This one is going to be difficult. I will be heading to Brazil over the winter break to conduct some research and this time it’s going to be particularly difficult. Not the trip itself, or the work in Brazilian archives, both of which will certainly entail some challenges, but rather giving a heartfelt response to the question, “So what’s next?”
For those of us with friends, family, and interlocutors in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is no satisfactory answer to give. The question is not really about how Hillary Clinton lost this election, or even about how I am responding to this loss. Instead, the question is about asking what Americans on the left are going to do with what can only be understood from the vantage point of people on the left in Latin America as the unleashing of bald-faced authoritarianism.
Shock at the outcome is likely to be less outside of the United States than it is within, if not for the simple fact that most people living in the western hemisphere outside of the United States are familiar with patterns of political progress followed by patterns of extreme political backlash. In fact, during two visits I made to Brazil over the summer I had multiple conversations with individuals who believed in the very real possibility of Clinton losing due to recent political developments in their own country. Indeed, the recent impeachment and removal from office of Dilma Rousseff, the first woman president in Brazilian history, gave them a particular vantage point from which to observe and assess the rise of Trump and alt right politics in the U.S.
To quickly give a general summary, Rousseff is a member of the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), which had held executive power in Brazil since 2002. The party was formed in 1980 in the aftermath of repressions by the military dictatorship of student and worker activism and resistance in the 1960s and 1970s. While it may have been an upstart party in the 1980s, by the 1990s the PT had become a major voice of the disenfranchised masses in Brazil, a left-of-center political platform that facilitated coalitions between landless movements, black movements, and quilombola movements (land claims by descendants of runaway slave communities).
Luis Ignacio da Silva (better known by his diminutive Lula) became the first president elected from the PT, winning national elections in 2002 and 2006. Thus Rousseff was not only the first woman president of Brazil but also became only the second president of the country to represent the PT in the 2010 and 2014 elections. By the time Rousseff came to power, however, there were already growing concerns amongst the political left that the workers’ party had become too centrist, that redressing racial and class injustice had been forgotten as the party became more recognized internationally and conscripted into nurturing and reproducing multinational capital. Furthermore, there were concerns and growing opposition from the right to not just the social policies and programs of the PT but to allegations of graft and corruption. Add to all of this a heavy dose of sexism, and it becomes clear that there was never overwhelming enthusiasm for Rousseff. As one Brazilian associate told me sometime before our election, “Eu nao votei com alegria pra ela, mas eu votei” (“I wasn’t happy to vote for her [Dilma Rousseff], but I voted for her”), quite similar to the sentiments expressed in regards to Clinton by many people of color and working class people with left-leaning political orientations.
The impeachment process that accompanied Rousseff’s removal illustrated not only the level of ill will that many held towards her, but more devastatingly the comfort that extremists and cultivators of authoritarianism can take in a climate where sexism, political apathy, and push-back against progress are condoned. Prior to her career in politics, Rousseff was a committed activist and militant against the Brazilian military dictatorship that existed from 1964–1985. In her capacity as a political insurgent, she was arrested and tortured by the regime in 1970. Both after her reelection in 2014 and upon the announcement of her impeachment there were vocal calls from both voters and politicians for a return to the military dictatorship for 90 days. It is certainly a well known fact that she was tortured by a state that was being ruled by the military. Thus her downfall and the outrage at what many viewed as the PT’s “communist” ideals not only opened the door for public appeals to authoritarianism, but also for thinly veiled allusions to Rousseff’s earlier sufferings as justified both then and now.
In many ways, Brazilians had already seen a blueprint for what the erosion of progress and the rebirth of authoritarian nationalism looked like. After a nearly twenty-year dictatorship the country returned to democracy in 1985. Then for thirty years the country went from moderate national politics in the 1990s to left-center politics in the 2000s. It looked like progressive politics was becoming the norm rather than the fringe. And then all of a sudden, with a targeted campaign against one woman politician, those thirty years were overturned and democracy stalled by conservative and moderate opposition.
Fortunately the story doesn’t end here, and in fact the story of the aftermath of Rousseff’s impeachment somewhat contains a model of “what comes next.” Several weeks after leading the impeachment against Rousseff, Eduardo Cunha was expelled from his office as speaker of the lower house. A highly unpopular leader of the evangelical right wing in Brazil, Cunha was voted out amid charges of corruption and low popular approval ratings, despite the power he had amassed by collecting secrets on political enemies and intimidating opponents through fear and bullying. Essentially, “the wrath of the public appears to have weighed more heavily on lawmakers than their fear of any secrets Cunha might reveal.”
In other words, political sadness and fear of a return to authoritarianism have not lead to political apathy or immobility in Brazil. Needless to say, this is not only a Brazilian phenomenon. I was recently reminded by a friend from Haiti that “we’ve seen this before” in reference to Trump rallies, the nostalgic crowd, and authoritarianism. Thus the answer to the question “what comes next ” may lie in part with learning from and drawing strength from other places and other people whose struggles can help us make sense of living under climates of political regression. While we must continue to draw on ancestors, families, and past U.S.-based Black freedom struggles and movements in order to keep up our spirits, we must also not forget to draw on, learn from, and facilitate conversations with current freedom struggles that appear to have more parallels than differences. Now is a time for coalition building to be diasporic in both practice and in terms of framing plans and courses of action.
Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.