Two years ago, I sat in a classroom in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and listened as Brazilian university students analyzed the election of US President Donald Trump on an international scale. It was the day after Trump was elected and I was still trying to wrap my brain around the outcome. I felt isolated from my country both physically and emotionally. The students spoke about a right-wing shift the world was undergoing, basing their arguments on their own political atmosphere – which had just seen their leftist president impeached – and the trends they were studying in England, France, and their own region. They predicted that their own country would again shift to the right in their next election, foreshadowing the results of Brazil’s presidential election on October 28.
Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election last weekend with 55.1% of votes against the leftist Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad’s 44.8%. Bolsonaro garnered attention during his campaign for his firm stance on combating the nation’s violence and ridding the government of corruption, which has indicted many high-level politicians since 2014. However, Bolsonaro is also known for his blunt, homophobic, racist, and sexist statements and is referred to as the “Trump of the Tropics” for the similarities in the two politicians’ rhetoric and campaign tactics. Bolsonaro’s election represents the most dramatic political shift in Brazil since it restored democracy in 1988, but the nation is not alone in its turn away from the left. Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and the United States have all recently elected conservative leaders, and this trend sparks questions as to why this shift is occurring and what it could mean for the Western Hemisphere.
What is happening?
The Latin American region has historically seen its politics move in waves, as a political pendulum between left and right-wing politics. The most recent swing was seen through the Pink Tide during the late 1990s and 2000s where left-leaning populist politicians swept into power in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia on social welfare and anti-neoliberalism platforms. However, a new form of populism has emerged today as a conservative movement that is forcing the pendulum back to the right. Powered by social media and discontent with political corruption and poor economies, leaders such as Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Sebastián Piñera in Chile, Iván Duque in Colombia, Donald Trump in the United States, and now Jair Bolsonaro have created a right-wing wave throughout the hemisphere.
The Far-Right in action
While these leaders promise economic stability, democratic transparency, and reduced violence, many of their proposed policies and their rhetoric seem counterproductive. Macri promised to restore Argentina’s economy, but under his presidency, the country has fallen into a deeper recession with inflation expected to reach over 40 percent by the end of the year. Duque campaigned on a platform of revising the 2016 peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but has not followed through on his promise, as many former rebels are returning to arms. Bolsonaro pledged to rid Brazil’s government of corruption by driving his political opponents into exile, yet maintains he will be a “defender of the Constitution, democracy and liberty.” As a supporter of the former military dictatorship that ruled Brazil until 1988, Bolsonaro’s statements seem to negate each other and many question if he will bring a return of authoritarianism to the country. Moreover, a main campaign symbol for Bolsonaro was the finger gun he flaunted in every photo and at every rally. This finger gun symbolizes his promise to fight the country’s severe violence problem, which broke its own record this year in number of homicides. Bolsonaro’s solution to the high homicide rate is to loosen gun control laws and give police more authority to kill criminals. In Bolsonaro’s words, “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” Yet, violence begets violence and Bolsonaro experienced this first-hand when he was stabbed at a campaign rally in September.
Human Rights within Far-Right Politics
Along with statements for economic stability and anti-corruption, this wave of right-wing candidates has openly made racist, homophobic, and sexist comments that have been reciprocated by many. During Trump’s campaign in 2016 and throughout his presidency, he has openly made derogatory statements towards immigrants, women, Jewish people, and LGBTQ people that has led to hate crimes throughout the country. Bolsonaro has also received significant attention for his offensive comments and was even charged with inciting hatred by the country’s attorney general earlier this year. “The feeling is all fear. My friends, my family … Everybody is feeling this,” Tuane Tain Bessi, a Brazilian school teacher, told me as we discussed the election. Many worry that with an open misogynist, racist, homophobe as their president violence will increase in the form of hate crimes and they fear for their safety.
During the election in Brazil, women throughout the country banded together through #EleNão (#NotHim). Several million women used the hashtag #EleNão to show their disapproval with Bolsonaro and his sexist comments. The online movement manifested in protests throughout the nation as Brazilians of all ages came together “to fight against homophobia, in favor of black people, for democracy and against the oppressor,” as one protestor explained. Brazil is not alone in this rise of public manifestations for women’s rights. Since 2015, Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) has been an influential movement throughout Argentina as a call to end femicide. The movement has spread throughout the region with mass demonstrations in Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Even as influential as Ni Una Menos has become, the fundamental problem still exists. This year, female activist Marielle Franco was assassinated in Brazil and her murder remains unsolved, Argentina’s government voted down a bill to legalize abortion, and 12 women a day are the victims of femicide in Latin America. In the United States, #MeToo has acted as a voice for survivors of sexual violence. However, it took over 10 years for #MeToo to gain national attention when high-profile, affluent women began speaking out about their experiences with sexual harassment and led to the resignation of numerous male actors and politicians. Even as sexual assault has become more publicly condemned, the movement continues to face setbacks, such as Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court despite being accused of sexual assault by multiple women.
What is next?
What does this wave of right-wing leaders mean for the future of women’s, LGBTQ, and minority rights? Strong movements against hatred exist and their influence has spread throughout the world, but in order to persist in their goals they must remain steadfast despite offensive language, violence, and oppression. “This is a time when anything you say matters, needs to be listened to, and people need to know that we cannot fear repression. We are millions,” declared Tuane Tain Bessi. There is proof progress is being made in terms of human rights. Uruguay recently passed a law giving rights to trans people and there are a historic number of women running for office in the US midterm elections. However, it is essential these movements maintain their voice and momentum as the hemisphere’s political pendulum swings right.
Photo via Wikimedia