Brazil’s election suggests a socialist wave in the Americas — but the numbers tell a different story

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For all the talk of surging right-wing populism, states in the Americas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego are now (with a few small exceptions) in the hands of political parties of the left or centre-left.

The victory of Lula Da Silva in Brazil caps a four-year wave of leftist victories in Latin America that began with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (better known as AMLO) in Mexico in 2018 and continued with Alberto Fernandez in Argentina in 2019, the return of the Socialists in Bolivia in 2020, the elections of Pedro Castillo in Peru in 2021 and Gabriel Boric in Chile in March 2022, and with former guerrilla Gustavo Petro forming the first left-wing government in Colombia’s history this summer.

It looks like a sea change. But the change may not be all it seems.

Rather than a profound ideological shift, the margins of victory suggest deeply divided societies. Lula prevailed in his runoff with 50.9 per cent of the vote, Colombia’s Gustavo Petro with 50.4 per cent and Peru’s Pedro Castillo with 50.1 per cent. All three countries increasingly resemble deeply polarized nations such as the United States, or Britain during the Brexit debate, or any number of countries in Europe.

Argentines call it “la brecha,” or the gap — the division of society into two enemy camps, each convinced that the other will ruin the country. It’s a phenomenon North Americans are also familiar with.

Pink tide or populist wave?

“We’ve been through a similar swing to the left in Latin America before, the ‘pink tide’ that was about 15 or 17 years ago,” said Carlo Dade of the Canada West Foundation, also a member of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations. “So this is not unprecedented, even in recent memory.”

Pink Tide version 2.0 is more sweeping than the earlier wave. But Dade believes it would be a mistake to paint the wave all the same colour.

“There’s a lot of nuance on the left,” he said. “The leftist policies in a place like Chile are not going to be what you encounter in Venezuela.”

Demonstrators attack a police armored vehicle during clashes on the three-year anniversary of the start of anti-government protests in Santiago, Chile on Oct. 18, 2022. The protests were sparked by a subway fare hike that broke out on Oct. 18, 2019, and quickly broadened into a social movement demanding greater equality. (Cristobal Escobar/Associated Press)

More importantly, Latin America is struggling with exactly the same phenomena that have swept North America and Europe: disaffection with traditional parties and politics, crashing confidence in institutions, the viral spread of conspiracies on social media and the rise of populist demagogues — some of whom defy easy definition as leftists or rightists.

“The more radical groups are learning the lessons of populism abroad and they can really throw a wrench into this,” said Dade. “Brazil is really the object lesson in how a new variant of authoritarian populism can creep back into the region.

“The left-right axis is useful for someone writing a PhD. But it’s the question of authoritarian populism that’s going to have more impact on how the government exercises power. And that can go right or left. That gives you more clues to what you can expect from a regime. I would argue that it’s more important than the left-right distinction.”

Destroying trust and institutions

“I think it’s tempting for people to interpret what is going on in the region as a new pink tide,” said Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador to the United States. “But I think that the pendulum swings that we’re seeing have much less to do with partisan ideological realignments, and more to do with citizens up and down the Americas — and the U.S. is no exception — feeling disconnected from traditional political parties.

“What I think has been brewing is a sense of dislocation, a sense of anger at traditional political parties. Something that worries me a lot is the increasing erosion of the credibility of the institutions that underpin democracy, and the displacement of that by charismatic leaders or strong leaders.”

Demonstrators hold crosses during a protest to pay tribute to Brazil’s 600,000 COVID-19 deaths – and against President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus disease pandemic – in Brasilia, Brazil on October 8, 2021. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

The pandemic undid many of the economic gains of the past twenty years for Latin America’s poorest people. They suffered higher death rates from COVID-19 than people in any other part of the world and, in some cases, severe lockdown policies that killed off small and micro-businesses, disrupted educations and broke many of the ladders out of poverty. 

The result is that trust in government — never high in Latin America — is lower than ever.

“So what you’re seeing is not only populist demagogues of left, right, centre, or that are all over the place,” said Sarukhan. “It’s that they’re also destroying institutions created by that wave of democratization which occurred in Latin America in the early 90s.”

The return of the strongman

“Is a government that’s purported to be left, such as Nicaragua, really left, or is it just a dictatorship?” said Dade. 

And what about Latin America’s most popular leader, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador? The self-described “man of the left” began his political life as part of the FMLN party that grew out of El Salvador’s Marxist guerrilla movement, but won power as part of a conservative coalition.

Bukele is a young president with a big Twitter presence but he has taken the fight to the gangs that terrorize ordinary Salvadorans like no other leader before him, winning him approval ratings that haven’t dipped below 75 per cent. Bukele is hard to place on a left-right spectrum, something he doesn’t seem to mind. He makes no secret of his disdain for the norms of democracy and rule of law.

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, accompanied by members of the armed forces, speaks to his supporters outside Congress in San Salvador, El Salvador on Feb. 9, 2020. (Salvador Melendez/The Associated Press)

Then there’s Mexico’s AMLO, long seen as an old-school pro-Cuba leftist. Yet AMLO describes Vladimir Putin as a friend and this week called on Elon Musk to reinstate Donald Trump’s account — a demand he also made after Jan 6, 2021.

His government rooted for a Trump victory and waited more than a month to congratulate Joe Biden. Trump described AMLO as a leader “who I like and respect.”

‘Triplets from a different mother’

Lately, many Mexican leftists have been scratching their heads over AMLO’s militarization of Mexican institutions. He has placed the country’s national police force under military control, put the armed forces in charge of signature infrastructure projects and extended the special authority under which the Army and Navy are deputized to act as police.

