay, long seen as among Latin America’s most progressive and democratic countries, these measures represent a major shift in social attitudes.

MUMS Movimiento de la Diversidad Sexual | Flickr | Creative Commons

MUMS Movimiento de la Diversidad Sexual | Flickr | Creative Commons

Writing in the Journal of Democracy, Bard College political scientist Omar Encarnación argues that the 2005 legalization of gay marriage by Spain’s socialist government was a model for activists and legislators across Latin America. Transnational networks with ties in these cities have led the charge, using human rights language and gaining support from human rights organizations. Evidence in support of his argument is growing:  the city of Buenos Aires and later all of Argentina legalized gay marriage in 2002 and 2010 respectively, as did Mexico City, in 2012.  Where legislatures have not acted because of opposition from religious or other groups, activists have appealed to courts, earning recognition of important civil rights for gay couples in Brazil and Colombia. Progress in the ALBA countries, Chile, and Central America has been more limited still.  Honduras banned gay marriage in 2005. Discrimination, both legal and de facto, remains an issue.

The changes in Uruguay and elsewhere indicate the need for an updated map of Latin America that reflects widely differing approaches to social issues.  Secularism is an emergent force in global metropolises such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo, and the Catholic Church’s dominant role in the region’s social policy and politics has diminished considerably.  But the decline in the Catholic Church’s power to block gay rights does not mean a continued shift in social norms is inevitable.  Evangelical faiths have exploded in parts of the continent, many of them even more conservative than the Catholic Church in opposing gay rights. Moreover, in countries that lack the strong transnational human rights networks of Argentina and Colombia, activists have fewer tools at their disposal.