Argentina and Chile

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In recent decades left-wing politicians have been the main targets of political violence. Everything suggests that we are entering a new wave

Whenever democracy enters the popular imagination as an instrument of struggle against social injustice, it becomes a target of anti-democratic forces, a wide range of national and international forces with different political nuances, ranging from new fascist and neo-Nazi movements to capitalist and to the most backward elites of the countries.

This is the conclusion that can be drawn (again) from recent events in Latin America. on day 1o In September, the vice-president of Argentina and candidate for a new presidential term, Cristina Fernandéz de Kirchner, was the victim of an assassination attempt by a neo-Nazi individual. On the 4th, the project for the new Constitution of Chile was rejected by 61.86% of the votes against 38.14%, after a campaign dominated by hate politics, fake news and gross media manipulation by the forces that opposed the new text constitutional.

These two events illustrate two of the four main instruments that the anti-democratic forces will use in the near future to neutralize the democratic movement that is erupting from the popular classes against injustice and social discrimination, both in Latin America and in the rest of the world. The two other instruments are, on the one hand, the political-judicial neutralization of political leaders or political measures through what is conventionally called lawfare, legal warfare; on the other hand, electoral fraud.

These four instruments deserve detailed attention. It must be understood that these are not instruments separated by some ideological divergence between anti-democratic forces. Any of these instruments can be used by the same forces and the decision to use them depends only on the calculation of their effectiveness. For example, whenever the democratic aspiration of the popular classes is condensed into a political figure who, due to his political career or his charismatic strength, gives the forces that follow him an advantage that is impossible to neutralize through manipulation of public opinion or political-judicial persecution , physical settlement becomes the privileged instrument, especially if electoral fraud is difficult to carry out.

When, on the contrary, specific political personalities are not at stake, but rather measures or policies that, through legislation or referendum, may endanger the interests or privileges of powerful classes or groups, both domestically and internationally, the privileged instruments are political-judicial neutralization, manipulation of public opinion or electoral fraud. Democratic forces must be prepared for these four types of attacks. For this it is good that you know a little more in detail how they operate. In this text, I focus on the two most current political instruments in America: the assassination of political leaders and activists and the manipulation of public opinion.


The assassination of political leaders and activists

This instrument is the oldest and it can even be said that it has always existed. Its use depends on many factors and seems to oscillate according to wave logic. Furthermore, when an environment of severe political polarization and even political violence sets in, it is possible for murder to be used indiscriminately against left and right politicians. The truth is that in recent decades left-wing politicians have been the main targets of political violence.

Everything suggests that we are entering a new wave. Over the last century, assassinations took place either to prevent the deepening of democracy (measures that would improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable populations or put the interests of national elites or foreign powers at risk) or, more radically, to open the way to dictatorship. Most murders and assassination attempts were never fully clarified, neither about who killed nor, much less, about who ordered the killing.

Throughout the 1975s and 60.000s, several African political and trade union leaders were assassinated or died in mysterious circumstances (accidents, for example) that have never been clarified. At the time they took place, they were considered isolated acts and it was only much later that the participation of Belgian, French and North American secret services became known. In Latin America, it is worth remembering Operation Condor, the secret campaign promoted by the US and Latin American dictators from 30.000 onwards to assassinate left-wing activists and political leaders. Some estimates indicate XNUMX dead, XNUMX of which in Argentina.

In more recent times, murders or attempted murders have three characteristics. First, in times of social networks and fake news, murder is always preceded by hate speech promoted by the same anti-democratic forces with the aim of symbolically trivializing the act of killing. In recent times, the slogan “death to Cristina” has been frequent in demonstrations by the Argentine right. It is very disturbing that an abysmal political environment is created in democracy: either us or the abyss. Under these conditions, anyone who fears the “candidate of the abyss” may be tempted to resort to his physical liquidation to prevent him from coming to power.

Second, resorting to assassination is more likely when political-judicial neutralization cannot be triggered in time to prevent the election and media manipulation and electoral fraud do not guarantee effectiveness in the face of the strong tradition of popular mobilization in the streets , a tradition that, as we know, is very strong in Argentina.

Finally, the author of the crime is a despicable being with possible extremist connections, but who can easily be considered as having acted alone. Obviously, in situations of high political polarization, a solidarity act is very likely, but it is worth noting that the use of this type of criminal has been the stratagem of choice to discourage investigation into the possible broader national and international links of the crime.

