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Political violence is back with a vengeance in South America, as death threats abound, coups d’états are foretold and assassination attempts are carried out.
Less than a month before going head-to-head with incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s former (and quite possibly future) President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — Lula for short — has warned that political violence in Brazil is being normalized. This was after a voter for Lula’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) was stabbed to death by a work colleague and fervent Bolsonaro supporter last Wednesday. In a press conference on Friday Lula laid the blame for the rising “culture of political violence” sweeping Brazil on Bolsonaro, his main rival in next month’s general elections:
“Before, there was no culture of violence. This is happening now and [it happened] in 2018, and it is not our doing. This is very serious. I hope that the Police and electoral system are attentive and also the electoral system, to see if there is order [to the events], guidance, if it is [part of] a political strategy.”
The murder, committed in a rural area of Mato Grosso, is the second homicide of the electoral campaign so far. In late July another Bolsonaro supporter shot a PT militant in Foz de Iguazú. Lula himself has received numerous death threats as well as complaints of political “provocations” at bus stops and other public spaces. He also mentioned the case of a pastor who threatened to expel members of his congregation from the church if they vote for PT, as well as a landowner who threatened to fire his workers.
On Sept. 7, Bolsonaro organized a huge campaign event to mark the bicentennial of Brazil’s independence, which drew hundreds of thousands of supporters from Rio de Janiero, São Paulo and Brasília. At the event, which mingled military parades with political rallies, Bolsonaro told his supporters that he will never be taken prisoner, presumably in allusion to the ongoing investigations into his escalating attacks against Brazil’s electoral system. He also said that “history could repeat itself,” in reference to the military coup Brazil suffered in 1964, which paved the way to 21 years of military dictatorship.
Many leftist leaders urged their supporters to avoid clashes by refraining from participating in the counter-demonstrations organized for the same day. But with more than a month to go before the elections and tensions rising as the race between Lula and Bolsonaro tightens, the risk of further clashes is high. But Brazil is not the only country in the region to have seen a recent surge in political violence:
- In Argentina, the former President (and current Vice President) Christina Fernández de Kirchner — who is often referred to as CFK — was the target of a botched assassination attempt in late August. Both the author of the crime, Fernando Sabag Montiel, and his girlfriend (and alleged accomplice), Brenda Uliarte, have been charged with attempted murder. CFK is far and away the most prominent political figure in Argentina and is loved and hated in equal measure. If the assassination attempt had succeeded, the blowback would have been brutal. Like Brazil, Argentina is a powder keg waiting to explode. With an official inflation rate of 71% and the Argentine peso, if anything, accelerating its terminal decline, its economy is in tatters. Ninety-five percent of respondents to an IPSOS poll said the economy was in bad shape in August. The government is considering requesting yet another IMF loan. Against such a backdrop and with many of the country’s corporate media more than happy to exacerbate tensions and divisions, it is hardly a surprise that Argentina is passing through a period of extreme political polarization.
- In Chile, Simón Boric, a journalist who also happens to be the brother of the country’s recently elected President Gabriel Boric, was attacked in the street by a group of youths. Also in Chile, more than 100 MPs have reportedly received death threats in an apparent attempt to derail the rewriting of Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution. The new constitution was rejected at first blush by an overwhelming majority of Chilean voters, but the weakened Boric government is determined to draw up a new proposed charter “that unites us as a country”.
- In Colombia, an advance security team belonging to Colombian President Gustavo Petro was sprayed with gunfire in the Catatumbo region, on the border with Venezuela, a couple of weeks ago. A former Marxist guerrilla, Petro received numerous death threats on the campaign trail, including from a narco-paramilitary group called Eje Cafetero Colombiano. Given the number of presidential candidates who were assassinated during Colombia’s decades-long conflict between the government, far-right paramilitary groups (with close ties to the Colombian military), crime syndicates, and far-left guerrilla groups — Álvaro Gómez Hurtado (1995), Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa (1990), Luis Carlos Galán (1989), Jaime Pardo Leal (1987) — the threats were taken very seriously.
The first leftist leader in Colombia’s history, Petro knows he has a gargantuan task ahead of him. He also has limited room for manoeuvre. His coalition government has to govern a country that faces rapidly slowing economic growth, surging inflation and a plunging peso. It is also a country that has been at war with itself, on and off, for almost 60 years. Despite the peace deal signed in late 2016 between Bogota and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC–EP), a low-intensity asymmetric war continues to rage between the government, far-right paramilitary groups, crime syndicates, and far-left guerrilla groups.
Petro also has the unenviable challenging of keeping Colombia’s longtime sugar daddy, the US government, on board while somehow calling an end to the US-sponsored drug war in Colombia and trying to fix relations with Colombia’s eastern neighbor, Venezuela, whose President Nicolás Maduro is still a wanted man in Washington.
After intense negotiations over recent weeks, Petro and Maduro have agreed to fully reopen their countries’ shared borders on September 26, for the first time since February 2019, when Colombia’s then-president (and staunch US ally) Ivan Duque helped Venezuela’s self-proclaimed “interim president” Juan Guaido try to get USAID-supplied aid into Venezuela, which Maduro denounced as a precursor to a US-led military intervention.
