Brazil’s shift from progressive socialism to the far-right: Why did this happen? – Ken Livingstone

6 Nov, 2018

For Brazil, the world’s fourth largest democracy, to have elected the extreme right-wing Jair Bolsonaro is stunning.

Just a decade ago Brazil’s president Lula da Silva was one of the most progressive and strongly socialist leaders in the recent history of Latin America.

Clearly a lot has gone wrong in Brazil and people feel angry but it is still amazing that people are prepared to elect someone who says that refugees are “the scum of the earth” and is prepared to say “if I see two men kissing each other in the street I’ll whack them.” Even more bizarre was his statement in May 1999 that “I’m in favour of torture.” He also talked about his five kids, saying “four of them are men but on the fifth I had a moment of weakness and it came out a woman” further claiming “I would be incapable of loving a homosexual son… I’d rather my son died in an accident than showed up with some bloke with a moustache.”

As a member of Congress and a long-standing defender of the military dictatorship he said in 1993, “Yes, I’m in favour of a dictatorship. We will never resolve grave national problems with this irresponsible democracy.” The truth is the military dictatorship which lasted from 1964 to 1985 presided over the killing and disappearance of hundreds of progressives, claiming they were trying to save their country from communism.

Bizarrely in the election campaign Bolsonaro called for his left-wing political opponents to be shot but this was just two days before he was stabbed in an assassination attempt at a mass rally. Although this meant he had to spend most of the rest of the campaign confined in hospital, it did not prevent him winning in a landslide and immediately receiving congratulations from Donald Trump. One of Bolsonaro’s first decisions was to do exactly what Trump has done and announce he will move Brazil’s Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The 63-year-old new president crushed the Workers Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, in the run-off on October 28. One of the main reasons he won so easily was that the former president Lula da Silva was not allowed to run against him because he was imprisoned on charges of corruption. Sergio Moro, the judge who sentenced Lula, has now been rewarded by being appointed the new president’s minister for justice and public security: a good reward as the opinion polls show had Lula been allowed to run he would have won.

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Apart from Lula being prevented from running by allegations of corruption and money laundering, the other main factor in Bolsonaro’s election was the collapse of the Brazilian economy over the last five years. This has been Brazil’s worse recession in over half a century and it has undoubtedly fuelled the nation’s rising crime which now sees over 60,000 murders a year. As well as public anger powering his election it also led to a landslide in the Brazilian congress where over half of its members have just been elected for the first time and sixty percent of the congress is now held by right-wing parties. Because he did not trust Brazil’s media Bolsonaro’s campaign was basically run through the internet as his main way of reaching people.

The small rump of left-wingers still in congress need to look at why this has happened. Under the presidency of Lula da Silva there was a huge reduction in poverty and inequality but that did not stop his successor failing to cope with Brazil’s recession or crack down on the corruption scandals. Although the left only have a quarter of the seats in congress they have won majorities in the local states of north east Brazil and the Amazon. They need to stand up strongly against the rise in hate crime that has surged because of the rhetoric of Bolsonaro. A big surge in physical violence against gays, lesbians and women’s activists may continue to rise unless Bolsonaro is prepared to crack down on right-wing extremists, but don’t hold your breath. Most significantly, the left have to reach out to the thirteen million unemployed.

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Bolsonaro’s key appointment as his minister of finance is Paulo Guedes, a neo-liberal economist in favour of privatising state companies and changing Brazil’s pension scheme. He is also committed to freezing state spending for twenty years. Most worryingly is Bolsonaro’s policy to make it easier for people to obtain guns. This in a country where sixty thousand are murdered every year is truly scary. But it’s not just murderers who do the killing, last year the police gunned down and killed 5,144 people. Last year also saw 445 gays and lesbians murdered.

Bolsonaro has inherited a country in chaos, but the fear is that he is likely to make it worse and it will not just be the people of Brazil who will suffer but the whole world. It is his policy towards the environment and climate change that may become the biggest threat to life across the planet.

If he goes ahead with an earlier plan to merge the ministries of agriculture and environment this would mean the interests of large agricultural companies would come before tackling climate change. Bolsonaro’s failure to accept the significance of climate change for our future may cost his grandchildren their lives by the end of the century.

The president constantly attacks environmental agencies and has said he wishes to open up the Amazon rainforest with a massive hydroelectric programme of dams. Building dams in the Amazon will mean major new highways and much of the rainforest would be destroyed. He will support big business rather than preserving Brazil’s bio diversity and is committed to allowing the market to exploit Brazil’s vast natural resources. This will be devastating for the indigenous tribes still living in the Amazon region. Lula’s government stood strongly against demands to extract vast natural resources which would have had a devastating impact on climate change globally.

I find it breathtaking to think that politicians in power, not just in Brazil, but in many places around the world, are prepared to take decisions which could see a mass extinction of humanity by the end of the century. Here in Britain, our government has just launched a new policy of extracting shale gas by fracking after having reduced spending on green energy projects. Norway is pressing ahead with oil exploitation and Germany is increasing its coal mining.

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Climate scientists across the world have warned that we have only twelve years left to reduce carbon emissions or see a huge surge in global warming. As things stand the widespread commitment of governments to limit the increase in global warming to 1.5 centigrade has no chance of being achieved because of their failure to act decisively and immediately.

This year, thousands have lost their lives in weather-related disasters – storms, floods, hurricanes and forest fires. And all of this after just a one degree increase in temperature. Based on the timid policies to tackle climate change around the world we are clearly heading for at least a three degree increase and possibly even four or five degrees by the end of the century. Such an increase would see the collapse of human civilisation. And yet still we see all around the world governments actually making things worse with Trump undermining his Environmental Protection Agency, allowing industry to move into national parks and cutting pollution controls.

It’s not just presidents like Bolsonaro who are putting the lives of his children and grandchildren at risk. The directors and chief executives of those companies continuing to pump more and more carbon into our atmosphere are also putting the lives of their own children and grandchildren at risk. I find it hard to believe that people can be so short-sighted and focused only on their own short term interests.

* Ken Livingstone is an English politician, he served as the Mayor of London between 2000 and 2008. He is also a former MP and a former member of the Labour Party.

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