Anti-progressivism: a ghost that haunts Latin America

Anti-progressivism is not restricted to Brazil. It is expanding throughout the region and putting at risk the democratic advances of the last decades. Español

Pablo Stefanoni
15 October 2018

Image: Nueva Sociedad. All Rights Reserved.

As a foreign correspondent put it, on October 7th, the first round of elections in Brazil were won by an authoritarian, racist, machista, homophobic politician: someone who embodies the most regressive values is hoping to become the next president of Brazil.

He ended up with a higher number of votes than anticipated by the polls, snatched a victory in the first round and painted almost the whole country - except for the northeast – with his colours.

Brazil and Latin America are facing a new scenario that is no longer just the end of the progressive cycle and its replacement by right or center-right forces within the framework of democracy, but rather a shift of the political boundaries towards new ground: the potential triumph in the second round of a candidate who, through a campaign full of Bibles and bullets, openly vindicates the dictatorship, flaunts violence, and openly despises all the values underlying the democratic system.

He is not just "another Trump". He is a candidate with fascist overtones in a country much less institutionally solid than the United States, in which political violence is already high.

The results of October 7 expand the already existing parliamentary BBB bloc (Ox, Bible, and Bullet, in reference to landowners, Evangelical priests, and former members of the security forces) to a hitherto unknown dimension. As a journalist from El País says, Bolsonaro's "B" ended up framing the other three - and left them at the gates of power.

The main reason for the growth of Bolsonaro’s popular support is directly related, according to historian Maud Chirio, "to the building of hostility towards the Workers' Party (PT) and the Left in general.

This hostility recalls the old Cold War anti-Communism: conspiracy theories, demonization, and linking moral flaws to a condemnable political project.

The PT itself did a lot to weaken its original legacy, its moral integrity, and its project for the future. But the rejection is not due to only this.

Bolsonaro appropriated this symbolism of rejection, adding to the implication of the PT in a number of corruption cases. What is happening here is not just a shift by Conservatives towards the far Right, but towards supporting a radical break".

As historian Zeev Sternhell pointed out, historical fascism was not only a reaction, it was perceived as a form of revolution, a willingness to change before the crisis of the status quo.

It is not possible for progressivism to shy away from its responsibility for the "pink tide" government years. The fact that so many people are willing to vote for someone like Bolsonaro so as to prevent a return of the PT is, in itself, a call to reflection – all the more so when this happens in the most "modern" areas of Brazil, where the party that won Latin America’s heart was born, and where it has been steadily losing support in the past several years.

As an expression of this rejection, Dilma Rousseff, contradicting what all the pre-election polls predicted, did not win her Senate seat in Minas Gerais. The PT itself did a lot to weaken its original legacy, its moral integrity, and its project for the future. But the rejection is not due to only this.

As we have pointed out before, the soft class struggle which, during the PT government, improved the situation of the lower classes without touching on the higher strata of society, ended up being considered intolerable by the elites.

The case of Brazil confirms that the ruling classes are only willing to accept reforms if there is a threat of "revolution", and the PT came to power in a context which was far from radicalized. At the same time, it promoted policies in favour of the ones at the "bottom" in a traditionally very unequal country.

In any case, the PT experience ended up exhibiting too close a relation between the government and an opaque "national bourgeoisie" (related to the refrigeration industry and construction companies), which undermined its project of ethical reform and the morale of its supporters.

That is to say, there is a double dimension to the current rejection of the progressive parties which were in government in several countries of the region. In all of Latin America, an emerging new Right is driving voters who not only react against their shortcomings but who also oppose their successes.

We are witnessing the rise of racism as a rejection of a racialized vision of poverty, and of Conservatism against the advances of feminism and sexual minorities. The growth of political evangelism and the popularity of politicians and opinion leaders who are publicly at war with what they call "gender ideology" are some of the vectors of this increasingly fierce anti-Progressivism.

"We are at war. We are on the offensive, no longer on the defensive. The Church has long been stuck in a cave waiting to see what the enemy does, but today it is on the offensive, it understands that the time has come for conquering the land, for taking positions in government, in education and the economy", Evangelical pastor Ronny Chaves Jr. said at the Worship World Center in April, during the presidential campaign in Costa Rica in which an Evangelical candidate made it to the second round.

It should be noted that Rousseff allied with them, but now many of these churches, like the Universal Church, are “going all out", disregarding any pragmatic alliance with the Left.

The narrative which associates the Left with the "privileges" of some groups in society, including the poor who receive social benefits, as opposed to the people who “really work and do not get anything” has been very effective.

The new far Right is attracting, in addition, a portion of the young voters and is building opinion leaders with a strong presence in social media. It presents itself as anti-elitist, even though, as in the case of Bolsonaro, its economic proposals are ultraliberal and are enthusiastically supported, in the last few yards of the race, by the markets.

As Martín Bergel has pointed out, the narrative which associates the Left with the "privileges" of some groups in society, including the poor who receive social benefits, as opposed to the people who “really work and do not get anything” has been very effective.

Progressivism in the region is thus facing a deep crisis - politically, intellectually and morally. The catastrophic Venezuelan situation has hugely helped the continental Right. Not to mention the silence before the repression in Nicaragua.

In this context, Bernie Sanders’s recent call to set up a Progressive International – which should have as its main axes the rejection of the growing global authoritarianism and the fight against inequality - is as timely as it is difficult to figure out in Latin America, where a large part of the Left gets excited about political figures like Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad or Xi Jinping, whom it considers effective counterweights to the Empire.

Unlike previous occasions, when the Left was an expansive force in the region, the last meeting of the San Pablo Forum in Havana last July was marked by speeches focused on "resistance" and entrenchment.

The chosen place, Havana, and the presence of historical figures from the most conservative wing of the Cuban government contributed to an ideological retreat to anti-imperialist talk full of nostalgia for the late Commander Fidel Castro, without any space for reflexive analysis on the experiences, and setbacks, of the last few years.

The unanimous defense of Nicolás Maduro and Daniel Ortega was the logical consequence of that drift. But if it is to recover its expansive capacity, the Left must leave its ideological comfort zone and self-victimization tendencies.

To paraphrase a French expression regarding its own far Right, Bolsonaro has managed to "de-demonize" himself. And if he gets to win in the second round of the elections, he will not be alone in the world. At the same time, no one in the region, given the setbacks of the processes of integration, will be able to set limits on him.

The triumph of the former army captain would be one of the biggest democratic regressions since the military dictatorships of the 1970s, and no one can say what would be the consequences.

The image of a voter who recorded himself pressing the buttons of an electronic voting machine with the barrel of his gun, and who was voting for Bolsonaro, captured the gist of a day that bodes ill for Brazil and Latin America.

This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original here

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