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Latin America’s Right-Wing Turn

The far right is on the rise not only in Brazil but across Latin America — driven by the middle class that left-wing governments helped create.

A March 2016 demonstration calling for the ouster of Brazil’s then-president, Dilma Rousseff. Agência Brasil Fotografias / Flickr.

The prospect Jair Bolsonaro as president of Latin America’s largest country has put Brazil under a global spotlight.

A former army captain, Bolsonaro has lauded the use of torture and murder under Brazil’s military dictatorship, and made appalling public statements about gay people and women. Yet in spite of this or perhaps because of it he obtained 46 percent, or over 49 million votes, in the first round of voting.

Many analysts have attributed his sharp rise to the corruption scandals involving Brazil’s state oil firm, Petrobras, and the Odebrecht construction company. Brazilians flooded the streets as information emerged about the depth and scope of the debacle, which implicated all of the country’s major parties including Bolsonaro’s own Social Liberal Party.

However, with the help of a concerted media campaign, much of the blame for the scandal was attributed to the country’s political Left, especially the Workers Party (PT). The large, but highly selective, “anti-corruption” demonstrations which followed therefore buttressed the right-wing campaign to impeach then-president Dilma Rousseff and taint the PT.

Brazil isn’t the only Latin American country to veer right in recent years. “I do not know if the category of fascism is the most adequate to understand this phenomena,” said Dr. Atilio A. Boron, sociologist and professor of Latin American History at Argentina’s Universidad De Avellaneda. Boron has studied the history of the far right in Latin America, including the brutal military dictatorships that governed much of the region throughout the 1970s and 1980s and the far-right paramilitary outfits in Colombia and Central America.

While these regimes and groups shared certain characteristics with the fascism of Germany, Italy and Spain, Boron says there were other significant differences, including the absence of a mass movement. For Boron, these discrepancies also apply for current right-wing movements in Latin America, including Bolsonaro’s.

“I think they are clearly reactionary characters, but fascism is a very special form of reaction. It implies for example a process of organizing and mobilizing the middle strata, which is not the case for Bolsonaro, (Argentine President Mauricio) Macri or (Ivan) Duque of Colombia,” Boron said.

“I think Bolsonaro is a miserable character who unfortunately [embodies] the worst of aspects Latin American politics in recent times, so it is convenient to use the term fascist in this case, but it should be understood that the term goes beyond [his statements].”

Sabrina Fernandes, a sociologist and researcher at the University of Brasília, sees the Bolsonaro camp as having already reached this middle strata. Fernandes, producer of left-wing YouTube channel TeseOnze, says the Right was able to make significant inroads among the popular classes in the aftermath of the Lava Jato ordeal.

“The far-right movement in Brazil mobilized the middle class more than anything, especially around impeachment of Dilma Rousseff,” said Fernandes. The impeachment process, she said, was “mostly white middle and white upper-class,” but also managed to mobilize sectors of the working and lower-classes. The sheer size of the demonstrations against corruption in the country, as well as their heavy anti-Left and anti-PT tone, attest to that.

Class and the ‘middle class’

There is little doubt that the middle class in the region, which has grown considerably in size since the turn of the millennium, is playing an important electoral role. The combination of a commodities boom along with a proliferation of national investment and redistribution policies across Latin America, saw some 70 million people were lifted out of poverty between 2002 and 2014, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Almost 30 million of those were in Brazil. In Ecuador, the middle class doubled from 18.58 percent to 37.40 percent between 2005 and 2015. In both Ecuador and now Brazil, recent analysis shows that this middle class is indeed voting in significant numbers for conservative candidates.

Right-wing appeals to individual attainment, as well as arguments that government interventions are responsible for economic slumps, have been powerful narratives in directing this new middle class towards right-wing candidates. Fernandes says this strategy, deployed through major media outlets and more recently through social media, has been working in Brazil.

“Through this, they started affecting common sense, so it’s not just the middle class anymore, most of the working class is actually going against its own class consciousness,” Fernandes said. Boron adds that the middle class is acting out of fear and “resentment,” affecting not only their voting patterns but also their social views, including racism and xenophobia which has been on the rise across the region.

“They see those that declare an inferior economic position as a threat, and therefore they are prone to have discriminatory, aggressive and offensive positions to the popular sectors. This is something that also occurred in Italian and German fascism,” Boron said.

Unfinished business

The decade and more of so-called “Pink Tide” governments made undeniable social progress in the world’s most unequal region. Nevertheless, many of those who attained a measure of social mobility during this period have turned against that political project and the policies that defined it.

Whether a “Brown tide” is imminent or not, Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution,” holds true for the Latin America today, Boron argues.

“It is a punishment, I wouldn’t say that it is not for having made revolution, but rather for not having completed a process of reforms that had to be radicalized, and through this, having suppressed the possibilities of the emergence of fascist political movements,” Boron said, emphasizing the absence of political education and organizing by most of the left-leaning governments in the region.

“Unfortunately, they fell into a kind of economic determinism, a certain economism, on the part of the governments of the progressive era, thinking that improving material conditions was enough to generate awareness of the need to fight against capitalism.”

This also holds true in the case of Brazil, where a popular movement fought a dictatorship and then elected PT candidates like Ignacio Lula da Silva to the presidency. “There was a lot of potential when Lula got elected, with a lot of popular support, to mobilize people and push for more, and people were very much hopeful that the government would be more than what it was,” Fernandes said.

The Left may have failed to organize a sufficient base of support to sustain its project, but it will now have a much harder fight to ensure that the reactionary Right isn’t able to do so either. This is motivating left-wing activists like Fernandes, who were critical of the PT government, to campaign for Fernando Haddad in the second round of presidential voting. “It’s now a question,” she says, “of trying to stop this in any way possible.”