Brazil's Bolsonaro and born-again anti-communism in Latin America

Jair Bolsonaro has risen to power by channelling against the Left the justifiable anger felt by the Brazilian people over the scale of corruption in their country. By pledging to 'cleanse' the nation of 'red outlaws', he is resurrecting the sort of caustic anti-communism that has been a central if not dominant conservative tradition in Latin American politics for over a century. Pablo Vivanco explains.

TWO decades after one paratrooper ushered in the 'pink tide' in Latin America, another may be the catalyst for a 'brown' one.

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 in a wave of various left-oriented movements elected to government across the region, some of which aspired to implement '21st-century socialism'.

Powered by high commodity prices and policies that significantly increased public revenue, this pink tide was characterised by government social programmes and strategic investments that lifted tens of millions out of poverty and significantly decreased inequality across Latin America.

Twenty years on, 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 officer has spent much of his political career on the margins but rose to power by channelling 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 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 in Brazil, but is the basis of much of the ongoing political violence elsewhere in the region.

Violence and the status quo

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 on the planet, while anaemic levels of national reinvestment have perpetuated reliance on agriculture and raw material exports.

This situation has not been accidental, however. Intransigence has been the hallmark of the region's ruling elite, especially large landowners and exporters. Even before the Cold War led to a more deliberate policy of 'containment' against left-wing movements, the elite - with the backing of its US allies - responded to challenges from the popular classes against its hoarding of wealth and monopoly on political power with violence.

Attempts to modernise or develop countries, even within a capitalist framework, have often been interpreted by political and economic elites as a threat to their rule. From Ecuador's Eloy Alfaro to 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 1907 Santa Maria School Massacre in Chile to the 1928 Banana Massacre in Colombia, served to radicalise and unify the left, leading to the formation of militant trade unions, socialist and communist parties and even guerilla movements. Waves of uprisings led 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 region.

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 on Latin American history, each with similar backgrounds, friends and enemies - the latter being the left. The power of these groups arguably reached its height during the 1970s and 1980s, when savage, US-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 among 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 power.

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 actively assassinated social movement leaders since a peace deal with the leftist FARC rebels was signed in 2016.

In Central America also, the violence and poverty that many are fleeing from are a direct consequence of far-right violence against the left, including the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. Zelaya's leftist LIBRE party is also widely regarded to have been cheated out of winning the 2017 elections.

The rebirth of the region's far-right has been facilitated by a number of factors, including corruption scandals as well as slumping economies following the crash of commodity prices. But a major component of the right's efforts has been the resurrection of the '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 spectre of Venezuelan 'communism'

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 fulfil the aims of reducing poverty and inequality were raised by states having greater stakes in their natural resources, as well as by improved collection of taxes. The high price of oil and other commodities meant public coffers could direct considerable amounts to public programmes 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 by the elites and the private sector to mount resistance met with little success.

This model of '21st-century socialism', 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 the economies of the region experienced a recession, none were as hard hit as 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 neighbouring 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 spectre of communism, the far-right in Latin America have been pushing 'Venezuelisation' 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 accusations about his relationship with Venezuela. In Chile, right-wing politicians promoted the notion 'Chilezuela' against centre-left candidate Alejandro Guillier.

In a cruel irony, the region's right wing have stoked xenophobia against Venezuelan migrants - whose exodus they had helped create by pushing for measures that have worsened the economic plight of the country - while also using them as political fodder against Caracas.

Bolsonaro, who has signalled a key shift back to pro-US trade and foreign policy, has already discussed Venezuela with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Reports about a possible invasion from Brazil and Colombia remain speculation, though considering his promise to use the military against domestic leftists, armed action against external ones may not be far off.

Bolsonaro has also committed to backing away from relationships built with other nations in the BRICS grouping, including China, which 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, publicised geostrategic goal of the US, it's no wonder that Bolsonaro's election was cheered on by US President Donald Trump and also caused Brazilian markets to rally.

Turning tide?

Political circles and pundits are busy analysing not only the demise of the 'progressive era', but also the dynamic that is emerging and what roles different strata will play in its development.

Politically, the liberal centre - if this in fact even existed - is disappearing, 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 Fernando Henrique Cardoso were willing to tacitly back Bolsonaro, even though he said Cardoso should have been shot by the military. Those centrist politicians who rallied behind the witchhunt against former presidents 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 leftist 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 gravedigger in electoral terms. 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 points to looming confrontations with the intelligentsia, as has often been the case with the far-right 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 a former director of teleSUR English, from the website of which this article is reproduced ( He specialises in geopolitics, economics and Latin American affairs.

*Third World Resurgence No. 333/334, 2018, pp 28-30