Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration as president of Brazil marks the beginning of the political year. The redrawing of the world order currently under way is increasingly adverse to democracy.
2018 confirmed the trend: liberal democracy is weakening throughout the globe. Latin America is no exception.
The wave of deterioration and setbacks that has been gathering momentum over the last year has taken place in an international and geopolitical context that has undergone a great deal of change, the pace of which quickened as a result of the 2008 recession. Its social and political consequences constitute a dire scenario for the deepening and strengthening of Western democracies.
Different sorts of populism have mushroomed here and there in recent years. A simplifying discourse, endorsing the discredit of the institutions and the elites, and including, as a sinister side to it, an authoritarian bias, is an attractive proposition for many citizens who feel vulnerable, insecure. They are afraid of a future where their national identities wither away and their jobs disappear.
Authoritarian nationalism led by heavy-handed men appears to be the privileged prescription against distrust and fear. We have seen it happening in Russia, Turkey, The Philippines, and even in India, where Narendra Modi, after suffering a setback at the recent regional elections, is now preparing for re-election by adopting populist measures.
A sharp decline of US democracy
Donald Trump, however, still remains the biggest concern as far as the international order is concerned. For decades, the US has been the guarantor of multilateralism and the world champion of freedom. Despite its biased, sometimes arrogant and even violent behaviour in defending its national interests, including dictatorships when necessary, the Pax Americana imposed a liberal world order which, in many cases, has actually favoured the spread of democracy in a globalized, open economy world.
Guantanamo and the Iraq war were precedents of democratic values degradation, but the current phase of impulsive, erratic leadership, combined with militant exceptionalism, has triggered a sharp corrosion of the US’s own democracy, and at the same time has unleashed trade wars which foreshadow not only a financially difficult forthcoming year (low growth forecasts for 2019, to say the least), but also politically highly unstable, with profound disagreements on fundamental issues (global security, migration, climate change).
The dark Russian plot which helped him win the presidential election weighs heavily on Trump. This is a very serious concern indeed, which not only delegitimizes him, but also puts him on the defensive. A consequence of this is the unprecedented volatility of the people in positions of trust at the White House. In addition, Trump’s “America first” doctrine has unleashed tensions with both rivals and allies, indistinctly.
The US withdrawal from a number of critical joint-action consensus points on the international agenda is proving catastrophic. See the denunciation of the Paris agreements on climate change, or of the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Contempt for the traditional allies, the return of the arms race, the alignment with Israeli policy on the Middle East, and the connivance with the Saudi monarchy despite the Khashoggi case and the war in Yemen are further examples. And the (intended) abrupt pulling out from Syria would leave the region in the hands of Russia and its allies, Iran and Turkey. In all, a bleak and disconcerting picture which the surprising (and positive) distension with North Korea does not compensate.
But the domestic decline of US democracy is also quite obvious. As a result of the country’s most extreme polarization ever, we have witnessed a practically total absence of consensus on State matters, the practical disappearance of bipartisanship, and a no-concessions takeover of the regulators, including the Supreme Court.
The systematic, irresponsible use of a Twitter account beyond diplomatic or Pentagon control, quite often laden with lies and visceral reactions, only exacerbates existing tensions. At the same time, the continuous attacks on the free press hasten the collapse of truth, already shattered and ravaged in the social media, and in so doing contribute to the blowing up of a fundamental pillar of democratic society.
And the situation will probably worsen in 2019, prior to getting better.
The president is cornered by investigations on sex, lies and videotapes that go beyond the meddling of the Kremlin, and Congress is now in the hands of the opposition. The democrats, most likely, will start impeachment proceedings that, although they will finally collapse in the Senate, will probably put the current administration in serious difficulties.
A deterioration of the economic environment is to be added to the instability and unpredictability in place in Washington. After a strong upward cycle brought about by tax reductions and a number of concessions to big lobbies and billionaire friends, including the dismantling of some of the (faint) market regulations established after the 2007-2008 crash, a rise in interest rates and financial destabilization are being anticipated.
