Riding a popular wave of discontent against neoliberal policies, Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in December 1998. Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution was the first of a wave of various left-oriented movements elected to government across the region, some of whom aspired to implement ‘21st century socialism.’
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Powered by high commodity prices and policies that significantly increased public revenue, this ‘Pink tide’ was characterized by government social programs and strategic investments that lifted tens of millions out of poverty and significantly decreased inequality across Latin America.
Two decades later, that tide has shifted considerably.
Following the recent election of right-wing candidates in Argentina, Chile, and Colombia, disaffected Brazilians gave Jair Bolsonaro a considerable mandate to lead the largest country in the region.
The 63-year-old former military has spent much of his political career on the margins but rose to power by channeling a justifiable anger felt by many Brazilians over corruption in the country.
Bolsonaro has stoked this frustration and directed it against the country’s left, pledging to ‘cleanse’ the South American nation of ‘red outlaws.’
His threats to jail or exile leftists would presumably extend to those in the Workers Party, which remains the largest party in Brazil’s legislature.
While Bolsonaro’s positions are reprehensible and troubling, the existence of this political animal should not be so surprising.
The new Brazilian leader is resurrecting the sort of caustic anti-communism that has been a central if not dominant conservative political tradition in Latin American politics for over a century. This political current also has a long and bloody track record of resorting to far-right violence against left-wing movements and leaders when the interests and position of the entrenched elite are threatened.
This dynamic isn’t just replaying itself out in Brazil, but is the basis of much of the ongoing political violence elsewhere in the region.
Following the success of the independence movements in defeating the Spanish crown to create the first continent composed predominantly of republics, Latin America and the Caribbean has had a slow pace of development.
The legacies of land, production and wealth concentration make it the most unequal region in the planet, while anemic levels of national reinvestment have perpetuated reliance on export of agriculture and raw materials.
This situation has not been accidental, however. Intransigence has been the hallmark of the region’s ruling elite, especially large landowners and exporters.
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Even before the Cold War led to a more deliberate policy of ‘containment’ against left-wing movements, the elite - with the backing of their U.S. allies - responded to challenges from the popular classes against its hoarding of wealth and monopoly on political power with violence.
Attempts to modernize or develop countries, even within a capitalist framework, have been often interpreted by political and economic elites as a threat to their rule. From Ecuador’s Eloy Alfaro or Colombia’s Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, leaders pressing for investment in the country and its people were dealt with harshly.
State repression of strikes and demonstrations from the 1928 Banana Massacre in Colombia to the 1907 Chile’s Santa María School Massacre served to radicalize and unify the left, leading to the formation of militant trade unions, socialist and communist parties and even guerrilla movements.
Waves of uprisings turned to successful revolutions in Mexico (1910), Bolivia (1952), Cuba (1959) and Nicaragua (1979), as well as the election of left-wing and populist governments in virtually every other country in the hemisphere.
Each swell of a popular revolt against poverty and inequality in countries across the region was met with violence in the form of assassinations, massacres, military coups, and even genocide.
Like Somoza in Nicaragua and Pinochet in Chile, there are countless other people and groups who left their grisly mark in the history and topography of region, each with similar backgrounds, friends and enemies - specifically, the left.
The power of these groups arguably reached its height during the 1970s and 1980s, where savage, U.S.-backed regimes reigned over much of Central and South America.
Despite the end of the Cold War and return to civilian rule, the staunch anti-communist tradition remained present in Latin America’s political right and is now resurgent.
Chile’s current President Sebastian Pinera represents a coalition where the pro-Pinochet Independent Democratic Union is the largest bloc. Moreover, a far-right rival obtained close to 8% of the popular vote in the same election that brought Pinera back to La Moneda.
Earlier this year, El Salvador’s anti-communist Republic National Alliance became the largest party in the legislature.
And in Colombia, there is not only the electoral political phenomenon of Uribism which retook the presidency, but also the right-wing paramilitary groups that have been actively assassinated social movement leaders since a peace deal with the FARC was signed in 2016.
In Central America also, the violence and poverty that many are fleeing from is a direct consequence of far-right violence against the left, including the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya’s leftist LIBRE party is also widely regarded to be cheated out of winning the 2017 elections.
The rebirth of the region’s far-right has been facilitated by a number of factors, including the corruption scandals as well as slumping economies following the crash of commodity prices. But a major component of the right-wing’s efforts has been the resurrection of ‘threat’ of ‘godless, baby-eating communism,’ this time in the form of Venezuela, as a mechanism to stoke fear in order to sway votes, or worse.