Petro has also launched an ambitious plan to broker what he calls “total peace”, by bringing an end to Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict and improving public security in the countryside. If anything, the opposite appears to be happening. According to local and international media, violence is on the rise, not just in the countryside but also in major cities including the capital, Bogota. Per Spanish news agency EFE (translation by yours truly):
Colombia is experiencing an unusual spike in violence by common criminals and drug gangs. They have committed several massacres in recent days that, unlike those of the armed conflict, are occurring not only in rural areas but also in urban centers.
The appearance of dismembered bodies in Bogotá, fourteen massacres committed in just over a month and multiple robberies in crowded places are among the crimes that have plagued a country in which the Gustavo Petro Government is yet to clearly set out its security policy.
Meanwhile, Back in Brazil…
Bolsonaro appears to be losing the support of most of Brazil’s business elite, the corporate media both at home and abroad and even members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. The strong-arm president’s constant broadsides against Brazil’s electronic voting system have also poisoned his relations with Brazil’s Supreme Court. In late August, the Supreme Court Judge Alexander De Moraes ordered police to raid the houses and offices of eight businessmen who are suspected of being part of a WhatsApp group that discussed the benefits of staging a coup d’état if Bolsonaro loses the October election against Lula da Silva.
As Jacobin reported last week in “Jair Bolsonaro Is Laying the Groundwork for a Coup in Brazil“, a number of public letters have also been published by private groups admonishing Bolsonaro for his mismanagement of the economy:
One notable open letter criticizing Bolsonaro, “Manifesto for Democracy,” released by the State University of São Paulo, has been signed by over seven hundred thousand people, including agricultural lobbyists and representatives of many banking and financial institutions. Though some stalwarts of Bolsonarism remain faithful to the president — such as the reactionary owner of the retail giant Havan, Luciano Hang, who pressured his employees to vote for Bolsonaro in 2018 — many more figures have repudiated the incumbent and are even openly supporting the left-wing opposition they once despised.
The irony is palpable. After all, Bolsonaro’s first term in government was largely the result of a soft coup against Lula. As an exposé last year by The Intercept revealed, the now-disgraced Operation Car Wash criminal investigation, partly orchestrated by the US Department of Justice, led to the downfall of Dilma Rousseff’s government and the imprisonment of Lula just as he was preparing to run for office again, leaving the coast clear for an anti-establishment populist like Bolsonaro to win the 2018 election with a landslide.
But it seems even the Blob may be running out of patience with Bolsonaro. Like Brazil’s business establishment, it increasingly views Lula as a safer pair of hands. This process has intensified as Lula has shown himself willing to court the support of just about anybody who opposes Bolsonaro, including his choice for running mate, Geraldo Alckmin, the former governor of São Paulo who was one of the main pillars of the neoliberal PSDB long opposed to the PT. But Lula’s broad church approach risks alienating many on the left, as the Jacobin piece notes, as the Jacobin piece notes:
For those of us on the Left, it’s obvious that the Lula of 2022 is not the same politician who won the presidency in 2002 — who, in turn, it must be acknowledged, was no longer the icon of Brazilian socialists in the 1980s and ’90s, when he first emerged as a trade union leader and national political candidate during the PT’s early years.
In Washington, a group of Democratic lawmakers have inserted an amendment into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 that makes continuation of all US military aid to Brazil in 2023 contingent on non-interference by the Brazilian military in the presidential elections.
Last week, a group of 39 lawmakers sent a letter to Joe Biden urging him to make it “unequivocally clear to President Bolsonaro, his administration, and Brazilian security forces that Brazil will find itself isolated from the US and the international community of democracies should there be any attempts to subvert the country’s electoral process.”
Of course, these lawmakers represent less than 10% of the 535 members of the US Congress. But they do include Senate President pro tempore Patrick Leahy and Representative Albio Sires, who currently serves as chairman of the House Committee Responsible for Western Affairs.
For the moment there is no way of knowing with any great certainty how the Biden administration will react if Bolsonaro does refuse to accept electoral defeat and calls upon the military to thwart the voters’ will. Ominously, Washington dispatched its coup specialist Victoria Nuland to Brasilia in late April on a “diplomatic mission” aimed at bringing Brazil closer to US foreign policy (and presumably away from Russia). If anything, the opposite has happened: Bolsonaro has refused to endorse sanctions against Russia while imports of Russian goods — mainly fuel and fertilizers — have done nothing but grow.
Nor is there any way of knowing if, when push comes to shove, Bolsonaro will opt for the nuclear option of launching a coup, or indeed whether the military will oblige. As the NYT recently pointed out in the bizarrely titled article, “Bolsonaro Isn’t Preparing for a Coup, He’s Preparing for a Revolution”, Bolsonaro has many supporters in the military and over 6,000 military personnel occupying civilian roles in his government. If he does launch a military coup, Brazil’s relatively young, relatively weak democratic institutions will face their toughest test yet.