Uncertainty in Europe, and the geopolitical context
To the extent that the US has ceased to be a model of democracy, concern in Europe is apparent. The Brexit chaos (even though, in my opinion, the British will avoid throwing themselves off the cliff at the eleventh hour) represents a very severe blow to the common European project, which, nonetheless, remains standing.
This is perhaps the best piece of news. Although the European elections in May will see a significant increase of the presence of populists and nationalists in the European Parliament, especially of the emerging far right spectrum, the centrist bloc will continue to constitute the majority of the chamber and will surely work to strengthen European citizenship and ensure peace and (some) prosperity.
Yet the far right’s entry into some European governments, the anti-immigration and anti-European populist coalition in Italy, or the unexpected rise of VOX far-right party in Spain, are taking place in a particularly unhelpful geopolitical context.
Europe, no longer enjoying US protection and bearing the brunt of British reluctance, must find its own way with greater resolve in 2019.
The other global power blocs in what is now, decidedly, a multipolar world – the US, China and, to a lesser extent, Russia (which has a keen interest in destabilizing the European Union and embraces the emulators of its illiberal democracy – Hungary, Poland…) -, do not guarantee any more the stability of the multilateral order inherited from the Second World War and the ensuing Cold War. Europe, no longer enjoying US protection and bearing the brunt of British reluctance, must find its own way with greater resolve in 2019.
Facing a potentially serious downturn in the coming year, it is anybody’s guess what capacity to provide agreed solutions the leaders of China and the US, entangled as they are in a trade war, will have, considering moreover the fact that some prominent members of the G20 such as Brazil, Mexico or Italy are now governed by populists.
Donald Trump’s attitude at the last G7 was downright insulting, and after the very mediocre results of the 2018 meeting organized by Argentina (now yet again ruined and intervened by the IMF), the prospects of reaching positive agreements in the next G20, which Japan will host in 2019, are to say the least scarce.
¿And what about Latin America?
In this adverse scenario, but in a peripheral situation that could stave off some discomfort, what are the prospects for Latin America in 2019?
The 2018 intense electoral cycle brought some substantial changes. The election results in Colombia produced a shift further to the right, thus weakening crucial aspects of the implementation of the 2016 historic peace agreements with the FARC. In Mexico and, especially, in Brazil, the election produced uncertain perspectives, albeit of an opposite sign.
In May, Nicolás Maduro’s reelection in Venezuela took place with little guarantees and in a very difficult context, in which the country’s deepening economic and political crisis generated a humanitarian and migratory crisis never seen before in the region, to the point that the Lima Group met last week to ask Maduro not to take office this month.
With inflation hitting the 1.000.000% mark and a sharp drop in oil prices in the last few months, the prospects for 2019 are even gloomier. The vital questions seem to be: How much more suffering is the Chavista regime willing to inflict on the population for the sake of staying in power? How much more Russian support, Chinese credit and Cuban solidarity could it hope to get?
The deadlock in Venezuela has been followed by a relatively unexpected yet very deep crisis in Nicaragua. Ortega has unveiled the most horrific face of its regime, which seems interested in doing away with any remnants of democracy, and using repression as the only political response to the malaise of the population, some of which has already decided to flee to the North before it is too late.
The unvailing migration crisis was evident in the caravans heading North from Honduras, a repressive regime backed by the Unites States. Also some caravans left El Salvador and, to a lesser extent, Guatemala, yet all of them prompted Latin Americans’ solidarity in their wake.
For his part, López Obrador, whose victory at the elections was at the same time overwhelming and hopeful for many Mexicans, shows populist vigour in some of his proposed measures (i.e., debatable plebiscites and a substantive reduction of the salaries of senior officials, starting with his own), but he has so far proven cautious with Uncle Sam.
AMLO is willing to avoid confrontation, both on immigration and economic issues. The Mexican president is well aware of his country’s huge dependence on the economic behemoth of the North. Along with a prudent fiscal policy, the unforeseen swift signing of a new free trade agreement will prove essential to carry out the ambitious internal reforms he has promised.
