In Argentina, once the poster child for neoliberalism, Alberto Fernández, a left-Peronist, won the October 2019 elections. In Chile and Ecuador, mass streets protests are pushing a clearly left agenda. And in recent days intense political drama has played out in Brazil and Bolivia.
In Brazil, the release of the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, from prison on what have now been shown to be deliberately fabricated charges of corruption, has been a huge boost for the left. Lula, a former leader of the metalworkers’ union in Brazil, was elected as president in 2002. His workers’ party, known as the PT, enjoyed the support of the industrial working class, rural peasants, urban shantytown residents and progressive intellectuals.
His presidency saw millions lifted out of poverty and significant changes to Brazil’s entrenched racial order. Lula became a global inspiration for the left, including here in South Africa where some particularly deluded academics and trade unionists once argued that Jacob Zuma could usher in a “Lula moment” in South Africa.
There are strong connections between the metalworkers’ union in Brazil and our metalworkers’ union here in South Africa. Also, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, the movement of the landless in Brazil, which is strongly pro-Lula, has a longstanding and close relationship with our landless movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. These close connections mean that what happens in Brazil contributes to shaping the thinking of trade unionists and grassroots activists in South Africa.
In 2016, the long era of the PT in government came to an end as Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff, a former communist guerrilla who later joined the PT, was removed from office via what many scholars termed a “legal coup”. The following year Lula was sent to prison on what turned out to have been bogus corruption charges. The right was back in power and with the left demoralised, the far right-wing Jair Bolsonaro was elected as President in 2018.
The release of Lula from prison on Friday is a huge blow to Bolsonaro and a boon to the left in Brazil because Lula remains popular with the Brazilian people. Numerous opinion polls show that had he been allowed to run against Bolsonaro in 2018 he would have won a decisive victory. Lula has the singular capacity to bring the Brazilian left together and inspire it to bring Bolsonaro down. If this happens it will be a major setback for the new right-wing axis led by Donald Trump in the United States and Narendra Modi in India.
In Bolivia, there are ructions of a very different kind. In 2006 Evo Morales was elected, on a left-wing platform, as the first indigenous President of Bolivia. His deputy, García Linera, also a former Marxist guerrilla, is a major left-wing intellectual. Like Lula, Morales has run a government that has lifted millions out of poverty and effectively challenged racial domination. Critics have argued that while the Morales government has effectively redistributed wealth by nationalising key hydrocarbon industries, it has not done away with extractive industries.
Morales also made a significant error in building a giant presidential palace in the historic centre of the capital La Paz. Covering the glass skyscraper with indigenous symbols has not disguised the fact that the president now lives in luxury in a building that reeks of the aesthetic of corporate power. However, it is undeniable that nationalisation and other measures have improved the lives of millions.
Morales won the October 2019 election, but the right has disputed his claim that he won by a sufficient margin to avoid a run-off. In recent days the right has mobilised its supporters to take to the streets, and the protesters won the support of some factions in the armed forces. Morales was forced to step down.
In a widely circulated statement, leading intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad have argued that Morales was facing a coup, driven by “fascist” mobs on the streets and supported by the US government.
Earlier this year, the Venezuelan government, already under huge pressure from US sanctions, was able to survive a similar situation.
But whatever happens in the next few days it is clear that, in Latin America, we are witnessing the “rebirth of history”. The return of the left is not an exclusively Latin American phenomenon. In England, Jeremy Corbyn could lead Labour to victory in the next election on an avowedly left-wing platform.
In the US, the campaign for Bernie Sanders to run for the Democrats against Trump in the next election continues to gather momentum and to inspire a generation of young intellectuals to turn to socialist ideas.
Here in South Africa, there is no genuine left-wing party in Parliament. No serious analyst takes the claims by the ANC or the EFF to be on the left seriously. The ANC is torn between a neoliberal faction that represents the interest of capital and a faction of corrupt nationalists that represents nothing but its own predatory interests.
The EFF, now openly aligned to the corrupt nationalists in the ANC, is also a predatory formation misusing the language of the left to try and win credibility.
But internationally, the wheel of history is turning. And while all internationalists follow global events keenly, the strong links between trade unions and social movements in Brazil and South Africa mean that what happens in Brazil is of particular importance to the left in South Africa.
If the Communist Party could finally find the gumption to break with the ANC and throw in its lot with the independent trade unions organised in SAFTU, along with Abahlali baseMjondolo, by far the largest social movement in the country, and win over the progressive intelligentsia, the South African left could be back in the game. And this could change our politics.
But now the left, as Linera said of the left in Bolivia in the 1990s, are observers rather than participants in politics. DM
Fist bumps are more hygienic than high fives or handshakes.