CPAC México / Facebook

Behind the carnivalesque energy at CPAC México, a serious bid to unite a fractured international far-right

Ideological true-believers, Catholic nationalists and cross-border election-deniers gathered in Mexico City to hone an agenda and anoint a new conservative leader for Mexico

Mexico’s right-wing lacks brand recognition. There are no Mexican equivalents of the MAGA Republicans to the north or Bolsonaristas to the south. And in fact, all the excitement seems to happen on the other side: the Mexican political arena is currently dominated by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing figure consolidating power with appealing populist rhetoric, whose popularity has been so durable that he is widely called the “teflon president.”

Enter CPAC México.

Held on November 18 and 19 at a Westin Hotel in Santa Fe, a upscale skyscraper-studded neighborhood in Mexico City, the gathering of cultural warriors, ideological true-believers, Catholic nationalists and cross-border election-deniers drew attention to imported right-wing influencers, politicians and microcelebrities from the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. Many had gone on the road with CPAC before, in Brazil, Israel and Hungary. Panels about “bioconservatism vs. transhumanism” were held alongside more traditional speeches against communism. 

The speaker line-up included: 

  • Former Trump White House advisor Steve Bannon, who beamed into CPAC México via video link from Arizona where he was contesting that state’s midterm election. He discussed the “globalist threat” to national sovereignty. 
  • American anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson, who falsely suggested López Obrador stole the Mexican presidential election in 2018, an allegation surprising even to the Mexicans in the audience. 
  • Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of the recently defeated Brazilian president, who pushed his way through fans and the press on his way to give a speech about the burgeoning global conservative movement. 
  • Argentinian presidential candidate Javier Milei, with a Beatles haircut and iconic lamb chops, who unspooled an economic vision of “anarcho-capitalist” libertarianism.
  • Defeated conservative presidential candidate José Antonio Kast of Chile who has family ties to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and is the son of a Nazi Party member.  
  • President of the Mexican Republicans, Juan Iván Peña Neder, who had spent two years in a maximum security Matamoros prison on gang rape charges — which he contests. 

At the beginning of the conference, a group of anti-fascist protesters showed up at the hotel adorned in Che Guevara shirts waving red hammer and sickle flags, while jumping up and down. They looked like activists in communist cosplay. Matt Schlapp, the American chair of CPAC, went outside to greet them on video, which he shared on Twitter, dubbing it “CPAC Derangement Syndrome,” by which he meant a stalkerish obsession with protesting conservatives.  

CPAC México packed the carnivalesque energy of the much larger CPAC event held each year in the U.S. minus the kitschy Americana costumes and day drinking. There was a Catholic presence. Nuns in habits applauded speeches warning about the perils of youth transgender surgery. The international press in Mexico City covered CPAC México, but it was a small event: roughly 700 attendees and 75 speakers. There were 140 registered journalists. 

At first, one person was conspicuously missing. 

Before the last hour of CPAC México, the only sign of Donald Trump was the tricolor “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hats among attendees. He was not on the agenda. That changed when Trump appeared in a surprise pre-recorded video message, congratulating the CPAC México organizer Eduardo Verástegui on his leadership in pulling off the inaugural event. 

The crowd lavished applause on Verástegui. A woman began to shout, “Eduardo Presidente!” 

A handsome former telenovela star and boy band singer, more recently Verástegui has placed his faith center-stage, reciting the rosary online during the pandemic and campaigning against abortion and gay marriage. The Catholic social organization he founded in 2019, Movimiento Viva México, co-sponsored CPAC México, and he has been called a future Mexican Donald Trump and a potentially potent opposition leader in Mexico.

Verástegui recently raised his profile in the U.S. He announced CPAC México at the CPAC held in Texas. Earlier this year he also stumped for losing Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake in Arizona, an intensely popular figure among Trump supporters. 

One week after CPAC México, the other side will show up. The Summit of the Pacific Alliance, attended by populist progressive leaders who have come to power in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Chile will convene in Oaxaca. The nearly coinciding conferences pose something of a stand-off: can CPAC conservatives offer el pueblo, the people, a reason for voters to turn away from the ascendant Mexican left? 

As a scholar of conservative populist influencers, I have studied their effective tactics of garnering attention — and therefore political power — through networked storytelling, media stunts and tabloid rhetoric. Controversy is a strategy. Conservative spaces are no stranger to showmanship and celebrity, to tabloid, film and television stars, Trump being the most notable recent example. A product of the American Conservative Union, CPAC has a long history of uniting media spectacle with activism and ideas as a means of reconstituting the Right through moments of struggle. The inaugural CPAC in 1974 was headlined by Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, and set the stage for the “New Right” ascendancy that lifted the Republican party to national power after the Watergate scandal. 

CPAC México takes a page from this U.S. conservative playbook.

As in the American CPAC, the CPAC México speakers were accustomed to tabloid attention, adversarial relationships with the press and contentious political histories. Verástegui was a frequent tabloid target, claiming he had a romantic relationship with Ricky Martin before a subsequent religious turn towards celibacy. 

CPAC in the U.S. has traditionally been a tryout for future leadership and its Mexican iteration was no exception. A “Young Conservatives” panel featured speeches by millennial Mexicans, many involved in the anti-abortion movement. But the biggest expectations for future leadership rested on Verástegui and Karina Yapor, a photogenic Emmy award winning host at Voz Media who interviewed all the speakers in her booth on the micro-sized CPAC México “radio row.” 