If AMLO, true to his leftist background and strong popular support, is able to improve some key aspects of Mexican public life (corruption, security) and govern for the sake of all its citizens and not for that of the privileged classes, as has been the case in the last decades, his ambitious Fourth Transformation will start in 2019.
But the biggest earthquake was undoubtedly the unexpected coming to power of the far-right national-populist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who has just taken office in January and whose first steps as president are marking the worrying direction of a highly polarized country.
The major concern now in Brazil is not so much the economy, but how the divisive “Us vs.Them” politics is going to translate into practice, and whether the alarming campaign promises are going to actually become government measures.
Among the several factors that produced Bolsonaro’s astonishing election victory, the following should be noted: a recessive cycle the intensity of which Brazil’s economy had never known, an equally unprecedented epidemic of violence (64.000 violent deaths in 2017), huge and widespread corruption, and the wide-ranging social expenditure cuts carried out by the last governments which hit a large part of the population.
But the Brazil’s economic cycle is nearing recovery. The liberalizing orthodoxy and the privatizing mood, faithfully in line with the University of Chicago doctrines, have created great expectations among both national and foreign investors. If and when these measures are finally approved by the structurally fragmented Brazilian Congress, they could boost an upward economic cycle, which will be cheered on by the markets, especially if the measures are accompanied by a pension reform that every economic expert and international financial regulator have been demanding for years (pensions in Brazil currently are taking more than half of the federal budget).
The major concern in Brazil is not so much the economy, but how the divisive “Us and Them” politics is going to translate into practice, and whether the most alarming campaign promises are going to become government measures.
The consequences on human and civil rights, on black and indigenous minorities, on the protection of the environment and the preservation of demarcations in the vast Amazon region, and on guarantees on the rightful exercise of justice and the behaviour of the police, could entail, it is feared, a quick decline of the democratic conditions that no upward economic cycle would prevent.
Yet, like any democratically elected president, would Bolsonaro earn his 100 days of grace? We will see if and how far pragmatism prevails over rage and far-right fury.
At the gates of fascism?
But if the Bolsonaro government acts violently, as some expect, then we shall be close to seeing his far right populism cross the red line separating it from fascism. After all, it has all the components noted by Yale professor Jason Stanley in his recent book How Fascism Works.
We are witnessing a re-creation of a mythical past (the merry “order and progress” country which was allegedly brought by the dictatorship in Brazil), and an appropriation of the flag and the fatherland. Propaganda and anti-intellectualism are advancing. Schools and universities that do not agree with the ideas of the ruler are being put under surveillance, at the same time as reality and reasoned debate are collapsing through the onslaughts on the press, the spread of hate speech in social media, and the validation of all sorts of conspiracy theories.
To this should be added the naturalization of group differences feeding on the racism rooted in a large part of Brazilian society, which establishes as “normal” a hierarchy that defends differences between the value of one’s life and the life of others and contains a sexual anxiety which imposes patriarchy and attacks diversity as “gender ideology”.
The pre-eminence, in short, of a “law and order” policy which criminalizes those who do not belong to the dominant “Us”, exploits victimhood and justifies the use of violence to combat violence. In the shadow of Trumpism, and blessed by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God evangelists, Brazil could well embody the greatest reactionary threat to democracy in the region.
These are not good news. But the situation in Europe does not resemble that of the 1930s, nor is there saber-rattling in Latin America, as in the 60s and 70s.
2019 looks full of uncertainties or, rather, there is certainty that the end of the progressive cycle will bring increased social tension and democratic regression. But the democratic and liberal order must defend itself by combating extreme polarization, valuing the centrality of truth and informed, honest debate, and forcefully protesting but constructively denouncing each time the red lines of freedom and the democratic guarantees, which have cost so much to gain, are crossed.
The great challenge is to build an exciting and encouraging counter-narrative, capable of breaking this spiral of negativity. To this end we will devote ourselves at democraciaAbierta in this foul 2019.
Francesc Badia i Dalmases is Founder, Director and Lead Editor of democraciaAbierta. Francesc is an international affairs expert, journalist and political analyst. His most recent book: “Order and disorder in the 21st century. Gobal governance in a world of anxieties”. He Tweets @fbadiad