Brazil has spoken. With 55% of the vote, Jair Bolsonaro won a clear mandate. He has benefited above all from ex-president Lula’s imprisonment, the state of the country, and dodgy ‘social’ media maneuvers. As a textbook extremist, Bolsonaro favors torture and advocates genocide, but ‘the markets’ i.e., capital and its ideologues, embrace him and his Chicago Boy economic advisor. No wonder Chile’s reactionary right and structurally conservative establishment hear the angels sing.
Chilean post-dictatorship governments have never had reservations against dictators or autocrats. In its vast trade network, the country has inevitably cut deals not only with the better angels of the so-called international community. China, which tortured a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to death and throws non-conforming populations into concentration camps, is even courted as a friend.
So far, this hypocrisy hasn’t been a problem, because the liberal-conservative opinion pages feature mostly legalistic and economistic language natural to a foreign-policy establishment, dominated by lawyers and economists that protect their turf, flanked by popular ignorance about international relations and Chiles contradictory foreign-policy principles.
Among these count the promotion of democracy and respect for human rights, and the supremacy of the sovereign state and non-intervention. This way, Chile can denounce the Maduro administration’s descent into autocracy, dismiss China’s human rights violations as a matter of domestic affairs and still claim the moral high ground. Only the level of economic opportunism a potential trade partner allows defines the limits of Chile’s posturing.
— Chile Today News (@ChileTodayNews) October 29, 2018
And Brazil allows for much opportunism. It’s president-elect boasted about his economic illiteracy but assured markets that he’ll defer to his economic advisor Paulo Guedes, accused of fraud but a Chicago Boy. Bolsonaro’s administration will therefore, among others, cut social programs and restrict access to education, pulling up the ladder into the middle class.
As such cuts, like anywhere from Argentina to Greece, will also boost discontent and opposition, Bolsonaro will step up repression. His son, who also won a landslide mandate on Sunday, has even alluded to a military coup to numb potentially recalcitrant democratic institutions. The violence against Bolsonaro opponents, and even military intervention in, for example, universities shortly before the election will only intensify when the new president sanctions it with the power of the office.
Using terms like ‘cleansing’ Brazil of anything that looks left, Bolsonaro made clear that he plans to rule more like a dictator than a president. Anybody who cheers him on without calling for moderation is either asleep at the wheel or intentionally complicit. And anybody who doesn’t see parallels with Venezuela’s deterioration of democracy isn’t paying attention. Chávez started pretty much like Bolsonaro.
The Chilean Connection
Social repression and economic laissez-faire chime well with Chile’s reactionary wing, represented by José Antonio Kast and Jacqueline van Rysselberghe. The former garnered 8% of the vote in last year’s election and became kingmaker for President Piñera. Van Rysselberghe leads UDI party, which became the parliamentarian manifestation of Pinochetism after 1990.
The sectors both represented see democracy not as principle but as concession, to be reneged when opportune. They more or less openly celebrate the dictatorship, and fight for its imprisoned henchmen. Piñera, while posing as a centrist, keeps dog-whistling to this sector, like in his revisionist September 11 speech. Then, clouded in a ‘both sides’ euphemism, he blamed Allende supporters for the 1973 coup and subsequent state terror.
So far, the right stands behind Piñera but once Bolsonaro matches words with deeds, genuine liberals will have to speak up or lose their electorate. On a presidential level, Piñera will have to choose if he challenges Bolsonaro on gun laws and crime policies, because the new president promotes measure that would push guns and gang violence into Chile’s neighborhood. Also, social activists, journalists, and minority populations will seek asylum in Chile, because with reason they fear Bolsonaro goons. So another refugee crisis could loom.
It’ll be either respect for human rights or non-intervention. If he pushes too much, however, Piñera would endanger relations with Brazil, a key country in the region, and potentially the world. This would cause much discontent in the economic establishment, which sees Brazil as a treasure chest, and would also energize reactionaries. On the other hand, good relations with a hardline anti-democrat equal endorsement and aren’t exactly helpful either.
This won’t appeal to Chile’s moderates and left-wing opposition, which Piñera needs for his projects. If the situation gets too bad in Brazil, the genuine liberals on Chile’s right could even wake up and challenge Piñera, which would weaken his power base and provoke a turf war. Such a collapse of the lofty liberal/reactionary alliance would then leave the door wide open for neo-Pinochetism, which already has a firm foot in society.
Piñera’s internal challengers, like Bolsonaro’s buddy Kast, will work for that scenario and push for ‘Brazilian solutions’ to widespread crime, drug proliferation and explosive street protests in Chile. The right will see how far it can stretch its anti-leftism before history snaps back. For now, it shouldn’t celebrate too much. With Bolsonaro, its reactionary wing just got what it asked for.
Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).