Yapor is familiar with the tabloid gaze. She had written a heart wrenching memoir of her experience being sex trafficked as a child in the “star academy” of pop singers Sergio Andrade and Gloria Trevi. It put her on the radar of countless international tabloids.

Sex trafficking is a significant Mexican political issue. Verástegui showed a trailer of his newly produced action thriller “Sound of Freedom,” based on the anti-sex trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad. Its leader, Tim Ballard, was a speaker at CPAC México. “Storytellers are the heroes, always,” Ballard said, explaining how abolitionists defeated American slavery through story and Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad provided inspiration. He explained that Verástegui had reached out to him several years ago after seeing a CBS news clip of one of their videotaped operations in Colombia. Now they do films together. 

Mexico has the third highest national rate of child trafficking. But narratives of elites trafficking children are also central to QAnon conspiracies. “QAnon did a great disservice to this cause,” Ballard bemoaned, “I wouldn’t be surprised, frankly, if traffickers are behind it. Because if you take something true that needs attention and you fill it with crap, you make it unbelievable.” 

Displays of piety were everywhere at CPAC México: tables selling religious pendants, nuns hosting 8am mass, cheers of “Viva Cristo Rey! Viva Virgin Guadalupe! Y Viva México!” Conservative American political operative and internet performer Jack Posobiec, known for a livestream “investigating” a child sex trafficking rumor, rallied a standing ovation with a cry of “Archangel Michael, Adi-yame!” ostensibly mispronouncing the Spanish for “help me.”  

López Obrador, Mexico’s left-wing president, has instituted policies that have alarmed liberals along with conservatives. He has invoked the specter of government militarization by, among other decisions, slashing police budgets in favor of enabling the military to fight narcotraffickers. He has botched state-owned transport and energy infrastructure projects, and he has proposed overhauling the National Electoral Institute, which critics claim would favor López Obrador and his party. The latter move brought tens of thousands of protestors into the capital’s streets. 

“There are two axes that control Mexico’s political battle: the one pro-López Obrador and the one against López Obrador,” Peña Neder, president of the Mexican Republicans, said. “And there’s a third axis in the conservative right that is still too far away from building any power.” 

In recent years under the leadership of Matt and Mercedes Schlapp, CPAC has developed a roadshow of conservative political microcelebrities trying to bring together a global right wing in Hungary, Brazil, Australia, Israel and now Mexico — to varying degrees of success.   

In his keynote address Eduardo Bolsonaro said: “This isn’t an ideology; this is a movement.” This suggests that policy alone was not enough to win an election. CPAC México is part of a larger strategy to build a recognizable and insurgent right-wing movement in Mexico allied with similar parties globally. Verástegui’s building of Movimiento Viva México is part of creating a brand ambassador for a fractured right. One organizer of the conference, Renee Bolio, noted that “center-right parties or candidates are very lukewarm.” To confront this, they mobilize social service organizations, particularly faith-based ones, for policy change around issues like abortion. 

For instance, many speakers including Verástegui, Bolsonaro and Schlapp were signatories of the Madrid Charter — a document drafted by the Disenso Foundation, a think tank associated with Spain’s populist, right-wing Vox party — that seeks to create a conservative world for “700 million people” in the “Iberosphere,” or countries with Spanish and Portuguese colonial heritage. It calls out “totalitarian regimes inspired by communism, supported by drug trafficking” and Cuba’s influence over them.

The Charter affirmed basic democratic values of rule of law, separation of powers, pluralism and human rights. But the far-right Vox party has often faced criticism for evoking symbols and slogans from Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator, and for opposing historical memory laws that would exhume unmarked graves currently in the Valley of the Fallen and give victims of his regime a proper burial. When Mexico’s conservative National Action Party signed the declaration, they were met with backlash for associating with Vox. Their backtracking caused some Mexican conservatives to feel abandoned. As Verástegui said in his opening speech, “The right, the true right, has been orphaned.”  

And Mexican conservatives feel they face more headwinds still. Bolio remarked on the lack of a strong right-wing media in Mexico, aside from a few influencers or religious outlets, which meant organizers had a hard time fundraising to put on the conference. But Bolio was optimistic: “Since yesterday, we have received calls saying ‘Wow we love what you are doing.’ It’s not hundreds, but maybe five or six good calls.” 

“The Mexican Right needs to leave the elite so it can reach the pueblo, the people,” Pedro Cobo, a director of research at the Mexican Republican Party, said.

“It’s hard to care about transhumanism when someone is being beheaded in your town,” Miguel Del Valle, 27, said. An enthusiastic conservative, Del Valle is a financial analyst who came to hear Steve Bannon and the losing candidate for French prime minister, Eric Zemmour, who both addressed the crowd via video.   

The CPAC roadshow may not get conservatives closer to the pueblo in Mexico but it can garner attention from the media, donors and bastions of Mexican conservative power. Whether Verástegui will be Mexico’s Trump remains to be seen. 

At the end of the conference, Verástegui greeted the crowd to the 1980s rock anthem “Eye of the Tiger” while adjusting the iPad that held his prepared speech. Despite being a seasoned actor, Verástegui opted not to memorize his speech or deliver off-the-cuff remarks like Eduardo Bolsonaro had the night before. He held onto the podium and spoke methodically as red, white and blue lights — not the Mexican national colors of green, white and red — shimmered across the ceiling. 

Reporting assistance by Vita Dadoo

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Danielle Tomson

Danielle Tomson is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is about to defend a dissertation on conservative social media influencers.

@LeeTomson

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