The left-wing governments elected at the beginning of the 21st century inherited weak states and dependent economies, but were also entrusted by their electorates to address a historical, social debt.
None were elected to implement a form of ‘socialism,’ but there was a broad consensus against the neoliberal policies that wreaked havoc and exacerbated poverty during the 1980s and 1990s.
The funds required to fulfill the aims of reducing poverty and inequality were satisfied by states having greater stakes in their natural resources, and as well as an improved collection of taxes. The high price of oil and other commodities meant public coffers could direct considerable amounts to public programs and infrastructure.
Given the high rates of growth and impact on social development, the popularity of the governments implementing these policies remained high, and efforts from the elites and the private sector to mount resistance met with little success.
This model of ‘21st century’, which left much of the means of production in private hands, fell into trouble in 2014 as the price of commodities, especially oil, plummeted. While almost all of the economies of the region experienced a recession, none were as hard hit as in Venezuela.
The oil-dependent nation’s economic crisis has since been compounded by an intensifying sanctions regime and internal political strife, leading to, among other things, a significant emigration of Venezuelan nationals to neighboring Latin American countries.
Predictably, this crisis has been portrayed as a failure of socialism, in the same way as the corruption cases in Brazil were portrayed as a scandal of the left.
Just as the military regimes of yesteryear were buoyed by the specter of communism, the far-right in Latin America has been pushing ‘Venezuelization’ as an electoral strategy, with a considerable degree of success.
Gustavo Petro, who unsuccessfully challenged Ivan Duque in Colombia’s elections, had to constantly deflect against accusations about his relationship with Venezuela. In Chile, right-wing politicians promoted the notion ‘Chilezuela’ against center-left candidate Alejandro Guillier.
In a cruel form of irony, the right-wing in the region has stoked xenophobia against Venezuelan migrants - who they helped to create by pushing for measures that have worsened the economic plight of the country - while also using them as political fodder against Caracas.
Bolsonaro has already signaled a key shift back to pro-U.S. trade and foreign policy and has already discussed Venezuela with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Reports about a possible invasion from Brazil and Colombia remain speculation, though given his promise to use military against domestic leftists, an armed action against external ones may not be far off.
Bolsonaro has committed to backing away from relationships built with other BRICS nations including China, who had committed hundreds of billions to infrastructure and resources in the South American country.
Given that getting China out of Latin America is a key, publicized geostrategic goal of the U.S., it's no wonder that Bolsonaro’s election was cheered on by U.S. President Donald Trump and also caused Brazilian markets to rally.
Political circles and pundits are busy analyzing not only the demise of the ‘progressive era’, but also the character that is emerging and what role different strata will play in its development.
Politically, the liberal center - if this in fact even existed - is disappearing, and aiding the deterioration of the rule of law that is empowering the far-right. Nowhere is this more evident than in Brazil, where the likes of ex-president Henrique Cardoso were willing to tacitly back Bolsonaro, even though he said Cardoso should have been shot by the military.
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Those centrist politicians, who rallied behind the witch hunt against Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva, have also been conspicuously silent in the wake of the appointment of Judge Sergio Moro - who was responsible for jailing Lula - as Bolsonaro’s justice minister.
Similar campaigns involving dubious corruption allegations against leftists politicians, leaders or even journalists are taking place in various countries across Latin America.
For its part, the ‘middle class’ that emerged out of ‘21st Century Socialism’ has played the role of its grave digger, electorally. However, there is a lingering question about what position this section of the working class will take if the far-right resorts to violence.
So far, its response to the present atmosphere of persecution has been ambivalent, perhaps because of the lack of political education it received by the left in power.
Nonetheless, Bolsonaro’s born-again, evangelical neo-fascism has also threatened culture and science, which point to looming confrontations with the intelligentsia, as the far-right has often done in Latin America.
Perhaps one silver lining is that the Latin American left has never had the benefit of going too long without thinking about its arch nemesis. In Brazil, the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and other veterans of the struggle against the dictatorship have vowed to resist and defeat Bolsonaro, in the same way that the junta was defeated.
But unlike many previous far-right regimes in the region, Bolsonaro was not imposed by military force against popular will, but rather by popular vote.
The challenge of the left will be to win back their base, unless Bolsonaro and his ilk consolidate them under their fold first. This is what will determine the outcome of this unfolding era, and if Latin America will avoid receding into an abyss of violence.
Pablo Vivanco is the former director of teleSUR English and specializes in geopolitics, economics and Latin American affairs.