The assassination attempt on Cristina Kirchner provoked, due to its characteristics, another even more unusual effect: the attempt to give credence to the idea that the assassination attempt was a show put on by the vice president's followers to increase her political capital. When one descends to this level, the total depoliticization and trivialization of human life as a political resource is at stake. To accept this is to descend to the zero degree of democracy.


Media manipulation of public opinion.

This is not the place to assess the merits and shortcomings of Chile's proposed new Constitution. So that there are no doubts about my position, I am very proud to have been invited as a consultant to the Constituent Assembly on the issues of plurinationality and legal pluralism, two issues that are very important for the indigenous peoples of Chile. I am also aware that the political context that led to the election of the Constituent Assembly changed in the following period, which became evident in the last presidential elections.

I must add that the political quality of President Gabriel Boric's performance was not the best, especially in recent months and it is clear that his presidency was very identified with the new Constitution. Lastly, it must be borne in mind that after forty years of one of the most conservative Constitutions in the world (the Constitution enacted during the time of the dictator Pinochet) it would not be easy to change to one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world.

None of this is discussed in this text. What I discuss is the fact that the electoral process that led to the rejection of Chile's new Constitution constitutes an extreme example of the manipulation of public opinion to condition the vote. It is certainly responsible for the heavy defeat of the project. The instruments that were mobilized to intoxicate public opinion with falsehoods about the text of the new Constitution were previously used in the Brexit campaign in England (2016), in the campaign against the referendum of the peace agreements in Colombia (2016) and in the electoral campaigns of Donald Trump in the USA (2016 and 2020) and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (2018), in the campaign against Evo Morales in Bolivia (2019) and in the attempt to prevent Pedro Castillo from assuming the presidency in Peru (2021).

But they were used in Chile with such virulence that they deserve the special attention of democrats around the world, and especially Latin Americans. The main features are as follows.

First, they benefit from the approval of international conservative forces, which, some time in advance, list the reasons that justify the rejection of the candidate or the political measure (for example, the peace agreement in Colombia or the new Constitution of Chile). They create an aura of respectability for the position they defend. For example, over the past year The Economist has strongly recommended rejecting the new Constitution.

Second, the manipulation of public opinion relies on intense and targeted bombardment of false messages whose pattern aims to induce fear in the way that most effectively increases voter and family insecurity. In Chile, a repentant right-wing activist denounced a huge set of whatsapp networks that agreed to make a daily trending (biasing) specific against someone or some measure. The concrete content of fake messages varies from country to country.

For example, in the case of Chile, here are some selected from an immense cesspool of informational garbage: if you vote yes, you become a second-class citizen; the name of your country will change and so will the flag; they will divide the country into several; there will be no police to protect you from the immigrants and indigenous people who will take power; women may abort hours before giving birth; women will not be able to go to the park for a walk because they are afraid of immigrants who might rape them; no bottled water or ice can be purchased; there will be no private education or private health; there will be no private property in general; they will take our houses and our lands from us; they will forbid religion; you have to vote no to the Constitution, but they are still trying electoral fraud; they will bring Venezuelans and Haitians to vote yes; if that's not enough, they'll make the dead and disappeared vote; that's right in voter registration.

Third, there is an international networked organization behind the massive disinformation. In the case of Chile, the intervention of a vast network of organizations, foundations, institutes, “think tanks”, involving right-wing and far-right politicians, influencers and journalists, all belonging to the Atlas Network. O Atlas Network is a vast organization originally funded by the Koch brothers in the US, oil industrialists well known for their far-right ideology. By its own description, it is a US-based non-governmental organization that provides training, contacts, networks, and funding to libertarian and free-market groups around the world.

There are 500 partner organizations in nearly 1973 countries. Its staff are trained in the USA and the ideology is very homogeneous and corresponds entirely to that of the Chicago school to which the dictator Pinochet handed over the country's economic leadership in XNUMX (extreme neoliberalism with the dismantling of the welfare state, the privatization of public policies, the minimization of taxes, the free market as a regulator of economic and social relations). O Atlas Network acts as an intermediary between those who have money and those who have the talent to spread the ideas they defend. It is very present in Brazil and will certainly be very active in the current electoral process.

Both the assassinations of activists and political leaders and the manipulation of public opinion today require a vast digital ecosystem that turns political opponents into enemies, turns victim against victim as a means of hiding the real oppressors, feeds hate speech, incites the instincts of revenge and create indifference to social injustice. In the long run, it will turn citizens into subjects and destroy democracy.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (authentic).


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