Is the ‘pink tide’ returning to Latin America?

With popular uprisings erupting in Chile and Ecuador, and Left-leaning governments re-established in Bolivia and Argentina, Brazilian academic and activist Emir Sader shares his views with Vanessa Baird on what this means for the Latin American L

Supporters of presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez, and his running mate and former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, celebrate on the street after the election results in Buenos Aires, Argentina October 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

VB: In broad political terms, how would you describe the state of Latin America today?

ES: Latin America is the only region in the world that, in this century, really took a stand against neoliberalism. Under the Left leadership of Chávez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Pepe Mujica in Uruguay, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, a continent that suffered the greatest inequality in the world – an inequality augmented by neoliberalism – was socially transformed. Hunger and poverty were reduced. This marked the first decade of the 21st century.

The second decade has seen a conservative counter-offensive in Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador. The defeat of Cristina Kirchner in Argentina and the re-establishment of the neoliberal model demonstrated that the Right had no other model. In Brazil and Ecuador, the parties of the Left also lost support. Neoliberalism returned but without energy and without capacity. It did not have popular support – only the support of finance capital.

Now, in the final part of the second decade, we have the progressive [Andrés Manuel] López Obrador come to power in Mexico, Morales set to win another term in Bolivia and [the conservative Argentine president Mauricio] Macri losing to Alberto Fernández and [running mate and former president] Cristina Kirchner in Argentina.

Macri was defeated because he pursued a catastrophic neoliberal model, resulting in three years of stagflation and soaring unemployment. He even lost the support of the middle class. The people, and the unions, have come close to Cristina again. If there were elections in Brazil and Ecuador now, they would favour an anti-neoliberal government. The third decade in Latin America is one in which anti-neoliberal governments will retake power. This is not an optimistic view, it’s realist.

There is much talk today of fascism, neo-fascism, proto-fascism, post-fascism. Are such terms useful – particularly in the context of Brazil?

The word ‘fascism’ confuses things. It belongs to the 20th century. There are fascist values, for sure. But there is not a fascist movement. [Brazilian president] Jair Bolsonaro holds values that are fascist, middle class, anti-popular, racist, misogynist, but fascism is a movement, a counter-revolution of the masses. Bolsonaro does not have brigades or militias, like fascist leaders of 20th Europe. He is governing very badly. He has no sense of priorities.

He’s preoccupied with having his son made the US ambassador or defending his other sons from criminal charges. His image in the world is terrible. He is ultra-neoliberal but he’s harming investment in Brazil. The only part of the economy that is growing is private banking. Even the soy sector is not pleased with him. His policies in the Amazon have led to a fall in foreign investment, and restrictions on buying products from Brazil. He has attacked the media, which is not with him either.

Emir Sader's latest book, on Lula and the 21st Century Left will be out in English next year. Credit: Vanessa Baird

What’s Lula’s situation now?

Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] remains in prison, convicted of corruption, without evidence. He could, but will not, accept house detention because that would mean recognizing the conviction. He will only accept the cancellation of the process, which might now happen following the Intercept leaks. [These showed ‘Carwash’ judge Sergio Moro appearing to conspire to prevent Lula from running for the 2018 presidential elections.]

It’s now impossible to maintain that Moro is impartial. Lula’s conviction could be reversed, and the whole process invalidated. It’s yet to be decided. There are two or three processes that could lead to this outcome. This is the only route that Lula will accept out of prison. 

As a university professor, I worked directly with Lula, with the Workers Party, since the beginning. He is an extraordinary person, politically. He’s intuitive; the best of leaders. Morally and physically, he is strong. If he gets out of prison, he will be elected president without a doubt.

Accusations of corruption are everywhere in Latin America these days…

There is real corruption, but there is also manipulation. In Brazil the campaign on corruption was [originally] directly linked with Petrobraz in order to privatize it. Without doubt [the Brazilian engineering company] Odebrecht was corrupt. In Peru the most corrupt organizations were known to be the Brazilian engineering companies.

But anti-corruption has always been a strategy of the Right. In this new ‘hybrid warfare’ the US has created a new generation of lawyers which took the fight against corruption as a central issue to disempower the leaders on the Left.

How do you see the future in terms of global power dynamics?

The end of the Cold War indicated that there was just one power, the US; but we know it’s not like that. There’s China with its economic power. Russia with its military power. Both are obstacles to the total hegemony of the US. In my opinion the 21st is the Chinese century. The BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa] are the embryos of a multipolar world.

I’ve just come back from China and I’m shocked that Western intellectuals dismiss China as neoliberal. The people saying this have never been to China. They don’t recognize that there is no financialization of the Chinese economy; the economy is productive; here is strong economic growth that is anti-neoliberal.

I have a very positive view of China: its economic growth, its gradual recognition of the interests of workers, its productive economy, its technological advances, its challenge to the US on the global stage.

Latin America is positively affected by all this. China is the main trading and investment partner for Latin America. The US has nothing to offer; not in terms of models or resources. Latin American leaders know how important China is.

Is there anything you’d like to get off your chest?

There is a great eurocentrism that does not realize the importance of what has happened in Latin America. The fundamental battle of our times is against neoliberalism and it's happening in Latin America. Also, I think there should also be greater regard for China.

Emir Sader teaches Sociology at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. His latest book, on Lula and the 21st Century Left will be out in English next year.