Brazil Election, Latin American 'Alternative Socialism' Fights For Survival

Campaigning in Sao Paulo
Campaigning in Sao Paulo
César Rodríguez Garavito


BOGOTA — The crucial question in Brazil's presidential elections, set for Sunday, is whether or not the country will remain the political and economic third way it has become. Will this "alternative socialism" – distinct from various offerings from both the traditional political Right and Left – keep its standing in the world established by the independent foreign policy forged by the PT or Workers Party governments since 2003?

At the heart of the Brazilian alternative is social inclusion. The tallying of its success are by now familiar: some 40 million people have come out of poverty through policies to extend public services to marginal zones and direct aid programs like Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance). Extreme poverty is almost a thing of the past, afflicting less than 1.5% of the population now, as is hunger (the World Food Program has just removed Brazil from its hunger map).

As a result, what was formerly the world's most unequal country has seen the rise of a new middle class of some 200 million people who for the first time, have access to decent jobs and salaries, with average income having grown 87% in the past decade.

Understandably, the great majority of these people will be voting for Dilma Rousseff, especially in formerly neglected regions like northeastern Brazil, comparable in its situation to Chocó in Colombia or Chiapas in southern Mexico. The PT also enjoys the ample backing of about 50% of Brazilians who consider themselves descendants of Africans, and who are finally entering universities thanks to affirmative action programs.

In these and other policies like strengthening public education, the PT has gone against conventional economic recipes of the center-right, whose incarnation is Dilma's opponent, Aécio Neves. It has even managed to add to its recipe measures like the conditional transfer of resources to poor families, something the World Bank used to consider unfeasible but is now actually recommending.

Not like other Latin lefties

Brazil has also become an alternative form of left-wing government in Latin America. It has progressed toward social inclusion without weakening civil liberties, in contrast with Venezuela and Ecuador. It has shown that there is no need to keep a leader in power indefinitely, like in Nicaragua and Bolivia. It has avoided the level of macroeconomic imbalance that has shaken Argentina and Venezuela.

Yet the alternative is showing signs of profound wear and tear, which explains the bitter tone of the campaign. The endemic corruption of the country's fragmented political system, which the PT has fed, requires constitutional reforms.

As elsewhere in the region, the economic model of exporting minerals and raw materials, and the blatant social and environmental damage it causes, are facing rising criticisms. It will soon be time to pay for the debts and inflation derived from a decade's unchecked consumer habits. And the same, empowered middle class has mobilized itself against the state's inefficiency, evident to anyone using the public health service or trying to connect to the Internet.

The Brazilian alternative is half-way to its goals. Let us hope it has time to mature and adjust its course.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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