Political Violence is on the Rise Again in South America

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Political violence is back with a vengeance in South America, as death threats abound, coups d’états are foretold and assassination attempts are carried out.

Less than a month before going head-to-head with incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s former (and quite possibly future) President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — Lula for short — has warned that political violence in Brazil is being normalized. This was after a voter for Lula’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) was stabbed to death by a work colleague and fervent Bolsonaro supporter last Wednesday. In a press conference on Friday Lula laid the blame for the rising “culture of political violence” sweeping Brazil on Bolsonaro, his main rival in next month’s general elections:

“Before, there was no culture of violence. This is happening now and [it happened] in 2018, and it is not our doing. This is very serious. I hope that the Police and electoral system are attentive and also the electoral system, to see if there is order [to the events], guidance, if it is [part of] a political strategy.”

The murder, committed in a rural area of Mato Grosso, is the second homicide of the electoral campaign so far. In late July another Bolsonaro supporter shot a PT militant in Foz de Iguazú. Lula himself has received numerous death threats as well as complaints of political “provocations” at bus stops and other public spaces. He also mentioned the case of a pastor who threatened to expel members of his congregation from the church if they vote for PT, as well as a landowner who threatened to fire his workers.

On Sept. 7, Bolsonaro organized a huge campaign event to mark the bicentennial of Brazil’s independence, which drew hundreds of thousands of supporters from Rio de Janiero, São Paulo and Brasília. At the event, which mingled military parades with political rallies, Bolsonaro told his supporters that he will never be taken prisoner, presumably in allusion to the ongoing investigations into his escalating attacks against Brazil’s electoral system. He also said that “history could repeat itself,” in reference to the military coup Brazil suffered in 1964, which paved the way to 21 years of military dictatorship.

Many leftist leaders urged their supporters to avoid clashes by refraining from participating in the counter-demonstrations organized for the same day. But with more than a month to go before the elections and tensions rising as the race between Lula and Bolsonaro tightens, the risk of further clashes is high. But Brazil is not the only country in the region to have seen a recent surge in political violence:

  • In Argentina, the former two-term President (and current Vice President) Christina Fernández de Kirchner — who is often referred to as CFK — was the target of a botched assassination attempt on September 1. Both the author of the crime, Fernando Sabag Montiel, and his girlfriend (and alleged accomplice), Brenda Uliarte, have been charged with attempted murder. CFK is far and away the most prominent political figure in Argentina and is loved and hated in equal measure. If the assassination attempt had succeeded, the blowback would have been immense. Like Brazil, Argentina is a powder keg waiting to explode. Its economy is in tatters, with an official inflation rate of 71% and the Argentine peso, if anything, accelerating its terminal decline. Ninety-five percent of respondents to an IPSOS poll said the economy was in bad shape in August. To continue servicing its debt, the government is considering requesting yet another IMF loan. Against such a backdrop and with many of the country’s corporate media more than happy to exacerbate tensions and divisions, it is hardly a surprise that Argentina is passing through a period of extreme political polarization.
  • In Chile, Simón Boric, a journalist who also happens to be the brother of the country’s recently elected President Gabriel Boric, was attacked in the street by a group of youths. Also in Chile, more than 100 MPs have reportedly received death threats in an apparent attempt to derail the rewriting of Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution. The new constitution  was rejected at first blush by an overwhelming majority of Chilean voters, but the weakened Boric government is determined to draw up a new proposed charter “that unites us as a country”.
  • In Colombia, an advance security team belonging to Colombian President Gustavo Petro was sprayed with gunfire in the Catatumbo region, on the border with Venezuela, a couple of weeks ago. A former Marxist guerrilla, Petro received numerous death threats on the campaign trail, including from a narco-paramilitary group called Eje Cafetero Colombiano. Given the number of presidential candidates who were assassinated during Colombia’s decades-long conflict between the government, far-right paramilitary groups (with close ties to the Colombian military), crime syndicates, and far-left guerrilla groups — Álvaro Gómez Hurtado (1995), Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa (1990), Luis Carlos Galán (1989), Jaime Pardo Leal (1987) — the threats were taken very seriously.

The first leftist leader in Colombia’s history, Petro knows he has a gargantuan task ahead of him. He also has limited room for manoeuvre. His coalition government has to govern a country that faces rapidly slowing economic growth, surging inflation and a plunging peso. It is also a country that has been at war with itself, on and off, for almost 60 years…

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