BOGOTÁ â€" Years ago, toward the end of Lula da Silva"s first term (2003-2007) as president of Brazil, I remember reading a perplexing article. It was about Lula's son, Lulinha, who had apparently become a multi-millionaire in the span of just a few years.
It is always possible, if highly improbable, that someone could enjoy that kind of success without breaking the law â€" though ethically, in any case, it sounds outrageous. I thought, if the Brazilian people weren't batting an eyelid at a former Sao Paulo zoo employee stuffing his pockets with cash this way, who was I to become indignant thousands of miles to the north? Well, now we know that the unsightly mole was hiding a festering tumor inside the Brazilian state.
One cannot deny that the Latin American populist Left, ableit with certain ups and down, enjoyed a real golden age. There may even be some minor chapters of the story yet to be written. But looking back, we get the sense that the public, in supporting Lula and the other leftists in question, seemed to be of the mind that as long as the leader benefits me and my people, why shouldn't he or she enjoy a piece of the cake?
As supporters in the last century said of their beloved leader in Argentina: "Thief or no thief, we love Perón."
But in order to benefit large sectors of the population while helping oneself to cash, the populist requires abundant money. There is a clear contrast here with the social-democrat who finances the state with taxes, and thus undertakes the difficult task of taking money from people and especially the rich. Doing so is complicated and unpopular, which is why populists find taxes irksome. What they need instead is a bonanza â€" something to fill the state coffers with easy cash. Bonanzas, or course, aren't always reliable, you might tell the populist. Nonsense, he or she will say: Let's start spending!
Gen. Juan Perón (1946-1966, 1973-1974) was not the inventor, perhaps, but certainly a great promoter of Latin American populism. He understood that by being upfront about their extravagent lifestyles, leaders could better hide huge money transfers to secret bank accounts. His wife, Evita, dressed like a princess â€" clearly beyond the means of a presidential salary.
In Brazil, Lula and his cronies disposed of the ample funds of Petrobras, when oil was around $100 a barrel, and commodities were riding high. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) had no qualms about taking control of the country's enormous oil revenues, supplemented, it seems, with a bit of drug trafficking.
The Kirchner presidents, Néstor (2003-2007) and Cristina (2007-2015), took a generous bite from Argentina's exports boom, also taking control of the state pensions fund and printing money like they were opening the tap. Bolivia's Evo Morales, in office since 2006, laid his hands on the gas his predecessors had shamefully sold to Brazil at below market rates.
With Colombia, the exception to the rule, the populist streak was right-wing â€" under President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) â€" and fueled by modest revenues and military victories over the deluded Marxist rebels.
The latest events in Brazil are in line with past practices. The government is trying to emasculate an obstructive, investigative judiciary, even if reviewing the recent history of the Latin American Left, one sees that judges usually looked the other way when the Lulhinhas of this world were lining their pockets. Now, belatedly and slowly, they are reacting to put some rotten politicians in jail, including perhaps leaders and ex-leaders. So is the party over? Let's hope so.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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