The current political crisis in Brazil is the most sustained antidemocratic surge since the military dictatorship, as new book Voices of the Brazilian Left painstakingly details.
My new book, Voices of the Brazilian Left, represents the culmination of 22 years living in Brazil and interacting with people from the Brazilian organised left, both as a development professional and as an activist journalist. The questions asked in the unstructured interviews with 15 union and social movement leaders, organic intellectuals and media critics that form the basis of the book were based on my learning through this long process of participant observation.
In 2016 a corrupt, conservative Brazilian Congress impeached its first woman president, Dilma Rousseff. There was overwhelming evidence that what had just happened was illegal. Shortly after taking office, President Michel Temer gave a speech at the corporate think tank AS/COA (producer of Americas Quarterly) in New York in which he said that President Rousseff was impeached, not over the official accusations of a non-impeachable infraction called ‘fiscal peddling’, but because she failed to support his party’s Washington Consensus-style economic plan. In other words, the president himself publicly admitted that the impeachment was a sham. Nevertheless, when Rousseff was removed from office the messages in the Northern media, repeated like mantra, were: the impeachment was a legal process; Brazil’s democratic institutions are working; the Brazilian people have won a victory in the fight against corruption. Immediately after taking office, Michel Temer butchered public health and education spending while raising salaries for the corrupt judiciary that had put him in office by R$57 billion, and shelled R$1 Trillion in tax abatement out to foreign oil companies. The Northern media cheer-leading continued. It either categorically rejected the idea that what happened was a coup, or as in the case of the Guardian, implied that it was something only the Brazilian left believed had happened and put the word in quotation marks. As Temer set labour rights back 70 years and his approval rating dropped to 4 per cent, a chorus of northern journalists with no formal training in economics gushed a new mantra: he’s unpopular, but he’s pushing through important economic reforms.
There is no doubt that the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ of radical and centre-left governments that from the late-1990s spread throughout the region is being pushed back, supported by international capital and the US government. The rise of ultra-neoliberal governments is a continent-wide phenomenon that is not limited to Brazil and not primarily a result of the ‘people’s frustration with corruption’, which seems to be the new US tactic for slandering democratically-elected governments with the collapse of moral authority on human rights issues and torture. The current Brazilian government – which is rolling back decades of gains in women’s, Afro-Brazilian, environmental, indigenous, small farmers, and labour rights – is more a result of conservatives’ inability to win four consecutive democratic presidential elections than any kind of
An introduction to Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s book A Narco History.
‘To our fallen comrades, who were not buried, but seeded, to make freedom flourish’, reads the poignant inscription on the entryway of the teacher training school in Ayotzinapa. The kidnapping and disappearance of the 43 student-teachers has become a cause célèbre like few others in Mexico’s recent history, sparking horror and mass protests across the world.
Yet the disappearances of the Ayotzinapa students is just one of a litany of egregious abuses in Mexico’s human rights catastrophe of recent years. According to figures from Amnesty International, 60,000 people were killed between 2006 and 2012, while 26,500 have ‘disappeared’ since 2007. So what made ordinary Mexicans finally declare ¡Ya basta!? ‘In part it was precisely because of the long train of abuses that had preceded it – the patently metastasizing cancers of corruption and criminality – of which people had finally had enough’, argue Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace in A Narco History.
Sprawling in narrative scope but succinct in its explanation, the book offers a torrid reminder of the pervasive violence which clamps Mexico in a vice. Boullosa and Wallace sketch the historical contours of the social, political and ideological transformations against which the Ayotzinapa atrocity occurred. Opting for chronological narrative rather than academic analysis, Boullosa and Wallace write in prose which is concise, informal and occasionally sardonic in tone. In broad, linear strokes they detail how a century’s worth of US cross-border intrigues have fuelled narco-activity under the pretence of curbing it.
But though the ‘drug war’ is named as Mexican, the authors remind us that it is sustained at its core by US foreign policy operating in tandem with Mexican elites. Resistance against this power nexus of politics, government, security services and drug cartels ends in abrupt retribution for those who try.
While Mexican history has long been tainted by state repression, going back to the Revolution (1910-1920) and beyond, it is in the neoliberal (‘counter-revolution’) era that violence and criminality have become institutionalised on an unprecedented scale. The contentious North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is identified by Boullosa and Wallace as a crucial juncture in the historical trajectory establishing Mexico’s economic inter-dependence on the US, as well as sharpening socio-economic inequalities at home. It represents the apogee of an economic arc dominated by a neoliberal ideology which privileges the few at the expense of the many. In 1987 there was one Mexican on the Forbes billionaire list; by 1994 there were 24. NAFTA also nullified the agrarian reforms that constituted a major legacy of the Revolution, a hard-fought victory by the (original) Zapatistas in the revolutionary period.
From 2008, the War of Drugs in Mexico, waged by the US and Mexican elites, intensified. In graphic language we are told ‘the lines between combatants and civilians blurred, disappeared. At times it seemed a war of all against all. It also grew steadily more monstrous. The mound of corpses and body parts rose to epochal proportions. The roughly seventy thousand who died – more
Samuel Grove interviews George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, George Ciccariello-Maher, about the Bolivarian Revolution.
Samuel Grove: Who is the ‘we’ that this book is about?
The “we” that “created Chávez” in my title refers to the “people” of the subtitle, but this is an answer that simply begs more questions. Namely, who is or are the Venezuelan people? Thinkers like Paolo Virno and Hardt and Negri insist, on the basis of European history, that “the people” is a conservative category, one that is unitary and unifying, one that excludes difference and upholds the state. In Latin America in general, and Venezuela in particular, this has not been the case. Instead, while the concept of the people has been used by some toward such ends, it has also been mobilized by others toward the opposite. The people, or el pueblo, has also served as the fundamental category for popular resistance and combat, much more so than either strictly national or class identities, although it involves some of both.
This double-meaning of the people, in which the pueblo is itself a terrain of struggle to be fought over, is also itself doubled in the radical resignification of the national anthem, ‘Gloria al Bravo Pueblo’ (‘Glory to the Brave People’). In Venezuela, bravo also means angry or fed-up, and so as popular resistance developed in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of the brave people was increasingly replaced with the idea of a broad class of poor and oppressed people unwilling to accept the status quo. In fact, in the popular rebellion in 1989 known as the Caracazo, which was the fundamental moment that catapulted the Bolivarian Revolution to national prominence, graffiti appeared in Caracas reading ‘el pueblo está bravo’ (‘the people are fed-up’).
SG: You began your history of the people’s struggle with the establishment of representative democracy in 1958; that is after the popular uprising that brought down the Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship. Why?
In writing a history of popular struggles, there is a danger of infinite regress, and in We Created Chávez, I occasionally point back to even the first moments of colonisation and the indigenous and later slave resistance that developed in Venezuela. But my starting point is above all 1958, which might seem counterintuitive since it marked the beginning of stable formal representative democracy in Venezuela. The reason is that this is still, after all, a history of our present, a history that seeks out the basic parameters of struggle that constitute the Bolivarian Revolution, and one fundamental aspect of this is the critique of and resistance to a certain understanding of democracy.
After 1958, it became perfectly clear that formal representative democracy would not solve the problems of capitalism and imperialism that plagued Venezuelan history, and moreover that this form of democracy soon became a barrier to the expression of popular demands from below. As a result, many of those who participated in the overthrow of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958 found themselves within two short years in the mountains,