Back from Safari

If you hadn't noticed, we were on our annual break from just before Christmas 2021 until now. We are back, including with some inspiration.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photo: Sean Jacobs

We normally close out the year with our “On Safari” post, but this time, we’re flipping the script. We’re opening the new year with it. On the face of it, 2021 was one more year of the bleakness of the global apartheid of the COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide economic recession, but there were moments of hope that we can carry into the new year. For that, Africans have to turn their gazes away from the West—specifically Euro-America with their right-wing death cult politics or tepid liberal governments—and towards Central and South America as well as the Caribbean (or to some, Latin America) for inspiration.

There—in terms of getting rid of compliant, undemocratic elites whose interests lie with the West, multinational corporations, neoliberalism, authoritarianism, and violence—several key transformations played out (like it did before with South America’s “Pink Revolution”). It suggests our future doesn’t have to be one of neoliberal authoritarianism, ethnonationalism, and Afro-pessimism.

The old year featured a series of shake-ups in South American politics that Africans should be looking to for inspiration. First, there were midterm legislative elections in Mexico around June 2021. It doubled as a referendum for the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador or AMLO as he is popularly known. I was in Mexico City the summer before COVID-19 and while there I happened upon a mass rally celebrating the first anniversary of his win. For more on the kinds of reforms and how AMLO governs, see here, here, and here. I was struck by the wide popular support he enjoyed but was worried whether he could sustain it. Well, the midterm elections for the Chamber of Deputies as well as for state governments proved that his Morena party “will go into the 2024 election as a consolidated, nationwide political force, these results do also offer glimmers of hope for the opposition.”

Around the same time, last year was the election of Pedro Castillo, a leftist, as President of Peru. He won after two rounds of voting. At first, the “opposition” (basically, the right) claimed election fraud by Castillo’s Peru Libre (Free Peru Party). This was all fake news to delay the inevitable. This caused the result to be delayed for at least two weeks. In the end, however, Castillo was elected President. Castillo’s election was unprecedented as it ended, for now, the control of Peru’s elites over the presidential palace. Castillo’s bio has been summarized as “a peasant, rural schoolteacher, community patrol member, and union leader from one of Peru’s poorest provinces.” Castillo’s election slogan was “No more poor people in a rich country.” To achieve that he campaigned to reform the constitution (change the law about making sure ordinary Peruvians see the benefits of the country’s copper wealth, raise taxes on multinationals). Winning introduced a new set of challenges. Castillo won by a small margin and Congress is controlled by right-wing parties, so it will be interesting to see how he governs (his cabinet is decidedly left-wing). At the same time, his campaign also exposed the tensions between economic and social issues for the left. His campaign was unapologetically working class, which was a good thing. However, though he says he will be guided by the constitution, he promoted right-wing positions on abortion and gay rights. For a good summary of Castillo’s campaign and what is at stake in Peru see, “In Peru, the Knives Are Already Out for Pedro Castillo,” “Peru Minister: Our Socialist Government Is Under Attack. But We Can Still Win,” and what I think is the best summary of Castillo’s victory and how much work he has ahead of him, the video commentary by Nando Vila on YouTube.

Then there was the election of Xiomara Castro as President of Honduras at the end of November 2021. She will be sworn in on January 27, 2022. In 2009, her husband, the democratically elected president Manual Zelaya, was overthrown by a conspiracy of the United States government and Honduras’ right-wing elites. (They used Hugo Chavez as a bogey to remove him; predictably the Western media and think tanks fell in line. At the time, Castro was at the lead of those forces resisting the coup.) For some background on the elections in Honduras and their meanings, I can recommend these by Branko Marcetic (“Washington Tried to Destroy Honduras’s Left. Now It’s Back in Power“), Francisco Dominguez (“Honduras Can Break Free of Washington and Neoliberalism“), as well as Suyapa Portillo (“With the Election of Xiomara Castro, a New Feeling of Hope Has Arrived in Honduras“). For the 2009 events around Zelaya’s ouster (Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had starring roles), we can recommend these pieces by Greg Grandin and Belen Fernandez,

But even more significant than what happened in Honduras and Peru were the elections in Chile at the end of November 2021, which had been the poster child for neoliberalism. And though it has, post-Pinochet, saw the election of a center-left government (Michele Bachelet), the election of 35-year-old Gabriel Boric, an openly leftist candidate to president, ushers in a new era. Before Boric’s election, in an earlier poll, several feminist socialists got elected to run municipal and state governments, including the capital Santiago. Before that, Chileans elected representatives to a new constitutional convention to rewrite the constitution inherited from the Pinochet years. At the head of the convention is a president who identifies as indigenous and an equal number of women (this is a victory) as men are represented. As to the significance of Boric’s victory, these analyses by Rene Rojas are worth watching (here and here). So is this, this, and this.

It would be worth it for social movements and political parties of the left on the continent to study what went down in Chile (and of course Peru, Mexico, and Honduras) in terms of how you build a winning political coalition, present a program that is about economic justice and can win elections. As I tried to relate it to our followers on Twitter, think about what happened in Chile like this: It’s like Fees Must Fall or Rhodes Must Fall took electoral politics seriously, maintained that energy over 10 years, translated it into an electoral platform, found commonalities via coalitions, and took power in South Africa.

Last, but not least, was the example of the Caribbean island of Barbados. Its Prime Minister is Mia Mottley. African leaders, mostly male and old, can learn a thing or two from her about forthrightness about the two major connected challenges of our time: climate justice and global inequality, not in some corner when no one is watching, but at COP26 and the UN General Assembly. She also oversaw her country, finally, declaring independence from British colonialism. And then to top it all, her government proposed giving all its citizens a universal basic income grant. As a bonus, Barbados named Rihanna (yes, the same Rihanna who spoke out on Israeli apartheid) as a national hero. 

In this new year, we want to especially encourage submissions that explore these connections and lessons, as the examples from the continent are mostly depressing. Please send them in.

Finally, some shameless self-promotion: This will be an exciting year for us; we have two podcasts—AIAC Talk and Africa Is a Country Radio; will increase our video production; will have a new cohort of fellows; will keep bringing you original analysis and opinion; and continue to build partnerships with organizations as diverse as Black Women Disrupt the Web, AJ Plus, Institute for African Studies in Sharjah, Ghana Studies Association and International Congress of African and African Diaspora Studies, among others. Also, check out my new football research and writing project, Eleven Named People.

Welcome back.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.