It’s just over two years since former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from jail, and eight months since he was declared innocent of all charges brought against him. As Brazil heads towards elections in October 2022, with the economy in recession, Lula holds a commanding lead over his electoral rivals, President Jair Bolsonaro and his former justice minister, Sergio Moro – the judge who put Lula in jail. But anything could happen between now and election day, especially since Donald Trump’s political star appears to be waxing again. Bolsonaro – who once said to Trump in public, unsolicited and unrequited, ‘I love you’ – has long taken the former US president as a role model.
As the Covid-19 pandemic abates in Salvador da Bahia, beneath a surface of relaxed tranquillity – the comedian Gregorio Duvivier calls it ‘positividade tóxica’ – run deep currents of fear, tension and violent terror: they are not new, but they have intensified. On weekend afternoons, a military police helicopter hovers over bathers in the water at Porto da Barra beach, shuttling back and forth between the Porto and the Farol da Barra. It’s part of ‘Operation Peace’.
In Salvador, the protest march on 19 June snaked in a wave of red T-shirts and banners from Campo Grande through Vitória and Graça to Porto da Barra in the south of the city, and from there to the white lighthouse of Farol da Barra, surrounded by the deep blue of the Baía de Todos os Santos. The march on 3 July took a different route, down Avenida Centenario and past the Morro de Cristo, to the same destination. Both were reasonably large, loud, diverse, young and festive, with several left-wing political parties and movements, as well as competing PA systems and drummers with chants, rants, music and dancing. Afro-Brazilians of all ages were well represented. There were no robocop riot police: hardly any police at all, in fact, except to direct traffic. Some older residents unfurled red PT flags from their windows. As the event headed towards closing, people sat on the hillside to watch the sun set in a marbled sky.
Long one of Latin America’s most conservative countries, Colombia is undergoing a sea change. The second general strike in as many years evolved rapidly into a nationwide urban insurrection. ‘La Resistencia’ has endured for a month in the teeth of ferocious repression (remember that Lenin celebrated the Bolshevik Revolution once it had outlasted the Paris Commune). Soon after the protests started on 28 April, the proposed tax reform package that had triggered the strike was withdrawn, proposed healthcare reforms died in committee, and the finance minister and the foreign minister were forced to step down. There were (toothless) calls for dialogue and de-escalation from the international community. Yet the overwhelmingly non-violent protests have continued, as has the government’s response using deadly force.
With public university students (including those I teach at the Universidad Nacional in Medellín) and young people in the lead, Colombia’s vibrant, diverse and terrorised social movements have all come out at once, which does not imply programmatic unity. The geographic scope of the mobilisation has been as impressive as its sectoral breadth, and the demands are widely divergent.
In north-eastern Brazil, a year has passed without carnival or football games. The ICU occupation rate is now at 85 per cent across the city of Salvador and the state of Bahia. The number of daily deaths has nearly doubled in the two weeks since the governor, Rui Costa, forecasting tragedy, cried on television. The mayor, Bruno Reis, implemented a curfew between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., and ordered all non-essential businesses to close along with beaches, parks and playgrounds.
For Victor Peña, a cacique of the Zenú people, Colombia’s second most numerous indigenous group, 2021 is shaping up to be a continuation of 2020, which is to say dreadful beyond measure. The year started with Victor running out of gas for cooking rice and eggs in his kitchen: the only staples he can afford to eat since the pandemic hit, and all his sources of income dried up (he used to sell the hand-woven hats for which the Zenú are internationally known, along with beaded jewellery). Then he had to borrow money for the other kind of gas so he could ride his motorcycle from Medellín to his hometown of Tuchín, Córdoba, for his cousin’s funeral. They had grown up together as brothers. Victor’s cousin was murdered by local paramilitaries, possibly because they mistook him for someone else – perhaps Victor himself, as the resemblance is striking – or for some other reason that will remain a mystery, since no one will investigate the killing.
Were it not for the semi-consistent use of masks in the street, and the closing of the beaches on Sundays and Mondays, you could be forgiven for thinking the pandemic hadn’t reached Salvador da Bahia, the capital of the state with the second-lowest Covid-19 death rate in Brazil. The official number of deaths for the whole country surpassed 200,000 on 8 January. Locals and visitors (mainly from elsewhere in Brazil) congregate in groups at outdoor tables without masks, and people walk – some masked, others not – along the oceanfront. A festa continua, mas não.
On 1 October, one of Medellín’s leading radical public intellectuals, historians and humanists, Campo Elías Galindo, was tortured and murdered in his apartment. There was blood everywhere. The neo-fascists who killed him burned a book on his chest to make their point. During a meeting in the Parque del Periodista on 8 October, organised by the Unión Patriotica to honour his legacy, there was an explosion nearby. The police ruled it an accident: no bomb was involved, they said, just a gas leak.
A year ago, a far-right coup in Bolivia – backed by Brazil and the US – ousted the democratically elected government of Evo Morales, catapulting Jeanine Áñez, an unknown senator from the lowland frontier region of Beni, to the presidency. Áñez promised to hold elections within 90 days, but instead postponed them three times. On 18 October this year, Morales’s party, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), won a crushing first-round victory on an 86 per cent turnout. The new president, Luis Arce, for many years Morales’s economy minister, won 55 per cent of the vote against a fractured right-wing opposition.