Mexican historian Enrique Krauze wrote that thinking in terms of left and right only obscures the similarities between AMLO and Trump — similarities the two men themselves seem to recognize.

“Their convergence proves the anachronism of ideologies in our time. Both seek the absolute dominance of the executive branch. They dismiss institutions and the rule of law,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks next to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador before signing a joint declaration in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 8, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“They attack the critical independent press. Mr. Trump cries ‘fake news’ while Mr. López Obrador repeats, ‘I have other data.’ They scorn science and have confronted the pandemic irresponsibly and ineffectively, and with total lack of empathy. Both cultivate a twisted cult of personality.”

“I’ve always said that Lopez Obrador, Bolsonaro and Trump are triplets from a different mother,” Sarukhan told CBC News. “They’re ideologically different but the triggers with which they react to power structures and how they run governments are very similar: the polarization, the blacks and whites.

“Portraying institutions — whether they’re regulators or the checks and balances that define any liberal democracy — as bastions of self-dealing elites, or mafias of power or globalizers. And then asking their supporters to place their faith in the supposedly pure individuals that are leading the governments instead of the institutions.”

The Cuban litmus test

Solidarity with the one-party state run by the Cuban Communist Party has long been a litmus test for the Latin American left, even among parties that otherwise respected the democratic process.

“That’s the nature of complicity with Cuba – they might rule as democrats in their countries but in the relations with Cuba they are open to supporting all the human rights abuses in the island,” said Cuban-Canadian democracy activist Michael Lima Cuadra.

“Any time people sympathetic to the Cuban regime get into power, it’s bad news for those that are fighting for human rights in Cuba.”

In more recent years, left-wing solidarity has extended to Cuba’s unelected ally governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Lula, who called Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday to tell him he would be re-establishing relations with his country, is no exception to that tradition.

A plainclothes police officer throws a woman to the ground during an anti-government protest in Havana, Cuba on Oct 1, 2022. Although the democratic left is ascendant in Latin America, the Cuban Communist Party faces unprecedented challenges to its one-party rule. (AP)

Lima Cuadra recalls Lula’s reaction on the day in 2010 that human rights activist Orlando Zapata Tamayo died on hunger strike in a Cuban prison: “Lula da Silva compared Zapata and other dissidents to delinquents from Sao Paulo, which I thought was terrible from someone who comes from the working class.”

That explains why the Lima Group coalition that was once the Trudeau government’s main avenue to oppose Venezuela’s dictatorship has effectively ceased to operate. Important member countries have formally withdrawn or have simply stopped participating.

“I always look forward to a left in Latin America that separates from the Castro regime,” said Lima Cuadra. “But it hasn’t happened yet.”

But Gabriel Boric, the youngest elected national leader in Latin America – one of the youngest in the world –  may be breaking that mould.

Left vs. left

Chile’s self-described “democratic socialist” seemed to put the “democratic” ahead of the “socialist” when he surprised many on Chile’s old-school left with his denunciations of dictatorship and human rights abuses in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

“It makes me angry when you’re from the left and you can condemn rights violations in Yemen or El Salvador, but you can’t speak about Venezuela or Nicaragua,” Boric told the Columbia World Leaders’ Forum in New York in September. “We can’t have a double standard.

“I started to ask myself questions about Venezuela when I saw the repression of the protests, the manipulation of elections, and I thought this is not all right. We have to criticize this. And the people on the left said, ‘No, no, no, we don’t talk about our friends’. I think this is completely wrong.”

Chile’s President Gabriel Boric stands outside a polling station during a press conference after casting his vote in a plebiscite on a new draft of the Constitution in Punta Arenas, Chile on Sept. 4, 2022. (Andres Poblete/The Associated Press)

Boric even criticized the Communist Party of Cuba, sacred cow of the Latin American left, at the Summit of the Americas this summer, pointing out that “they hold people prisoners for thinking differently.”

The Venezuelan ruling party’s number two, Diosdado Cabello, has called Boric a “fool” who is merely “trying to suck up to the United States.” Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega accused him of being a U.S. “lapdog.”

The dispute suggested a gulf may finally be opening between the more-or-less democratic Latin American left and the authoritarian left of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Petro: still undefined

Colombia’s new president Gustavo Petro may be the one to watch to see if that gulf is real, and how deep it goes. 

The former member of the M-19 guerrilla group survived imprisonment and torture before entering politics. He finally won the presidency this year on his fourth attempt. His opponent, populist Trump-like construction magnate Rodolfo Hernandez, praised AMLO and promised to “clean” Colombia of corruption.

Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, left center, met Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela on Nov. 1, 2022 to re-establish relations with Colombia’s traditional “brother country.” But deep differences remain. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

While AMLO dismisses concerns about the climate and environment and seeks to double down on fossil fuels, Petro has vowed to wean his oil-producing nation off such fuels entirely and has made saving the Amazon his signature international issue.

This week, Petro visited Colombia to re-establish diplomatic ties with the Maduro regime – but that doesn’t mean he’s sold on Venezuela’s “Bolivarian” model of authoritarian socialism.

The body language was quite a bit warmer when President Petro received U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken at the Presidential Palace of Narino in Bogota, Colombia on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

Earlier this year, Maduro lambasted Petro, Boric and Peru’s Castillo as “a failed, defeated left” of “cowards” and “counter-revolutionaries.”

“Cowards are those who don’t embrace democracy,” Petro responded. “Get Venezuela off oil, take it towards deeper democracy, and if you have to step aside, then do it.”

After a start full of mixed signals, it remains to be seen where Petro will lead Colombia’s 51 million people. The uncertain future of his country is shared by the whole continent.

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